Digging into Jesse James’ whereabouts


OLD BLEVINS – August’s dog days are a fit time to growl over bones of contention. So let’s talk about Jesse Jameses or Jesses James.

Texas has an embarrassment of them.

Right, DNA test results reported last year supposedly proved that bones of the real Jesse James – assassinated in 1882 by that dirty little coward Bob Ford – lay in a grave in Kearney, Mo.

Forget that. Advocates of the Texas Jesses are as unmindful of DNA evidence as jurors handpicked by Johnnie Cochran.

Be it remembered, a project scientist said there was a chance – one in 308, to be exact – of a coincidental match with Jesse’s kin.

Coincidences are trumps in the game of Here’s Jesse.

A case of who’s who

Long a landmark in the Hood County courthouse town of Granbury is old J. Frank Dalton’s gravestone with its legend: “Jesse Woodson James. Sept. 5, 1847 – Aug. 15, 1951.”

Hood County historian Vircy Macatee tells me: “Most old-timers are sure we’ve got Jesse James buried here in Granbury.” Her father, late Hood County Sheriff Oran Baker, for example, was a true believer.

The Granbury Chamber of Commerce confirms the legend.

Now comes Betty Duke of Liberty Hill in Williamson County with her contender. She says Jesse James was her great-grandfather, who came to Texas from Missouri. He’s buried in Falls County’s 122-year-old Blevins Cemetery beneath a stone inscribed: “James L. Courtney. Oct. 31, 1846 – April 14, 1943.”

She has photos of him that do resemble known photos of Jesse James.

A 50-year-old mother and housewife, she says, “I had heard all my life from kinfolks that James Lafayette Courtney, my paternal great-grandfather, was Jesse James. It was just fact around our house – like the sun coming up in the morning.

“As a teenager, thinking I was much smarter than my parents, I believed what I read in history books and what I saw in all the movies. Everyone said Jesse James was fatally shot in the back of the head on April 3, 1882, and buried in Clay County, Missouri.

Gathering photographs

“Several years ago I became interested in my family history. I started gathering old family photographs of my ancestors. I compared them to historically accepted photos of the James-Samuel family.”

(Footnote: After the death of Robert James, father of bandits Jesse and Frank James, their mother, Zerelda James, married Dr. Reuben Samuel. Her right arm was lost when detectives exploded some sort of infernal device in her home. Pix of the woman identified as James Courtney’s mother show an unexplained empty right sleeve.)

Mrs. Duke says, “Many of the photographs matched. I made arrangements for a forensic artist at the Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin to examine the photos. I needed an expert opinion to lend credibility to my findings. She was very impressed. She had another woman in the photo lab scan a picture of my great-great-grandmother and a picture of Jesse James’ mother, Zerelda James Samuel, through a computer that is capable of lifting fingerprints off material.

“The computer proved what I already knew – their dresses were identical in every way.

“The photography supervisor’s comment was, ‘How many little old ladies that looked just alike, missing an arm and wearing identical dresses, were running around Missouri?’

“The DPS women do not want their names published.”

One of the women was away from her office last week and unavailable. The other said: “I couldn’t tell Mrs. Duke anything conclusively. She’s found a number of coincidences and similarities. I understand why she would believe as she does. The only real encouragement I offered was to suggest that she organize her evidence in a more analytical format – rather than just dumping a bag of materials on a table.”

Mrs. Duke says, “The photographs were of my great-great-grandmother, whom I now know was Zerelda Samuel. There are just too many similarities – the missing arm, identical dresses, looking exactly alike. The similarities are there because the photographs are of the same woman, Zerelda Samuel.

“There really was a James Lafayette Courtney. Jesse James took his identity. My great-grandfather (James Courtney-Jesse James) apparently identified the woman in the photograph as his mother. He let others assume her name was Dianah Courtney. He sure wasn’t going to tell people his mother’s name was Zerelda Samuel. He had to be careful.”

Mrs. Duke’s tale and supporting evidence are complex. She’s written a book-length manuscript she plans to show to a publisher.

That Jesse James, members of his family and members of his gang lived for periods in Texas is undisputed among historians. But to plant him permanently in Texas, advocates of Texas Jesses must concoct a massive conspiracy and, moreover, plant somebody in the Missouri grave.

J. Frank Dalton’s nominee for Jesse’s stand-in or lie-in was an errant member of the James gang named Charlie Bigelow, whose shot-up corpse in the Dalton account was convincingly mourned by Jesse James’ immediate survivors, all excellent actors.

Don’t remind me. Dalton-pal Brushy Bill Roberts of Hico – alias Billy the Kid – lies in a Texas grave down in Hamilton. Buried in the Kid’s grave out in Fort Sumner, N.M., Brushy Bill insisted, was Billy Barlow – someone oddly or conveniently overlooked by census takers.

Bigelow, Barlow – what’s the diff?

Mrs. Duke’s candidate for counterfeit corpse is a Kentucky cousin of the James boys, a former member of their gang – Robert Woodson (Wood) Hite (1848-1881).

As fate or irony would have it, Wood Hite was actually murdered in a gunfight by that dirty little coward Bob Ford a couple of months before he supposedly whacked Jesse James.

I have problems with Mr. Hite. Hundreds viewed the body identified as that of Jesse James, who’s consistently portrayed and remembered in death as a handsome rogue.

But Texas historian Bill O’Neal’s Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters describes Wood Hite as “a gangling, stoop-shouldered man with prominent, decaying front teeth.”

And a couple of months wrapped in a blanket in a shallow grave probably didn’t do much for his appearance.

Sounds like a job for Billy Barlow.