Who’s in Jesse James’ Grave?

WHOSE BODY WAS THE  ‘STAR OF THE SHOW’ AT “JESSE JAMES” KILLING & BURIAL IN 1882?

© BETTY DORSETT DUKE, 2009

 Trying to solve this Jesse James history mystery is reminiscent of playing Clue, the classic whodunit game where players search for clues to solve Mr. Boddy’s murder.  Bob Ford confessed to shooting Jesse James dead, but did he?  If not, who was it?  Was it Wood Hite or the hired hand Gibson? Was the body found in a grave or a well?  Did Ford even do the dirty deed? Did the murder really occur at 1318 Lafayette St. in St. Joseph, Missouri?  There are several suspects, bodies, dates, and locations to investigate.

History reports as definitive fact that Jesse James was shot dead by Bob Ford on April 3, 1882 and buried in Kearney, Missouri. But the fact is a well founded rumor began circulating the very day of the shooting claiming that Jesse James was still very much alive.  In fact, it is still circulating to this very day, and I believe it will continue to circulate until the truth of the matter is determined.

As stated earlier, most of us have heard that Bob Ford shot Jesse James dead, yet most are unaware that he also stood trial for shooting Wood Hite dead. Wood was Jesse James’ paternal first cousin, and rode with Quantrill’s Guerrillas during the Civil War.  After the war he is said to have ridden with Jesse James.  Wood was born in Logan County, Kentucky to George B. Hite and Nancy G. James, Jesse James’ paternal aunt.[1]

Wood Hite was reportedly murdered in a shootout with Dick Liddil over the distribution of the loot from one of their train robberies.  Bob Ford reportedly decided to intervene by firing a bullet into the back of Hite’s head.  Frank Triplett, author of The Life, Times and Treacherous Death of Jesse James, described Wood Hite as “a great admirer of himself, as well as of the opposite sex”.  

A special dispatch to the Kansas City Journal on April 6, 1882, the day “Jesse James” was buried, reported the following: “Coroner Richard Bohanon acting on a tip retrieved the body of Wood Hite from Bob Ford’s farm.” It is important for the reader to keep in mind that this information was reported in the newspaper on April 6, but the coroner got the tip on April 5, the night before “Jesse” was buried.

I find it more than just coincidence that the description of wounds on Wood Hite’s body are identical to the coroner’s description of the wounds on Jesse James’s reported body – both shot in the head, both had shattered skulls, and both had wounds over an eye.  However, there was one telling difference. The coroner described a slight wound on Wood’s right arm which was not described on Jesse’s right arm.  Mattie Collins, wife of Dick Liddil, said, “Dick shot three times [at Wood Hite].  One shot entered Hite’s brain, and another went through his right arm.”

As stated earlier the coroner noted a slight wound on “Wood Hite’s” right arm.  Yet he neglected to note a very revealing slight wound on the right arm of “Jesse James”.   Or did he purposely overlook it due to orders from one of the authorities involved in Jesse James’ death hoax?  There is no doubt that that there was a slight wound on “Jesse James” right arm because it is clearly visible in one of “his” reported death photos which may be viewed at: http://www.celebritymorgue.com/jesse-james/.  To me, this wound tells the tale of who was passed off as Jesse James on April 3, 1882…Wood Hite.

The hired hand Gibson was employed by the Fords and reportedly disappeared about the same time Wood Hite did.  To the best of my knowledge there aren’t any known photos of Gibson dead or alive either.  No one knows for sure if he really “went the same way Hite did”, what his full name was, or anything else about him, except that he was reportedly never seen again the day after Wood Hite was shot dead.

Jesse James and Wood Hite, two cousins both reportedly shot dead by Bob Ford, both with identical wounds on their bodies, both of their bodies in the same town, and both of their bodies still unburied on April 5, 1882.  And what a “coincidence” that Wood’s body just happened to be found on April 5 — the night before “Jesse James” was reportedly buried! [2]  Pretty convenient timing to do some body switching before the funeral.  Was Wood Hite’s body displayed as being that of Jesse James’?  And then, in order for his family to take it back home to Kentucky for burial, was his body removed from the coffin, and replaced with the body of the hired hand Gibson and buried the next day as Jesse James?

