I wrote the following Introduction for my second book, The Truth About Jesse James (2007). At that time the eBay photo of the James and Jackson families hadn’t surfaced. Step back in time with me and you’ll see just how much progress has been made towards revealing Jesse James’ true fate:
What if the traditional history of Jesse James was not all true, and there was a clever twist where he escaped and lived to a peaceful and ripe old age? What if others close to him followed suit? Some have considered such proposals as utterly preposterous, while others have opened their minds to seriously consider the growing and undeniable alternative evidences. This book adventure will first critique the commonly accepted history, and then to for a fascinating conclusion. Each reader will then have to decide for his or her self if Jesse James was wise enough to fake his death, or did he just wait for the inevitable? As you consider the possibilities, ask yourself what would you have done given his limited choices.
Jesse James’ legendary status began in his own time and still attracts world-wide fascination – it will never die. He has been referred to as America’s Robin Hood, a robbin’ hood, an outlaw, a patriot and a terrorist. Perhaps he was all of these things but the word terrorist is often misused to abuse one’s enemies. The debate will never end because one man’s Robin Hood or patriot is another man’s terrorist.
The traditional story of Jesse James’ death goes that Jesse James was living as Thomas Howard with his wife and first cousin, Zee Mimms, along with their two children, Jesse Edwards James and Mary James, at 1318 Lafayette Street in St. Joseph, Missouri. On April 3, 1882 he removed his guns, stepped onto a chair to dust a picture with his back to his house guests, Bob and Charley Ford, blissfully unaware that they had conspired with Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden to kill him for reward money. Hearing the click of a pistol being cocked, Jesse began turning his head towards the ominous sound just as Bob fired a ball that tore through his brain.
Even if the age-old rumor is true that Bob Ford did not shoot Jesse James dead , he deserves credit for sending Jesse’s legendary status soaring through the annals of history that fateful day. A song was even written about the dirty deed done to some poor yet unidentified soul, because contrary to what you may have heard DNA testing has not yet proved who lies in the grave bearing Jesse Woodson James’ name:
It was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward
I wonder how he does feel
For he ate of Jesse’s bread and he slept in Jesse’s bed
Then laid poor Jesse in his grave.
Poor Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life
Three children, they were brave;
But that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
Has laid poor Jesse in his grave.
Tabloid journalism was alive and well in Jesse James’ day and operating in the same way, just sensationalizing a complete fabrication of untruths. This certainly holds true with Professor James E. Starrs’ 1995 exhumation and subsequent DNA testing of Jesse James’ purported grave. The DNA results are highly touted as proving with science that Jesse died and is buried just as history reports, but the truth of the matter is that they proved absolutely nothing.
No one knows the complete true story of Jesse James. Much of the historical version of his life and death is based on hearsay from the very individuals who were trying to protect him. However, legitimate DNA testing can determine if he’s buried in that questioned grave in Kearney, Missouri, but until this happens the traditional version of his death is based on nothing but folk lore. If Jesse did not die as history reports the domino effect begins — Zee Mimms was not his wife; Jesse Edwards James was not his son; Mary James was not his daughter, and so on down the line. Most “experts” believe Jesse James died just as history reports, but they cannot definitively prove that he did without valid DNA results. There are enough dissenters to make it an intriguing idea, and if anyone could have pulled it off it would have been Jesse James.
Jesse James eluded capture for over twenty years, so he was certainly capable of pulling off his biggest heist ever by getting away with his own murder. The historical fact is that in 1879 he tried faking his death at Short Creek, so why wouldn’t he try it again in 1882 and succeed?
I’ve spent the last twelve years trailing Jesse James searching for evidences leading to his true burial place, because once it’s found his true descendants will be revealed. The search ended in Blevins, Texas. From all indications Jesse James is buried under the tombstone bearing the name of James L. Courtney.
For as long as I can remember I’ve heard family stories that claim Jesse James was my great-grandfather. The story goes that he assumed the name of James L. Courtney, hightailed it to in 1871 and lived to tell his great-grandchildren about his amazing exploits.
Does Jesse James’ blood really run through my veins? How many supposed experts have ridden down the wrong trail? I want to know the truth about my great-grandfather. I researched every known fact, I rode, hell-bent, into wild uncharted territories, ambushed by hired guns at every turn. Some from the past, and some aimed today – truth is a tough journey.
