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
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
She wove her way through the crowd in the small
parlor and headed for a bedroom which seemed to be the source of all
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
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
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
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