What Happened to Jesse James?

News Gazette   August 11, 1971

    On the morning of April 4, 1882, a woman stood in her front yard in St. Joseph, Mo., and peered up Lafayette Street at the commotion going on at a house two doors away.  Mr. Howard, who had told her he was a grain buyer, and his wife and two children lived there.  They were a nice, refined family.  Mr. Howard didn't chew or swear, he always removed his hat in the presence of a lady, and he could quote extensively from the Good Book.
    For the life of her, she couldn't figure out what was going on.  First she'd heard a loud report -- maybe a gun being fired, maybe not -- and then two men came walking out of the house at a brink pace with Mrs. Howard close behind, shouting something after them.  Soon, people had begun to stand in the Howard yard to go into the house.
    She was debating about whether or not to go see for herself when a boy of about twelve came running at full tilt down the dusty road, out of breath and flushed with excitement.
    "Boy," she called, "what's going on up there?"
    He pointed back at the house and gasped out, "Jesse James got shot!"
    This stirred her to action.  She quick-stepped it up the street, wondering all the way if Mr. Howard had shot that vicious criminal to protect his family.  She could think of no other explanation.
    She wove her way through the crowd in the small parlor and headed for a bedroom which seemed to be the source of all the fuss.
    There, lying on his back, was Mr. Howard!  Even the quickest glance told her he was dead.
    After the initial shock, she asked what had happened and where Jesse James was.
    "That's Jesse James," one man said, pointing at Mr. Howard's body.
    If it hadn't been the wrong place for levity, she'd have laughed right in the man's face.
    "Mercy, no!" she exclaimed.  "That's Mr. Howard, a God-fearing man who doesn't even utter curse words, much less rob banks."
    Some on the scene argued with her, and when more policemen and the prosecuting attorney arrived, she had to admit it probably was really Jesse James.
    In a time when men were judged by the absence of worldly vices, it was a bitter pill to swallow.  The neighbor wasn't the only one to question Tom Howard's true identity.
    The following day a coroner's inquest was held to establish his correct name and the facts surrounding his shooting.  Many who knew Jesse James, including his mother, testified that this was indeed the notorious outlaw.  The St. Joseph Daily Gazette wrote that "all doubts on that score are forever set at rest."
    The best we can say for that writer was he was a master of false predictions.
    Nothing about Jesse James has ever been laid to rest, least of all his identity.  Today history buffs still argue about Jesse James.  Details as small as the curve of his ear and the shape of his hairline are brought into play to prove either that the dead man was or was not Jesse James.
    Many who claimed to be Jesse James were putting in an appearance less than twenty years ago.
    None of this fuss and feathers leads directly to our part of the country but INdirectly it certainly does, because many who follow the theory that Jesse James engineered a plot to make everyone believe he was dead so he could make a fresh start in life, believe that he first headed for his old hideouts in southern Missouri or the eastern edge of what was then Indian Territory after his "death."
    The James brothers are known to have stayed in Southwest City where they could make a fast run for Indian Territory if a lawman got too close.
    This area had a world of advantages for them.  It was rugged, heavily wooded country, an easy place to hide yourself in a hurry.  They knew the country well, because they had spent a lot of time here during the Civil War when they were with Quantrill's guerillas.  Because they had never committed robberies here, they were still identified solely with the lost Southern Cause, and the many Confederates admired them and protect them whenever they could.
    Those who say, "Jesse didn't die in St. Joe," think the answer to the riddle of what really happened to him lies right here in our part of the country.  And a few who grew up here lend some credence to it.
    Marvin Hall, a Granby resident who was born and raised in McDonald County, said his grandmother told him in about 1940 that she had fed Jesse James supper at her house about a year after he was supposed to have died in St. Joseph.  She said she had fed him before when he had passed through on his way to the table rock country to hide out, and now he had come again after he was supposed to have died.
    Alvin Seamster, who owns the Seamster Museum near the Pea Ridge Battlefield, said he has a sworn affidavit from a man now dead who said Jesse James stayed in his father's barn after 1882.
    Mr. Seamster said his research on the subject led him to the conclusion that Jesse and Frank James finally settled in Jasper, Ark.  Frank unwittingly gave away his true identity there when he showed his marksmanship, he said.  He shot in rapid succession five agates tossed in the air, and his expertise caused people to ask questions that led them to the conclusion that he was Frank James.
    In Carthage, Chris Howard who lived until Nov. 28, 1947, always insisted that the man who was shot in St. Joseph was really his brother, Tom, who looked remarkably like Jesse.
    Did Jesse really die in St. Joe?  Most experts believe he did, but there are enough dissenters to make it an intriguing idea.  And certainly if any could have pulled off such a hoax, it would have been Jesse and his family who were good at deceiving and dissembling.
    The secret may lie right here in our country.  If your ancestors have passed along any interesting stories about the James boys or members of the gang, the News-Gazette would like to hear about it.