Originally created 07/30/00

Infamous outlaw brings tourist dollars to town



KEARNEY, Mo. - Towns where a notorious criminal once lived usually don't want to be remembered for the connection. Residents generally don't like thousands of people making pilgrimages to the birthplace of a brutal killer.

Likewise, for several decades the people of Kearney detested the town's connection to Jesse James, the 19th-century outlaw born and raised here. And some residents of St. Joseph would have preferred that people remember their city as the place where the Pony Express began, not where James died.

After all, James killed at least 17 people and robbed untold numbers of banks, trains and stagecoaches. His 15-year crime spree earned Missouri the moniker "The Outlaw State" when lawmen were unable to capture him.

Yet, people are drawn to this gun-toting, dapper-dressing outlaw and his legendary exploits with his brother Frank and their gang.

In The American Songbag, poet Carl Sandburg wrote, "Jesse James is the only American bandit who is classical, who is to this country what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin is to England, whose exploits are so close to the mythical and apocryphal."

Today, people from afar visit the farm where Jesse and Frank grew up and the house in St. Joseph where Jesse was shot to death on April 3, 1882.

Perhaps the ultimate James-related experience is to stroll through the house at the Jesse James Farm and Museum, breathing the stale, damp air; walking through the dimly lighted rooms and across the floors where James would have played as a child; eyeing the bed where he was born on Sept. 5, 1847.

James' mother and his brother began offering paid tours of the farm shortly after Jesse's death. Later, Frank's son Robert Franklin kept the house fairly intact, but by the time Clay County bought the farm in 1978 it was in disrepair.

The county restored the house, and today it looks much as it would have more than a century ago.

"It's just like you would expect their mother to be walking through the door," says filmmaker Ron Casteel, who has made documentaries about James and Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War. "It's one of the best-preserved and restored historical sites that's available most anywhere in the U.S."

A few feet from the house is the grave where James first was buried to discourage grave robbers. In 1902, some remains were reburied next to his wife in Kearney's Mount Olivet Cemetery.

Guided tours of the house leave every half-hour from the nearby visitors' center, itself a mini museum with artifacts and mementos, including family photographs, James' last pair of boots, his last cartridge belt and bridle, and the feather duster he was supposedly holding when he was killed. A short film offers a quick introduction to the James brothers and their gang.

Each year, about 18,000 people visit the farm in the Kansas City suburb, and huge annual festivals lure James enthusiasts from across the country.

The farm uses the legend of James as an American Robin Hood to its advantage and often blurs the line between myth and history. The visitors' center devotes one wall to quotes comparing James to Robin Hood and another section to posters from Hollywood movies depicting James.

The first bank the gang ever robbed is in nearby Liberty, although James likely was not there. The bank's vault appears as it did in 1866, when the men apparently committed the first successful peacetime daylight robbery in U.S. history.

Another 25,000 people pass through the Jesse James Home about 35 miles away in St. Joseph, where fellow gang member Robert Ford - "that dirty little coward," as the ballad says - shot James in the back for the reward money.

Museum director Gary Chilcote admits that some St. Joseph residents would prefer he dump the Jesse James Home and focus on the Pony Express Museum or the Patee House Museum, both of which celebrate the city's rich Old West history. The two museums and the house are owned by the Pony Express Historical Association.

But Mr. Chilcote says the association has an obligation to preserve the artifacts and tell the story of James and his gang members honestly.

"We don't hold them up as heroes, but we don't want to plow (the house) under," he says.

The house is packed with antiques, including some furniture that would have been there during James' 100-day stay, as well as pictures of him after his death and handles from his coffin.

The premier attraction, however, is the so-called "bullet hole," now nearly 1 foot wide because tourists have chipped away at it. The museum eventually put a protective frame over it. However, the hole may not be from the bullet, which some experts believe never exited James' head.

The tiny house has been moved twice. It originally sat atop a hill overlooking much of the town. In 1939, the house was moved to the Belt Highway as a tourist attraction. In 1977, the Patee House Museum acquired it and moved it next door.

Mr. Casteel says the legend of James as an American Robin Hood began before the outlaw died. But while it's certainly clear that James and his gang stole from the wealthy, it's unclear whether they redistributed the wealth.

Still, Mr. Casteel says, many locals jaded by the Civil War sympathized with James.

During the bloody Missouri-Kansas border wars of the mid-1800s, James was whipped as a teen-ager by Union militia who strung up his stepfather and burned neighboring farms. Harassed by occupying Yankee forces, James fought under Confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill. It was then, many believe, that he learned to kill.

"Today we'd call it post-traumatic stress," Mr. Chilcote says. "Today we'd label him a mass killer."