Grave Sightings: Jesse James

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Stacy Conradt

For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

Here lies Jesse James. Or does he? The answer to that depends on who you ask.

According to most, the American outlaw and train robber was killed at his home on April 3, 1882. Legend has it that it was his clean streak that did him in. When James turned his back to take a feather duster (the "Feather Duster of Death," which you can actually visit) to the top of a picture frame, his supposed partner in crime took him out with a bullet to the head. The kicker? The assassin, Bob Ford, was one of just a few people Jesse James still trusted. Unaware that Governor Thomas T. Crittenden had secretly negotiated with Ford to bring the outlaw to justice, James had asked the Ford brothers to move in with him for protection.

However, this New York Times article from the day says that James wasn’t spring cleaning at all—he had actually just taken his pistols off and was “preparing to wash himself” when Ford struck. Whichever way it really happened, James’ body was supposedly positively identified by a partially missing finger and scars from previous bullet wounds. He was buried at the family farm under an epitaph written by his mother, shown here next to the gravesite.

Photo courtesy of ClayCountyMO.gov

“DEVOTED
HUSBAND
AND FATHER
JESSE
WOODSON
JAMES
SEPT .5, 1847
MURDERED
APR. 3, 1882
BY A TRAITOR
AND COWARD
WHOSE NAME
IS NOT WORTHY
TO APPEAR HERE”

James’ body was moved to Mount Olivet Cemetery to be interred with his wife, Zerelda, after her death in 1900. The original marker remains at the homestead.

That is, if it was even his body. Almost immediately after his death, rumors began to swirl that Ford and James had worked together to stage a murder. In 1948, these rumors were given some credibility when a man named J. Frank Dalton stepped forward and claimed to be the famous train robber. If he was James, he would have been 101 years old at the time. Though the claim seemed dubious at best, a publication called The Police Gazette reported that they examined Dalton and found him to have all of the scars the real Jesse James had. Though Dalton did have impressive knowledge of James’ robberies and the era in general, he didn’t do well under questioning from Stella James, who married James’ son, Jesse, Jr.

The James family declared that Dalton was a phony. Regardless of his true identity, when Dalton died in 1951, his tombstone was inscribed with the name of the man he said he was. It reads:

Photo courtesy of BSHC-Granbury.org

"SUPPOSEDLY KILLED IN 1882."

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April 3, 2014 - 1:00pm
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