Judge grants order to exhume reputed outlaw’s bones

by Leland Debusk, Assistant Editor

Hood County News On-Line Edition – February 18, 2000 

There may be an answer soon to a longtime Hood County mystery.

County judge Linda Steen gave the go-ahead Thursday afternoon to exhume the reputed grave of the famous outlaw Jesse Woodson James in Granbury Cemetery.

Historian Bud Hardcastle, who sought the exhumation on the behalf of James’ reputed grandsons, stated DNA tests will be performed on the remains to determine once and for all if they are of the famous outlaw. Hardcastle and the grandsons believe Jesse James is buried in Granbury Cemetery.

The exhumation may come in about a month, said Granbury attorney Steve Reid, who represented Hardcastle and James’ descendants.

Hardcastle, an Oklahoma resident, stated he has been researching Jesse James for 21 years.

Thursday’s request was the second time that exhumation has been sought for James’ grave. Then-county judge Don Cleveland heard an exhumation request in September 1996. He took no action on the request, saying that attorneys had provided no compelling evidence on why he should approve or deny the request. The second request was filed in the county clerk’s office last summer by Reid.

Hardcastle and Reid are concerned that others claiming to be James’ descendants may try to fight the exhumation order.

Legends have been saying for almost 50 years that Jesse James is buried in the Granbury Cemetery.

Legend has it that Jesse James was not killed at his Missouri home in 1882 by a fellow outlaw, but came to Granbury under an alias, where he died in August 1951 at the age of 103.

The grave is located in the Rash plot at the east end of the cemetery.

The exhumation was requested by Arkansas residents Jesse Quanah James, Burley Dale James and Charles A. James. The James brothers are the sons of Jesse Cole James, who died in February 1964. Hardcastle can show documents indicating the brothers are James’ grandsons. The James Brothers were not at Thursday’s hearing due to illnesses and health concerns, Hardcastle stated.

Oklahoma resident John Tatum and his wife Jo Ella were present. Tatum says his mother was a James relative.

Reid stated the James brothers didn’t really need court permission to open the grave, but that University of North Texas forensics expert Harrell Gill-King asked for the court order because of liability concerns.

Once the grave is opened, it will take two months to exhume the remains and to make comparisons on what researchers know about James’ appearance, says Gill-King. It will also take three or four weeks to prepare DNA samples from the remains and two weeks to do the DNA sequences, Gill-King stated. The whole process could take about six months, he’s estimated.

DNA samples will be obtained from the James brothers for comparison with the remains, said Gill-King.

Historical accounts say Jesse James is actually buried in Kearney, Mo. The grave was opened in 1996 for DNA testings, but Gill-King disputes reports that the tests proved James is actually buried there.

However, blood samples may also be obtained from James’ Kearney descendants for comparison to the Granbury remains, Gill-King says.

Legend says that when James came to Granbury, he took the alias of a railroad contractor named J.W. Gates. He was befriended by Granbury resident Sam Rash and visited Rash’s home in later years. When Gates died, he was buried in the Rash family plot in Granbury Cemetery.

A tombstone on the grave reads “Jesse Woodson James, Sept. 4, 1847, Aug. 15, 1951. Supposedly killed in 1882.” The stone was erected in 1984 by a New Mexico woman who claims to be a descendant of James.

During the hearing, Steen asked Hardcastle why the grave should be disturbed. “Sometimes, history’s not right and we need to set it right,” said Hardcastle. “These boys need to know the truth,” he said of the grandsons.

“I’m ruling that you meet the elements (of the exhumation request),” Steen said at the end of the hearing. “I believe there is reason in leaving people alone unless there is a good reason not to,” she stated.

Steen said Reid and Hardcastle had presented compelling evidence that the grave should be exhumed to answer the riddle. “I am going to sign the order for exhumation,” she told Hardcastle.

“You don’t know how much I appreciate it,” Hardcastle told her emotionally.

“You’ve fought a good fight for a long time,” Steen said.

The exhumation order becomes final in 30 days. During that 30 days, Steen will hear any appeals to her order. The exhumation will follow after the 30-day period expires.

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