Some may protest that Jesse James died just as history reports, but too much evidence has been found indicating that he did not for it to be simply denied out of pure  ignorance of the facts.

The facts of the matter are: Animal remains were found in the reported original grave of “Jesse James” located in the yard of the James family farm in Kearney, Missouri; in 1995 Professor James E. Starrs did find the reported skeletal remains of Jesse James were placed face down in the coffin before being placed in a new coffin and reinterred in Kearney, Missouri’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery in 1902.

It stands to reason that two bodies were needed to pull off Jesse James’ death hoax — one to pass off as Jesse James’ and the other to pass off as Wood Hite’s.  And there were indeed two bodies found within two days of each other — Jesse James’ on April 3, 1882 and Wood Hite’s on April 5, 1882.  From all indications Jesse James was not the man living as Thomas Howard at 1318 Lafayette Street in St. Joseph, Missouri who was shot dead by Bob Ford.  But I do believe Wood Hite was, and Gibson’s body was passed off as his body and ended up being buried as Jesse James’ body. 

As stated earlier a special dispatch from Richmond, Missouri to the Kansas City Journal reports that “Gibson”, a hired hand, “disappeared about the same time Hite was killed and is supposed by many to have gone the same way.”  The St. Joseph Herald reported on April 6, 1882: “A man by the name of Gibson has never been seen or heard from since the morning after Wood Hite’s murder.”

Why some adamantly deny that Jesse James faked his death in 1882 is beyond me.  The very individuals claiming this are well aware that he had tried it before, therefore it stands to reason that he would try it until he succeeded. The following excerpt details his first (?) attempt at faking his death:

“On November 2, 1879, “George Shepherd went to Galena, Kansas, a fledgling mining village on Short Creek three miles north of Shoal Creek, and according to the town newspaper, ‘the throng on the streets of Galena was thrown into the wildest excitement and confusion,’ as he started proclaiming to anyone who would listen that he’d just killed the notorious outlaw JESSE JAMES.

Shepherd’s tale was greeted with almost immediate doubt, and suspicion grew when a party of citizens from Galena went out to the scene of the skirmish on Sunday afternoon to look for JESSE JAMES’ body and came back shortly after dark “without any intelligence.” Lawmen from Joplin crossed the state line to aid in the investigation, and the next day, Monday, November 3, Marshal Liggett arrived from Kansas City to lead a fruitless search for the outlaws. As a bold headline in the Galena Miner playfully stated a week later, the question that faced an excited public was “Whether JESSE JAMES, the Robber Chief Lies Dead, or George Shepherd Lies Living.”  The general consensus around the Joplin-Galena area favored the latter conclusion. Jasper County Deputy Sheriff Payton, who’d gone to Short Creek on Sunday evening, told a Joplin Herald reporter the next day, “I saw Shepherd, and he said he was positive he had killed Jesse James, but for all that I do not believe he did.” [3]

*At the time of this writing, we had no photographs of Wood Hite* To the best of my knowledge there are no known historically accepted photographs of Wood Hite alive that have been published, but I believe the reported death photos of “Jesse James” are actually the death photos of Wood Hite.  https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3a50864/

According to published descriptions he and Jesse did not resemble each other with the exception that they both had blue eyes. (View the most famous photo of Jesse James alive: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/Jesse_james_portrait.jpg ) However, Wood Hite’s reported physical description does fit the description of the corpse passed off as Jesse James. The corpse found in the house at 1318 Lafayette Street, St. Joseph, Missouri, is described as being between 5’ 8” to 5’ 9″, blue eyes, dark hair, a full-face dark beard, and a slender build.

The historically accepted description of Jesse James does not fit his description from those who knew him best. His mother, older brother, aunt, and comrades described him as tall and well built with sandy-colored hair and blue eyes.[4] His mother, older brother, aunt, and comrades also later said that he did not die in 1882.  Jesse James dressed well and his most famous photograph  indicates that he had good posture with a proud bearing.

