This morning, we have a special treat for you…a guest post on the mysterious death of Jesse James written by esteemed author and friend Sean McLachlan. Sean is a travel blogger for Gadling.com as well as the author of several works on Civil War history. His newest book, A Fine Likeness, is a Civil War horror novel.
When the news broke on April 3, 1882 that Jesse James had been shot from behind by fellow gang member Robert Ford, many people didn’t believe it. There had been false reports that Jesse had been killed before and it took some time for the public to accept that America’s greatest outlaw was really dead.
Did Jesse James Fake his Death?
Or was he? Decades after his supposed death, several men came forward claiming to be Jesse James.
One was an odd fellow named John James, who in 1931 appeared in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, telling everyone he was Jesse James. He had been away a long time, he said, and now wanted to return to his home state to visit family and friends. In fact he did his best to avoid Jesse’s family and friends. Instead he talked with everyone else, especially reporters, and showed a good knowledge of the outlaw’s exploits. He claimed the body at the James farm was actually that of Charlie Bigelow, who looked like Jesse and had been killed to fake Jesse’s death.
It wasn’t long before the real James family got wind of the news and Stella James, wife of Jesse James Jr., the outlaw’s only son, publically grilled “Jesse”. She asked for details about the Pinkerton bombing of the James farm in 1875, which left Jesse’s half-brother Archie dead and his mother’s arm mutilated. John James couldn’t remember Archie’s middle name or which arm his mother had lost. To put the final nail in the coffin, Stella produced one of Jesse’s boots. Jesse James had unusually small feet and wore a size 6 1/2 boot. John James couldn’t get it on and was laughed out of town. He didn’t give up, though. Instead he went to that land of showbiz and opportunity, California, to give speeches and radio interviews.
It wasn’t to last. John James was old and declining. He was eventually consigned to a mental hospital, where he died in 1947.
J. Frank Dalton: Jesse James…or Not?
The other main imposter was J. Frank Dalton, first promoted by Ray Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories and famous for the Deros Hoax. Dalton repeated the Charlie Bigelow story and told an epic tale of how he had all sorts of adventures after his supposed death, including being an air force pilot in WWI at the age of 69. Dalton went on the road in 1948 with a cast of other bogus Wild West survivals including Billy the Kid and Cole Younger. His tales were disproved time and again, but that didn’t stop him. He eventually found a home in Meramec Caverns, Missouri, where as Jesse James he celebrated his 103rd birthday on September 5, 1950. The Meramec Cavern gift shop still sells Dalton’s fake biography.
Like John James, Dalton’s was a sad tale. Little is known for certain about his real life, although several people claim to have known him as a carnival barker and oil worker in Texas in the early twentieth century. Dalton was a longtime student of the James legend and even wrote two pamphlets on the subject, which tellingly state that Jesse James was killed by Robert Ford. This was before the Information Age, however, and the embarrassing inconsistency wasn’t discovered until much later. Dalton claimed to be a veteran of Quantrill’s Confederate guerrilla band and applied for a pension. Since he had no proof of this claim, his application was rejected. After a few years in the limelight, he was ditched by his promoter and died in poverty in Texas in 1951. His gravestone reads, “Jesse Woodson James, Sept. 5, 1847-Aug. 15 1951, supposedly killed in 1882.”
Civil War Horror’s Analysis
Besides these two, several others claimed to be Jesse, and at least three who claimed to be Frank James, one of whom peddled his tale in 1914 while the real Frank James was still very much alive. The Washington Post got duped by that story and had to print a shamefaced retraction.
Jesse James was a legend, and like all legends they cannot die. Many other famous people—Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Hitler—have all spawned tales of their survival. It seems we can’t let go of these larger-than-life figures.
(Sean McLachlan’s Civil War novel A Fine Likeness includes Jesse James as a minor character. Sean is also the author of The Last Ride of the James-Younger Gang, Jesse James and the Northfield Raid 1876, to be released by Osprey Publishing in 2012.)