The Jesse James Gang Rides Again
LocalOzarks News Group Member
From the Ballad of Jesse James: “It was Robert Ford, the dirty little coward And I wonder how he feels For he slept in Jesse’s bed and he ate o’ Jesse’s bread. But he laid Jesse James in his grave!”
The life and death of Jesse James has more twists and turns when it comes to myth versus reality then a Gatling gun has bullets. Jesse’s death alone has wild west conspiracy fanatics in a tail spin with so many questions and theories it fits it in the iconic class of who killed JFK and where’s Hoffa!
Was it really Jesse James who was assassinated by Robert Ford in the house in St. Joseph, Missouri? Was that merely a fabricated story to help Jesse outwit and outrun the law to live a peaceful existence for the remainder of his days? Is J. Frank Dalton really Jesse James as he claimed in an interview in the 1940‘s? If Jesse’s death is cloaked in a shroud of mystery, his colorful life is a six shooter full of wild west legend and mythology. He was truly America’s Outlaw!
I’ve been to just about every Jesse James historical site from the farmhouse in Kearney, to the Meremec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri where he supposedly hid during his outlaw days. I found all the graves of the James Boy’s and the Youngers who made up the rest of the James-Younger Gang, and that wasn’t easy. The Younger’s may have ridden with the James boys, but they are not buried together. Even Frank James is buried away from his brother as Franks widow, Ann Ralston, didn’t want to remind others of Frank’s outlaw past. She had him buried in a private cemetery. More on the grave sites later.
Alexander Franklin James was born in Kearney, Missouri on January 10, 1843. Little brother, Jesse Woodson James, was born on September 5 three years later. The years were spent doing what most young brothers of the era prior to the Civil War were doing. Helping out on the farm, chores, and every now and then skipping out of work and down to the small creek that runs through the property to catch a few fish for dinner and just enjoy the simple pleasures of life in the Midwest woodlands. Then the winds of war were on the horizon and the nation was split in two as though a sociological atom was split and slavery was the nuclear issue that exploded in the bloodiest war this continent has ever seen. Frank immediately enlisted in the Confederate army and joined the ranks of the Stars and Bars at the age of 18 but soon leaves the regular army of the south and joins up with Quantrills Raiders who waged bloody war against the Union. Jesse eventually joins the confederate forces and rides and fights with the legendary Bloody Bill Anderson.
Soon after the war ended the unthinkable happened. President Lincoln was assassinated by southern sympathizer and leading actor of the day, John Wilkes Booth. This put the south on edge as they knew that Lincoln only wanted to mend the nation and let it heal gracefully and peacefully. His successor, Andrew Johnson only wanted retribution and the era of Reconstruction began and the south was about to be punished. Lands were confiscated, former rebels harassed, former members of Quantrills and Bloody Bill Anderson’s unit were being hunted down like dogs and that included the James brothers and their cousins, the Younger’s. During the civil war Union soldiers had visited the James farm before Frank and Jesse had joined the Confederacy. Jesse was witness to them stringing up his step father and then they went on to burn the neighboring farms around the James property.
It left a lasting impression on him that would form his actions in later years. Just down the road from Kearney is Liberty and the Liberty Bank and Jesse James Museum on the town square on North Water Street. The museum has displays depicting the life of Jesse James and also of the Civil War Era in Missouri. More banks followed and eventually they decided to rob a merchant bank in Minnesota, out of friendly territory. The town was ready and on alert and the robbery was a fiasco with Younger’s being shot and imprisoned, while the James got away. By some accounts in Minnesota..it was a farming community and most had wagons, the James-Younger’s arrived on horseback wearing slickers. Not a good sign. Jesse was not a part of the actual bank robbery onsite, instead he was guarding the bridge that led into and out of town.
The townies and the gang exchanged gunfire and when it was over Younger’s were down and the James boys gone! The hunt for Frank and Jesse was on. Frank went into hiding to parts unknown, while Jesse tried to live a quiet life with his wife in St. Joseph, Missouri under an assumed name, Mr. Howard. Jesse had married his first cousin, Zerelda in 1974 while Frank married into a rich Missouri family to their daughter, Ann Ralston of Kansas City, also in 1874, but the law dogs were on their trail and bounties were on their heads. Then in 1882, Jesse was visited by old gang members Robert Ford and his brother Charles who knew where Jesse was. It was on that day, April 3, 1882 that the “dirty little coward, shot Mr. Howard, and laid poor Jesse in is grave.” (Later Charles Ford would commit suicide and Bob would be gunned down in a saloon in Creede, Colorado by a fan of Jesse’s on June 8, 1892.)
Cole Younger would be released from a Minnesota prison in time, and Frank turned himself in and found not guilty and was a freeman. By 1903 he teamed up with his old gang buddy, Cole Younger and formed the traveling James-Younger Wild West Show that was a moderate success. Soon they settled down back home and Frank opened the farmhouse to tourists charging admission and for just a few cents more you could get a handful of pebbles from Jesse’s grave which at the time was on the property. It was eventually moved to Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, where it is today to protect it from grave robbers and souvenir hunters. People who visit tend to leave memento’s on the grave such as small Confederate flags, coins, etc. I bought a toy pistol and holster set at a toy store in Kansas City and left that on the grave, just in case, Jesse James wanted to rob a bank in the afterlife! There has been speculation on who really was buried in Jesse James’ grave. In the 1940′s, an old timer, J Frank Dalton claimed to be Jesse who was not really gunned down, but his death faked so he could escape pursuit of the law. In 1995, the grave of Jesse James was opened, the body exhumed and with extensive DNA testing now available, it was proved that the body in the grave was indeed that of Jesse James and the tall tales of J. F. Dalton could no be put to rest.
