OLD OUTLAWS NEVER DIE; they just steal away. Was such the case with legendary gunman Jesse James? According to historical dogma, the 34-year-old Western Robbin’ Hood was shot dead in Missouri in 1882. But some fans and self-proclaimed descendants assert that he faked his own death, said good-bye to his beloved brother Frank, and started life anew in Texas. One long-established group of dissenters believes that he lived to the ripe old age of 103 in Granbury. Now another Texas faction has stepped forward with new and compelling evidence that James got away with his own murder.
“When I was growing up, I always heard tales about how my great-grandfather on my father’s side was really Jesse James,” recalls Betty Dorsett Duke, a fifty-year-old housewife who lives north of Austin. “But I had read the books and seen the movies, and like everybody else, I knew it was an established fact that Jesse James was killed by Robert Ford. I just put it down to family legend.” But two years ago, having been bitten by the genealogical bug, Duke started to chase the rumors. Her starting point was a collection of family papers, including old letters and the diary of her paternal great-grandfather. She also solicited memories from elderly relatives (some of whom refused to respond—whether from secrecy or shame, she doesn’t know).
The investigation yielded a wealth of details that are individually insignificant but collectively curious. Her great-grandfather, for example, purportedly was a Union veteran, yet named his horses “Johnny” and “Reb.” He claimed to have been a farmer all his life, but could “shoot the head off a chicken with his pistol while riding a horse at full speed,” as Duke puts it, and he also bought each of his eight children a farm—with cash. His diary mentions Bill Wilkerson, a known James Gang member whose brother lived off and on in his Texas household.
Duke was intrigued. With help from her husband and three children, she widened her search—and that’s when she discovered her most startling evidence: Numerous pictures of her father’s ancestors matched photographs of James’s kin. A picture of her paternal great-great-grandmother, Dianah Andruss Courtney, was indistinguishable from widely reproduced photos of Zerelda James Samuel, James’s mother: There is the white carnation pinned to her dress, the print and pattern of her long ruffled gown, and most chilling of all, the fact that her left arm is missing below the elbow, the result (in Zerelda Samuel’s case) of a bomb that exploded in the James family’s Missouri farmhouse in 1875. Equally striking is a head-only portrait of that woman’s son, Duke’s great-grandfather, which is almost a mirror image of the most famous documented photograph of Jesse James, one taken in Nebraska City, Nebraska, in 1866 (see above). In numerous other pictures, her great-grandfather keeps his left hand curled inward, a gesture habitually used by Jesse James to hide a finger deformed by a Civil War injury.
All this has Duke believing that her great-grandfather was Jesse James. In Texas, where he is buried under a simple marker in a Falls County cemetery, he was known as James Lafayette Courtney; he was born October 31, 1846 (where, exactly, is unknown), and died April 14, 1943. If Duke is correct, Courtney’s biography includes two striking ironies: His father-in-law was Thomas Barron, a former captain of the Texas Rangers who helped found Fort Fisher (where Waco’s Texas Ranger Hall of Fame now stands), and he served a term as the deputy sheriff of Falls County. “My husband is very skeptical by nature,” says Duke, who is writing a book about her experience. “It took quite a bit to convince him. But something made me keep digging, and I’m in awe of what I found.”
Like the feisty forebears she claims, Duke is a pistol, and she’s prepared for the return fire her declaration will surely spark. In Kearney, Missouri, Clay County has long operated the onetime James farmhouse as a museum. As a matter of state pride (and economics), Missourians bristle at the suggestion that James is buried anywhere else. Their Show-Me claim was bolstered in 1995 when the body was exhumed and examined. A team of forensic scientists pleased locals by confirming that DNA recovered from two descendants of James’ sister Susan was almost identical to DNA extracted from the outlaw’s hair. Yet other factors cast doubt on the academics’ conclusions. For example, contrary to reported history, the body was buried face down, and the disintegrated casket was made of wood, not metal.
Back in Texas, the Granbury gang will no doubt pooh-pooh Duke’s claim as well. They are the descendants of a white-bearded ancient named J. Frank Dalton who, they have long held, is the real Jesse James. Shored up by the considerable legal oomph of Waggoner Carr, a former Texas attorney general, they support their contention with a wealth of documents, such as the 1951 Hood County autopsy report that flat out identifies Dalton as Jesse Woodson James and records not only the missing tip of the left forefinger but also “32, 33 or more bullet wounds on the body.” However, many of the Dalton papers are merely affidavits from friends and family who overheard one of his many claims to James—an identity also put forth by a succession of pretenders on the sideshow circuit in the twenties and thirties. Not surprisingly, the self-styled Jesse James IV, Dalton’s great-grandson, rejected Missouri’s DNA evidence and promised to exhume Dalton’s remains as well.
Americans, and Texans in particular, are loath to let go of their legends (especially Western ones—Billy the Kid and John Wesley Hardin are two other gunmen-heroes rumored to have survived their “deaths”). Regardless of what happened after 1882, before that date Jesse James had already established himself as a fearless Confederate, a stellar marksman, a devoted son and brother, and a daring desperado who defied carpetbaggers, robber barons, and John Law alike. A century and a half after his birth, even the whisper of James’s name makes headlines: Witness the discovery last year in New Braunfels of a portrait purported to be of James or the 1992 treasure hunt for a safe full of cash he supposedly buried in (aha!) Waco. With a blood tie to the likes of him at stake, no wonder Betty Duke—like Granbury and Clay County loyalists—doesn’t want to be robbed of what she believes is her rightful heritage.