The historically accepted description of Wood Hite is as follows: Approximately 5’ 8” tall, stoop shouldered, dark hair, light blue eyes, untidy in his appearance and badly stained decayed teeth. [5]  The teeth Professor Starrs exhumed from the purported grave of Jesse James in 1995 were badly stained and decayed — as one can clearly see this finding exactly fits the description of Wood Hite’s teeth.  Dr. Mark Stoneking, one of the doctors who did the DNA testing on the reported teeth of Jesse James, wrote, “The teeth were corroded and heavily stained indicating that they belonged to a regular tobacco user.” [6]  Zee Mimms, Jesse James’ first cousin and reported wife, swore at the coroner’s inquest held shortly after Bob Ford claimed he shot Jesse dead, that her “husband didn’t smoke nor chew.”  Professor Starrs is quoted as saying “That tooth will tell the tale”, and I, for once, agree with him.  If Jesse James did not use tobacco his teeth could not have been corroded and stained from tobacco use, but Wood Hite obviously did use tobacco and his teeth reportedly were corroded and stained. Whether or not the hired hand Gibson used tobacco and had corroded and stained teeth is not known.

Nearly every news article in 1882 reporting Jesse James’ death also mentioned Wood Hite’s death – almost in the same breath. I at first believed there was only one body involved in Jesse James’ death hoax  — Wood Hite’s. My former belief was based on the striking similarities in the reported descriptions of wounds on the corpses claimed to be those of Jesse James’ and Wood Hite’s.  But, as stated earlier, I have come to believe that there were two bodies needed to pull of Jesse James’ death hoax – Wood Hite’s and the hired hand Gibson’s.  This switching bodies ruse could have easily been accomplished with individuals like Governor Crittenden and Sheriff Timberlake involved in Jesse James’ reported death.  And despite all the media attention Wood Hite’s murder received in 1882, the location of his grave is still not known, and  the same applies to Gibson.

Some claim that the following dispatch proves that Wood Hite was buried in Richmond, Ray County, Missouri, due to the following dispatch, which, in my opinion, is written tongue in cheek, and offers no definitive proof of where Wood Hite is actually buried:

 “A Disappointed Constable from the St. Louis Post – Dispatch Mr. John G. Morris, constable  of Richmond, Mo., recently took a header into the seething cauldron of enterprise and  industry which Gov. Crittenden had caused to boil and bubble in Western Missouri, and  which he returned to the surface he was accompanied by the mortal remains of Mr. Hite, one  of the train robbing gang. He dispatched the following to his excellency in the following  words and letters to wit:

‘I have the body of Wood Hite and am ready with evidence for identification. What shall I do  with it? I claim the reward.’

Mr. Hite’s body has been moldering in the grave and his soul has been a-marching for some  time past, and hence the exploit of digging him up was not as desperate as many would  believe. Gov. Crittenden shed tears of joy upon hearing of Mr. Morris’ find. But the practical  mind of the executive addressed itself at once to the situation and evolved this remarkable  telegram from its interior:

‘On account of the weather, rebury it. No reward offered for his dead body.’ — T. T.              Crittenden.

If anything was needed to show the tenderly care and engrossing motherly affection of the  governor for his good people of Missouri, this message would take the cracker. He does  not want the pure air of the state tainted with a gamey train robber, and while he is evidently  saddened at the disappointment which he must inflict upon John C. Morris, constable, he  does all he can to lighten his burden and to release him from his unhygienic watch and ward.  Mr. Morris has drawn a blank in the lottery of assignation. He has covered the wrong “stiff,”  as it were, and the governor has dealt a split on him. In the mean time if the bones of the dead  bandits are to be scratched up throughout Western Missouri, the coming legislature might  very appropriately amend the arms of the state by substituting a couple of mangy hyenas for  the two rollicking bears which now gambol over the great seal.” [7]

Another thing that smacks of a cover up is the fact that Gov. Crittenden would have notified the Hite family, if there was nothing to hide, so they could make funeral arrangements for Wood Hite’s body.  His father was still alive in Kentucky.  The governor was heavily involved in the reported death of Jesse James, and many also believe that he was involved in the 1882 conspiracy to allow Jesse James to officially kill himself in name only. Great pains seem to have been taken in the above message to make it appear that Wood Hite was not buried until after “Jesse James” was.

