Who Killed Jesse?
Neosho Daily News June 18, 1979
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. - A handful of
historians carefully dug into an abandoned grave last fall. What
they found revived a century-old debate about the life - and death - of
Is a .38-caliber bullet they unearthed the slug that
"laid poor Jesse" in his grave? Or was it a .44-caliber slug, as
the man who pulled the trigger had claimed?
Jesse James has been immortalized in song, prose,
film. But the true story behind the legend may never be
known. It literally has been whittled away by tourists, fraught
with conflicting accounts and glossed over by the prospect of a quick
Was he an American Robin Hood? A greedy
murderer? Whatever he was, this outlaw who pioneered the daylight
bank holdup and perfected the art of train robbery isn't
forgotten. Tourists by the thousands flock to his stomping
grounds in Northwest Missouri, and debate over his death on April 3,
1882, still rages.
The grave of Jesse Woodson James was still fresh
when his grieving but practical mother, Zerelda, started selling tours
of the family log cabin for a quarter. For another two bits,
she'd take your picture next to the gravemarker or let you have a
pebble from the gravesite. When the pebbles ran low, she'd send a
neighbor's kid to the nearby creek for more.
Today, the Jesse James business is booming. "He's become bigger than life," says one historian.
The 20th century team sifting the empty plot on the
farm near Kearney, Mo., was mindful of misadventures there more than 75
years before. Jesse's ornate iron casket with glass sides fell
apart when his family tried to move it, and some bones fell back into
the grave. The remains were moved to a cemetery. But what
had been left behind?
The recent excavation turned up pieces of coffin,
bone fragments, a tuft of hair and the bullet. No major
archaeological find, but enough to answer a few historical questions --
and raise many more.
Some 700 books have been written on the James Gang, most of questionable accuracy.
"I'm amazed at the lack of scholarly research on
Jesse James," says Milton Perry, a Clay County historian. "Only
now are we beginning to know more about the real Jesse James. The
real person and the folklore hero aren't much alike."
The greatest Jesse James legend is that he robbed
from the rich to give to the poor, but Perry says, "there's no evidence
that the James Gang ever gave to the poor."
Folklore depicted Jesse James as lashing out at
hated institutions of the day. Banks were a target because they
took property from farmers, trains because they ran roughshod over
farmers when track was laid.
"The James Gang was innovative; it attacked
institutions rather than individuals," Perry says. "People sort
of applauded and envied anyone who could rob those hated institutions."
But the evidence indicates that James, like other
outlaws, was interested only in loot, and he personally killed 16
Until recently, it was generally accepted that Jesse
was killed by a .44-caliber bullet. A .38-caliber slug found in
the James Farm grave could be the fatal bullet. It was old
enough, he said, and its condition was "consistent with other slugs
which have passed through a victim's skull."
The Pony Express Historical Association in St.
Joseph, owner of the murder site, assails that conclusion. A
spokesman, Gary Chilcote, claims a hole in the wall at the murder scene
is proof that the fatal slug exited Jesse's head.
The hole certainly is proof enough for
tourists. Over the years they have managed to widen it to the
size of a large potato by collecting keepsake splinters. Chilcote
believes one of the early tourists probably retrieved the bullet for a
A newspaper story published four days after the
murder says an autopsy showed the bullet lodged in Jesse's head.
Autopsy records haven't been found, however.
Until all the evidence is in, history buffs in these
parts will continue the controversy. And controversy means
Jesse James' life and death are depicted in sequence
near St. Joseph and Kansas City today: The farm near Kearney where he
grew up, the Liberty bank 10 miles away where the gang staged its first
holdup, and the St. Joseph house where Jesse met his death.
The cabin where Jesse James was born, reared and
later hid from authorities rests on rolling farmland overlooking a
shallow creek. Its wood planks, brittle after 120 years, need
A $50,000 restoration is underway there, and Parks
Director Stephen L. Davis says, "I'm still hoping we'll find a bag of
loot stashed somewhere."
The scene of Jesse's first bank robbery, the Clay
County Savings Association in Liberty, has been restored.
Visitors can buy James Gang souvenirs in the gift shop, and their
dollars are beginning to replace the $60,000 Jesse James carried out of
town in 1865.
More than 20,000 annually visit the site in St. Joseph where Jesse was murdered.
On the day of this death, Jesse James was discussing
bank robbery plans in his house with two new cohorts - Charley and Bob
Ford. During the conversation, Jesse noticed a framed inscription
on the wall, "God Bless This Home," was crooked. He stood on a
chair to straighten it.
The Ford brothers drew their guns - they had been
waiting for such a moment. Bob, a baby-faced man of 21, pulled
the trigger ending the James Gang's 16-year reign.
The gang had been blamed for nearly every robbery in
the country - no matter that some were pulled off at nearly the same
time hundreds of miles apart. Historians give this final toll: 11
banks, seven trains, three stagecoaches, one county fair and a payroll