So saddle up! Together we’ll retrace Jesse’s discovery trail as I have replaced the fiction often told with the fact
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
“AROUND 10 O’CLOCK on Sunday morning, November 2, 1879, a Joplin, Missouri, physician named Burns was driving his buggy in the vicinity of Shoal Creek, file miles southwest of the city, where he’d been summoned on a house call. Shots rang out in the distance up ahead, and a few moments later a one-eyed horseman, brandishing a six-shooter in each hand, came charging down the road toward the startled doctor. “I’ve just shot a man back there!” shouted the rider, later identified as George Shepherd, as he galloped past. Dr. Burns saw blood gushing from a bullet wound in the man’s leg. Presently, Burns came upon two more riders, who seemed to be following Shepherd’s trail. They accosted the doctor and told him there was an injured man back there who needed his attention.
They added that they’d seen a dead man being carried off from the same area. Burns followed the two riders as requested and found a man, who he later learned was Jim Cummins, suffering from a serious gunshot wound to the side, but no dead body. Burns treated the man’s wound and then, satisfied that his patient would recover, made his way back to Joplin. There he told an altered version of his story that omitted the fact he’d treated one of the shooting victims, presumably because he didn’t want to involve himself in what apppeared to be foul play.
Meanwhile George Shepherd went to Galena, Kan., 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. He “offered a bleeding and mangled leg in corroboration of his story” and was soon checked into a local hotel to have the injury treated.
Shepherd, a former William Quantrill bushwhacker, had led a group of guerrillas, including young JESSE JAMES, to Texas at the tail end of the Civil War, but then in 1866 JESSE had teamed up with BLOODY BILL ANDERSON’s brother JIM to kill Shepherd’s nephew IKE FLANNERY near Rocheport, MO. Shepherd had reportedly avenged the murder a year later by killing JIM ANDERSON on the courthouse grounds at Sherman, Texas.
Despite the feud, Shepherd joined the JAMES GANG and took part in the 1868 Russellville, KY bank robbery, one of the first robberies attributed to the gang. Shepherd spent a short term in the Kentucky pentitentiary for his role in the robbery, then returned home to Jackson County, MO., and went straight.
When lead was discovered in southeast Kansas in the late 1870s, he had gone to Short Creek to work in the mines, but at the time the James Gang robbed the Glendale train in Jackson County in October 1879, he was back home working as a teamster.
Kansas City Marshal James Liggett enlisted Shepherd to infiltrate the gang and help capture the robbers by keeping the marshal apprised of the gang’s movements. In return for his cooperation, Shepherd figured to pick up a handsome reward. This much Liggett confirmed. However, only Shepherd himself could attest to the sensational claim that he’d killed JESSE JAMES.
According to Shepherd, he went to the home of Jesse’s mother, Zerelda Samuel, near Kearney, Mo.,from where he was led blindfolded to the gang’s nearby hideout. When the blindfold was removed, he stood facing JESSE JAMES; JIM CUMMINS, another former Quantrill guerrilla; ED MILLER, whose brother had been killed in the Younger-James Gang’s botched 1876 Northfield, Minn.,bank robbery; SAM KAUFMAN; and a man named TAYLOR. During the ensuing conversation, JESSE said his brother FRANK had died of consumpton a few months earlier.
Shepherd succeeded in gaining the men’s confidence, and the gang soon headed for Texas. On the way, they decided to rob a bank at Empire, Galena’s rival mining community on the opposite bank of Short Creek, and Shepherd hatched a plan with Liggett’s deputies to capture the gang during the holdup.
However, on his final reconnaisance of the bank, JESSE JAMES spotted a guard who’d been stationed there by the marshal. JESSE called off the escapade, and he and the gang proceeded south. Shepherd, however, lingered in town and concocted another impromptu scheme, this time with some old mining buddies. Shepherd was determined to kill JESSE and then lead the rest of the gang into an ambush.
When Shepherd caught up with the gang a mile or two outside Galena, JESSE JAMES expressed suspicion at the length of Shepherd’s stay in town, but the march resumed and Shepherd fell in beside JESSE, awaiting an opportunity to put his desperate design into action. After the group had ridden a short distance, JESSE turned to one side and Shepherd promptly pulled his revolver. “This is for killing Ike Flannery!” he supposedly announced as he shot the robber chief through the head.