Some reports in 1882 claim that Wood Hite’s body was buried under a lot of rocks and dirt, yet   other reports of that time claim his body was found clearly visible in a well:

“Vic Jacobs, the man who purchased the farm where Hite was allegedly murdered, said “The farm was rented by Martha Ford Bolton, the widowed sister of Bob, Charley, and Cap Ford.

The farm of J. T. Ford, father of Martha Bolton and the Ford brothers was about a quarter of a mile southeast of Martha’s place.

Mr. Jacobs said he knew where the well is that Wood Hite was thrown in after being murdered. The house was a two-room log cabin with a furnished upstairs. The well, which is now capped, set right at the back doorstep of the house on the east.

Jacobs went on to say that at the time Hite was killed, Miller Brown’s father was the sheriff of Ray County.  Miller Brown’s father took his teenage son out to the well they found Wood Hite in. There was a large crowd for that time. Wood Hite was lying on his head and shoulders, and his feet were sticking up.” [8]

 Again, there are many indications that Robert Woodson “Wood Hite” was killed and passed off as Jesse Woodson James, but he may not be buried in the grave in Mt. Olivet Cemetery bearing Jesse James’ name as I at first believed. His family may have buried him in Kentucky, and the hired man Gibson may very well be the yet unidentified man who really lies in the grave bearing Jesse’s name.

The following article details Wood Hite’s murder and also describes the wounds on his body, which, as stated earlier, exactly match those on the purported body of Jesse James:

Wood Hite’s Corpse

Special Dispatch to the Kansas City Journal.

Richmond, Mo., April 6. — Yesterday

evening Coroner Richard Bohanon, acting on information obtained from a son of Mr. Jacobs, who lives on Dr. Morby’s farm, just east of  town, went out to the old Harbison farm, occupied by the Ford boys, and in a pasture east of the house

FOUND THE BODY OF WOOD HITE

about three feet under the ground, covered with brush; then about two wagon loads of rock, then a lot of dirt.  It was wrapped in an old blanket, and had no clothes on it but a shirt and pair if drawers or overalls.

A slight wound was found on the right arm  and a bullet wound  on the right side of the forehead just above the eye. Beside this the left side of

HIS SKULL WAS CRUSHED

as if by a blow from a rod of iron. The Jacobs boy got his information from a son of Mrs. Bolton, a sister of the Ford boys, who have been keeping house for them.  The evidence of Mrs. Bolton and her two little boys was taken yesterday evening.

Mrs. Bolton testified that the killing occurred about the first of last December, that Hite, who was only known to her as Robert Grimes, came there and had been there for two weeks when the tragedy occurred; that

THE FIGHT IN WHICH HE WAS KILLED

occurred at breakfast time in the morning, Dick Liddil having arrived at the house between midnight and daylight that morning, and had slept in a separate room from the one occupied by Hite and the boys.  She said that she had prepared breakfast for the family, and that they had all eaten and gone out, including a hired man named Gibson, and later she had prepared breakfast for Hite and Liddil, and called them. Liddil dressed himself and came into the room prepared for breakfast; Hite came dressed, but desired to wash his face.  He approached Liddil and offered to shake hands with him, but Liddil declined.

THE QUARREL BEGAN

in one corner of the room. She said her back was turned and she does not know who shot Hite, but knows that nine shots were fired, one of which took effect in Liddil’s leg, one in Hite’s head, and the others in the ceiling and walls of the room.  When Hite fell the witness ran to him and raised his head, but turned sick and had to leave the room.

THE BODY

was taken to an upper room and kept until night, when it was buried as described by the Ford boys.

The body was placed in a coffin, brought to Richmond and placed in the circuit court room, where it remains, the inquest having been adjourned to get  further testimony. The inquest will be finished to-morrow and the body buried.

The man Gibson, referred to as a work hand, disappeared about the same time that Hite  was killed, and is said by many supposed to have gone the same way. A thorough investigation will be  made.”

