Missouri: The real Jesse James

THEY ARE very nice people in Middle America and tend not to say bad things about anybody. However, try as they might to put a fair spin on it, there’s no getting around the fact that the story of Jesse James, for all the mythology, is a nasty one. Far from the Robin Hood he liked to make himself out to be (and very far from the Brad Pitt imagery of Hollywood) he was a psychotic murderer, a thuggish bully, who fought to preserve slavery during and after the Civil War. He callously shot neighbours he had known all his life and was a bad bank robber, leaving his family penniless when he died.

Now, I’ve just enjoyed the lovely company of Liz Murphy, the guide at the Jesse James family home, in Kearney, Missouri, before a drive to nearby St Joseph to visit the house where he was killed. And, if I’ve come away from these shrines with such a negative impression of the man, I suspect he was even worse than that.

Still we all have a fascination with anyone prepared to live outside the law, and he was the first man in history to commit daylight bank robbery, literally. It’s also slightly unreal to see the actual gun, saddle or coffin of such a figure, a reminder of how recent US history is: Jesse’s eldest son, also called Jesse, only died in 1951. After his father’s death, the young Jesse had to start work at age 11 but later became a lawyer in Los Angeles. Write your own outlaw/lawyer joke here.

The outlaw Jesse James was shot dead in 1882 at the age of 34 by Robert Ford, who had been his house guest for months (usually it’s the overstaying guest you want to shoot). James was standing on a chair, adjusting a picture when he was shot from behind. The guide pointed out a hole in the wall at head height, claimed to be where the bullet that killed him hit, as well as a large hole in the floor when he fell.

You might suspect some myth-making going on and you might be right. At his autopsy there was no exit wound and, when his body was exhumed in 2000, forensic scientists found a bullet still inside his head (as well a .36calibre bullet from a Civil War wound in his ribs).

The house, now called The Jesse James Home Museum, stands besides the Patee House in St Joseph. Built in 1858 as a luxurious four-storey 140-room hotel, this is now also a museum. Dedicated to transport and communications, it is stuffed full of artefacts from those pioneer days, from stage coaches and gunbelts to a classic Wild West saloon where you can enjoy a sarsaparilla.

More up to date is a recreation of a classic small-town American street of the early 1900s, with a hardware store, pharmacy, photographer’s and the dental office of the father of iconic newsman Walter Cronkite. A service station provides a setting to show off a Model T Ford and other classic cars, as well as a fire engine.

In 1860 the Patee House became the headquarters and eastern terminus of the Pony Express, which carried mail on horseback to and from Sacramento, California – some 1,900 miles in an amazing ten days on average. Most riders did a 100-mile stage but Englishman ‘Pony’ Bob Haslam once covered 380miles in 36 hours and 190 with two Indian arrows in him. Again he died in 1912, working as a doorman in a hotel in Chicago, a last breath of the Wild West carried into the new century.

Every year, the Pony Express ReRide recreates the Pony Express with relays of riders taking some 2,000 letters across the continent. It still takes ten days, on blacktop and gravel roads, giving some idea of how hard those men of old rode through wild country, show-drifted Rockies and Indian attack. I was there to join them – the first non-American to do the ride since those pioneers of a new country. But that’s a story for another day.

Jesse James Farm: www.jessejames.org

St Joseph, Missouri was the last stop in the east for pioneers heading west: ‘where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended’. Named ‘Top Western Town’ in 2008 by True West Magazine, it holds 13 museums and many historic houses. www.stjomo.com/

I flew with Delta airlines via Denver and stayed at Museum Hill B&B, St Jo: www.museumhill.com

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