When Shepherd bolted away, Cummins and Kaufman gave chase while Miller tended to JESSE. Cummins outdistanced his partner and soon engaged Shepherd in a running gun battle. Shepherd hoped to lead his pursuers into the prearranged ambush, but his confederates either were farther away than he expected or failed to show altogether. Seeing that Cummins was about to overtake him, Shepherd faced the oncoming rider in a brief showdown that left both men wounded. Cummins and Kaufman started back to join their fallen leader as Shepherd galloped away.
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 playfuly 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.”
Dr. Burns seemed to be among the few men who accepted Shepherd’s story. He felt convinced, based presumably on what he’d been told by the two men who’d solicited his help, that a killing had taken place.
The Shepherd affair caused a stir not just locally but throughout the region. When word reached the Kansas City area, Jesse’s mother scoffed at the notion that a “one-eyed man,” who was “slow as an ox” to boot, could get the drop on her JESSE. She claimed that Shepherd had not come to her home in October as he’d stated and that, in fact, she hadn’t seen him for years. However, Mrs. Samuel might naturally want to deny that she’d had anything to do with arranging a meeting that had indirectly led to her son’s death.
Speculation about whether JESSE was alive or dead continued for several weeks. The whole state of Missouri buzzed with rumors. In mid-November, JESSE JAMES was reported alive and well in Texas. Late in the month, he and his gang were said to still be in the area of Short Creek.
About the same time, A Kansas City newspaper published a report that JIM CUMMINS had returned to northern Missouri and confirumed Shepherd’s story. On December 2, the Joplin Herald said that JESSE JAMES was presumed dead. A report from Richmond, Mo., three days later claimed that a wagon carrying JESSE’s decomposing body had been spotted heading for the James home in Clay County. Then a doctor was said to have visited Marshal Liggett and told him that he’d issued a death certificate before turning Jesse’s body over to friends. A later account said the coffin bearing the infamous outlaw’s corpse had arrived at Kearney by train and that JESSE JAMES was now lying “beneath Clay County turf.”
Much conjecture was also centered on George Shepherd’s motives. If his story was true, why had he killed JESSE JAMES? No doubt he hoped to collect a reward, and Shepherd himself added that he was also acting to avenge IKE FLANNERY’s death. COLE YOUNGER and others pointed to the Russelville bank robbery as the cause of the rift between Shepherd and JESSE JAMES. Cole said that after Shepherd’s release from the Kentucky penitentiary, JESSE feared Shepherd might implicate him in the crime.
Shepherd’s brother Mac said that George blamed Jesse for his imprisonment. When George was first jailed in Kentucky, members of the gang had tried to raise bond money to go his bail, but JESSE supposedly refused to contribute.
Another observer suggested that George somehow blamed JESSE for the death of his cousin Oliver Shepherd, who was killed by deputies sent out to arrest him after the Russellville robbery.
Cole Younger also added that there had been, at one time, a dispute between George Shepherd and JESSE JAMES over a woman.
Opinions varied, too, among those who felt Shepherd was lying.
Many suggested that JESSE and his gang, not Shepherd, had instigated the skirmish south of Galena because they suspected Shepherd of betraying the gang. Others speculated that JESSE JAMES, acting in cahoots with Shepherd, had staged the shootout in order to share in his own reward money and to give himself the added advantage of being thought dead.
This, however, seems unlikely, given the severity of Shepherd’s and Jim Cummins’ wounds.
George Shepherd was disturbed by all the bad publicity he received for “killing” JESSE JAMES. Shepherd claimed to have received more criticism for this one act than JESSE and his gang ever did for all of their misdeeds. In response to Shepherd’s lament, John N. Edwards, William Quantrill’s first biographer and the James brothers’ chief apologist, pointed out that no one liked a traitor.
Although speculation swirled for weeks on the streets of Galena following George Shepherd’s dramatic announcement, few sober minds continued to believe his tale.
A little more than a month after the incident, even Dr. Burns had been disabused. He admitted to a Joplin Herald reporter his role in treating Jim Cummins and surmised that one of the men who solicited his aid might have been JESSE JAMES.
However, if Dr. Burns’ initial report that the men told him they’d seen a dead body being carried away is to be believed, it tends to lend credence to the opinion of those who suggested that the whole affray was arranged to make people think JESSE was dead.
Another possibility, scarcely considered in 1879, is that Shepherd sincerely thought he’d killed JESSE and that the outlaw, having survived the attempted assassination, seized upon an opportunity to stage his own death. The fact is, though, that 125 years later no one seems much closer to the whole truth of the bizarre episode than Dr. Burns was in December 1879. WW”