Growing up in the Ozarks, the James brothers have the added distinction for me of being local legends. Jesse James and his brother Frank were members of Quantrill’s Raiders, a Confederate bushwhacker group during the Civil War. After the Civil War ended, the brothers formed various criminal gangs which engaged in robbery and murder. Familiar stories of my family members encountering one of the James brothers can be found in various collections of Pulaski County (Missouri) history, including a story of my 2nd great granduncle, James B. McMillian, encountering Frank James during a late night horse ride in Pulaski County, and one of Jesse James using the proceeds of a robbery to pay a local widow’s mortgage. Fact and fiction are so thoroughly intertwined throughout stories recounting the adventures of the James Gang, it is no surprise that stories surrounding the death of the gang’s leader would be an inseparable mixture of fact and fiction as well.
Despite being shot dead by “the coward Robert Ford” in St. Joseph, Missouri, on April 3, 1882, conspiracy theories and rumors of Jesse James’ survival into old age continue into the 21st century. Although a 1995 exhumation and DNA test confirmed that Jesse James was indeed the man resting in his grave, a woman named Betty Dorsett Duke is still hawking books claiming to refute the DNA evidence that put rumors of a death hoax to rest. So while a bullet in the head may have killed Jesse James in 1882, rumors and conspiracies surrounding the notorious outlaw are a lot harder to kill.
The most widely recognized alternative account of Jesse James’s death insists he lived to be around 104 and died in Granbury, Texas. A 1966 article in the Hood County News-Tablet recounts the story of a local sheriff who claimed to talk daily with Jesse James during the last nine days of a life which ended in 1951. In addition to talking with the man claiming to be Jesse Woodson James, Sheriff Oran C. Baker also claimed to have been present at a post-mortem examination where he described seeing scars from bullet wounds, rope and foot burns, and other injuries, along with a tattoo which read “Tex Ys.”
J. Frank Dalton, the man Sheriff Baker claimed to be Jesse James, convinced many people he was the real thing, including the owners of Meramac Caverns in Stanton, Missouri, who hosted a reunion for him and surviving members of the James Gang on September 5, 1949, the 102nd birthday of Jesse James. So despite compelling DNA evidence that Jesse James has indeed been buried in his grave in Clay County, Missouri, since 1882, skeptics such as Duke continue to argue that the 1882 death was faked. DNA testing results lending veracity to James’ 1882 death are countered with “chain of custody” arguments. An attempted exhumation of J. Frank Dalton in 2000 resulted in the removal of the corpse of another man, preventing any testing from taking place. With two exhumations yielding unsatisfactory results, it seems unlikely that definitive answers to questions surrounding the death of Jesse James will ever be universally accepted.