Courtesy of Jesse James Home
By Ron Marr
Oscar Wilde was touring the United States when he learned of Jesse James’s murder. Hightailing it to the outlaw’s Clay County birthplace, the renowned British humorist was amused by the local reaction. He witnessed a stampede to snag any souvenir remotely associated with the newly deceased bushwhacker.
“Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers,” Wilde wrote, “and always take their heroes from the criminal classes.”
Wilde was half right. Americans tend to worship rebels, those who bend rules and color outside the lines. Nefarious or criminal attributes are only rationalized when the rebel is painted as an average Joe forced to stand against seemingly omnipotent people and institutions. The rebel is who we’d like to be but usually aren’t. They’re a construct of our own egos, and consequently, they are immortal.
This was particularly true of Jesse James, and his post-death narrative was a fait accompli. After all, the idea of Goliath killing David, or the Sheriff of Nottingham firing an arrow through Robin Hood’s green heart, is intolerable. Thus, 132 years later and against all evidence to the contrary, a sizeable contingent still believes Jesse escaped Robert Ford’s bullet. But they’re wrong. Rumors of Jesse’s death were NOT greatly exaggerated.
Jesse had twice recovered from bullets to the chest; he’d blown off half a finger while cleaning his gun. The corpse had the exact same wounds. Most damning is that Jesse’s body was exhumed from its Kearney grave in 1995. Mitochondrial DNA was matched with one of his female descendants. I hate it when technology spoils cherished folk legends, but that’s what we get for living in the era of boring, rational science.
Nonetheless, factional fictions are more fun than nonfictional facts. Rumors abound that a small-time thief named Charlie Bigelow was buried in Jesse’s place, that the old switcheroo had been orchestrated by members of Quantrill’s Raiders loyal to Jesse. Sadly, they’re not true. The logbooks and documentation of Jesse’s autopsy and funeral are intact, kept at Heaton-Bowman-Smith & Sidenfaden Funeral Home in St. Joseph.
The most prevalent conspiracy theory is that Jesse changed his name to J. Frank Dalton, joined a spy ring called “Knights of the Golden Circle,” financed by Howard Hughes, and died at age 103 in Granbury, Texas. However, it seems J. Frank didn’t even become J. Frank until middle age. Moreover, the Knights of the Golden Circle ain’t talkin’, which is pretty typical of secret societies that don’t exist.
Jesse James does live on as a symbol, though, and symbols endure much longer than mere flesh and bone. That’s why, until his name fades from the history books, Jesse James will remain the rebel underdog who cheated death.