By the way, the exhumation team wore T-shirts that said, “I dig Jesse James!” The James-Younger gang is no longer riding and robbing, but you can revisit the sites made famous by the outlaw gang, and take in a few re-enactments for the benefits of tourists that are put on by various organizations. Any Jesse James Tour has to start at the farmhouse in Kearney, north of Kansas City. The James Farmhouse is outside of Kearney on a set of twist and turn two lanes. It’s not that difficult to find as there is ample signage to get you there. Once there you’ll find a mini museum with displays and artifacts to show what life was like on the farm for the young James boys. There is also a pretty cool gift shop with Jesse James shot glasses, T-shirts and toy guns! The artifacts in the museum include Jesse’s last pair of boots, and yes, he did die with his boots on! Also his cartridge belt something very un-outlaw like..a feather duster he was using to clean off the photo on the wall in St. Joe when he was shot from behind. The home is just as it was including the side area where the Pinkerton bomb went off.
The grounds had picnic tables, a small cottage that was used by slaves for housing on the property, and the rather tall obelisk of a tombstone that marked the spot of Jesse’s first repose before being removed for his own afterlife safety. You can hike the grounds and as you walk the pathway from the Museum to the farmhouse grounds you’ll cross a small stream that probably held a treasure trove of bullfrogs and crawdads for two young future outlaws to catch as kids. The farmhouse is also said to be haunted so if you feel a cold chill pass through your body, relax..it’s probably just Jesse saying “Welcome Pard!” The legend of Jesse James grew over the years thanks to the proliferation of the dime novels, the pulp fiction literature of the day. When Jesse was gunned down, it was not long before the Ballad of Jesse James was written and bolted for the charts of the Outlaw Hit Parade! Written shortly after Jesse’s death it received a makeover by Woody Guthrie in the 30’s and seemed a perfect fit for the Dustbowl Era of growing socialism in the county. Jesse was not immune to the silver screen adaptations of his life either. The first film was released in 1921 as “Jesse James Under the Black Flag” followed by numerous other cinematic treatments of varied purpose.
Roy Rogers, completely miscast played Jesse at one point, Bob Hopes comedic treatment ended up as ‘Alias Jesse James” followed in the 50’s and Sixties with altered states sci fi pictures as “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter!” One thing you do not want to miss out on is the annual Jesse James Festival held in Kearney. It’s held in September when the weather is cool and the leaves on the farm are beginning to take on their fall color. It wouldn’t be a Jesse James festival without an old fashioned old west shoot out demonstration, and yes, along with a demolition derby, there are those with six guns blazing! For the foodies there is one hot BBQ contest to taste the best of the west along with rodeo action and mud volleyball, down and dirty! The horses are put to pasture for the day as the festival comes alive with a custom car, truck and hot rod show. Arts and crafts abound and there is a Little Miss and Mr. Jesse James contest for the littlest outlaw and his wife. It’s all topped off with a car cruise of Kearney!
The Patee House and Museum in St. Joe is home to the last home of Jesse James, where he was gunned down in cold blood by Robert Ford. The museum itself was built in the 1800′s as a luxury hotel for traveling dandies and dandettes. Today it is two solid floors of displays including a locomotive, vintage cars, a stage coach, a carousel and is the gateway to the James home. (The home was originally up on the hill one block away from it’s present location but moved for convenience. The old homestead however is marked and all that remains are the steps overlooking the valley. The bullet hole is still in the wall but protected now with a plastic covering as souvenir hunters over the yeas had been picking at it and is now larger than originally would have been. When Jesse was shot and killed his family came to St. Joe to claim the body and it was in the lobby of the Patee Hotel that his body was laid out and his family was interviewed. One more interesting place, fact or fiction to visit is Meramec Caverns on the other side of the state by Stanton, Missouri. Supposedly these are the caves Jesse would hide out in when running from the law dogs.
There is really no proof of that but makes for an interesting addition to the life and legend of America’s favorite bad guy. There is camping in the area, riverboat rides, picnic facilities, cave tours and souvenirs. There is even a Jesse James Wax Museum on the road to Meremec. Mermec is a double bang for the buck. Not only is it a Jesse James site but bonafide Route 66 Roadside Attraction! To get to Kearney which is located approximately 25 miles NE of Kansas City, take I-35 north, watch for the Kearney Exit, extremely well marked and follow the signs on the two lanes through town, past the cemetery to the James Farm. You can’t miss it. Cole Younger died in march of 1916 and is buried in the Lees Summit Cemetery at the intersection of Langsgord and Highway 291. The grave is near a large sycamore tree and MacDonalds is just across the street in case the Younger’s get a Big Mac Attack. Frank James died in February of 1915 and along with his wife, Ann Ralston are buried in a private cemetery, Hillcrest Cemetery in Independence, Missouri.
For more information on the James Farm in Kearney, visit their website at www.jessejames.org and for more information on Meremec Caverns, go to their website at www.americascave.com. Saddle up boys and girls…The James Gang Rides Again..and you’re invited along for the ride!
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Mike is a freelance writer/journalist and author who lives in the plaid and proud Ozarks. Along with fishing and hiking, Mike is an avid pop culture dumpster diver. Mike’s E-series, The Sandoz Collection is available for free to all readers of Ozarks.com. To obtain your free copy email Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org (Kick Asphalt!)