As stated earlier, many sources report that Wood Hite was murdered in December of 1881, with dates ranging from the first through the fifth, but other sources from 1882 claim that he was still alive in March of 1882.  This March 1882 date makes my theory very plausible that either Hite, the hired hand Gibson, or both of them at various times, were passed off as Jesse James:

  • On April 5, 1882 The New York Times reported: “In March, 1882, Liddil left Jesse and returned to Martha Bolton’s house in Ray County. Martha was Bob and Charlie Ford’s sister, and a niece of William Ford. Another member of Jesse’s gang was also there — Robert Woodson “Wood” Hite, Jesse’s paternal first cousin;”
  • The April 6, 1882 issue of The Omaha Bee reports the following: “The remains of Wood Hite, one of the James gang, killed in a quarrel at the house of a sister of the Ford boys, the slayers of Jesse James, was found on their farm, where they were buried last evening…;” and
  • Author Marley Brant wrote that Wood Hite was still alive in March of 1882: “In March of 1882 Liddil left Jesse and returned to Missouri, where he stayed at the Ray County farmhouse of Martha Bolton, a widow who was the sister of Charlie and Bob Ford. Wood Hite, the James’ brothers’ cousin, was also there.” (Brant, Marley, Outlaws, The Illustrated History Of the James –Younger Gang, Elliott & Clark Publishing, 1997.)

History reports that Jesse James was using the alias of Thomas Howard when Bob Ford shot him down. But a Winchester rifle Model 1873 retrieved from the house at 1318 Lafayette St., St. Joseph, Missouri on the very day Jesse James was reportedly shot, indicates that instead of Jesse James using the alias of Thomas Howard it was probably Wood Hite.  The rifle had the initials “W.H.” and “T.H.” etched in the metal. [9]  It stands to reason that these initials probably stood for Wood Hite and Thomas Howard. And if Wood Hite was using the alias of Thomas Howard, he was the man Bob Ford shot dead and passed off as Jesse James and he was also Zee Mimms’ husband, and perhaps the father of her children.  But this doesn’t necessarily mean his body was buried in the grave bearing Jesse James’ name.

As far back as 1882 there have been reports that Jesse James was living in Texas at the time of his reported death.  After his reported death on April 3, 1882 a reporter for the Journal interviewed Mr. Mimms,  brother of Zee Mimms and Jesse James’ first cousin, and he wrote: “The subject of Jesse’s reputed rancho in Texas was mentioned and Mr. Mimms only smiled at the idea, and said nothing of the kind had been in existence.” [10]

According to my family story Jesse James AKA James L. Courtney did in fact have a “rancho” in Texas, Buttermilk, Texas to be exact.  Buttermilk was later renamed Blevins, and from all indications Jesse James made it his home in 1871, and died there on April 14, 1943.  He is buried in Blevins Cemetery as James L. Courtney.

 



[1] Source Citation: Year: 1860; Census Place: Adairsville, Logan, Kentucky; Roll: M653_383; Page: 0; Image: 301.

[2] Good Bye Jesse James, A reprinting of six of the best news stories concerning the career and death of Jesse James, first printed in the Kansas City Daily Journal, 1882.

[3] Wild West magazine, June 2005 “Western Lore”, pages 64&65, George Shepherd ‘killed’ JESSE JAMES…at least that’s what the ex-bushwhacker and ‘gang member’ claimed. By Larry Wood.

[4] Dr. Stoneking,  The Penn Stater magazine.

[5] The University of Texas at Austin, The Life And Trial Of Frank James Eighth Day’s Trial, Tarleton Law Library: http://tarlton.law.utexas.edu/lpop/etext/james/eighthday.htm; and Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen and Outlaws by Jay Robert Nash, Sept, 1994.

[6] Jesse James AKA James L. Courtney was tall with sandy-colored hair and had blue eyes.

[7] Good Bye Jesse James, A reprinting of six of the best news stories concerning the career and death of Jesse James, first printed in the Kansas City Daily Journal, 1882.

[8] The Daily News, Richmond, Missouri.

[9] Ross, James R., I, Jesse James, Dragon Publishing Corp., 1988.

[10] Good Bye, Jesse James, Copyright 1967 The Jesse James Bank Museum, Liberty, Missouri.