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THIS AND THAT: Jesse James, where have they laid you?

September 1, 2018

Will the real Jesse James please stand up?

Do you recall the old TV game show “To Tell the Truth”? Three contestants claimed to be someone with an unusual job or background, but only one was telling the truth. A panel of celebrities asked questions of the three to deduce who was actually the person in question.

In our recent trip to Texas, we learned that Jesse James could have been a contestant.

Jesse was a famous bank robber in middle America following the Civil War. He and brother Frank were part of the James-Younger gang who made a living by robbing stagecoaches, banks and trains in Missouri, Texas, Iowa and other nearby states. They left a trail of dead bodies and fear throughout the countryside in the latter part of the 19th century.

A newcomer to the gang, Robert Ford, shot Jesse in the back of the head for the reward money being offered. According to historians, Jesse was buried on family property and was later reinterred in Kearney, Missouri. Or was he?

When my wife and I were looking to take a day trip out in the country from Fort Worth, Texas, the town of Granbury was suggested. About 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth, Granbury is the county seat of Hood County. Its historic downtown is a square with shops on four sides facing a courthouse in the center of the block.

Wading through a Texas travel book, Mary Lou found Granbury and read about its amenities when she came to the line that noted the grave of Jesse James is in the local cemetery. Interesting, we thought.

During the day we toured downtown Granbury, visited nearby Glen Rose and Dinosaur Valley State Park and ate a Texas-grilled steak at Mesquite Pit where I also partook of the homemade banana pudding (don’t skip that if you visit the restaurant).

As we left Granbury for the big city, Mary Lou recalled the line about the grave of Jesse James. We immediately stopped, and she researched its location. After all, if we were that close to such a notable place, how could we miss visiting it?

The directions told us to go back through town the Granbury Cemetery. We parked on the street, walked past a fence and found ourselves among the headstones. Then we noticed a sign pointing the way. “Jesse James’ Grave” it read, and we followed where the arrow pointed.

Not many steps away was the granite marker. “Jesse Woodson James Sept. 5, 1847 Aug. 15, 1951.”

From childhood memories, I brought back the recollection of Jesse James having been shot to death from behind while adjusting a picture over the mantel in his home. But the Jesse from that story wasn’t 103 years old. What was going on?

We snapped a couple of pictures of the grave. The headstone had a Confederate flag etched into it, and passersby had placed a few artificial flowers, several stones, numerous pennies and even a few bullets on the marker. But was Jesse James really 103 when he died?

After returning to Aiken, I used the internet to investigate. Most historians believe, as I did, that Jesse was gunned down in Missouri on April 3, 1882. But a man known as John Frank Dalton claimed in 1948 that he was the real Jesse James and that another person had been killed on that fateful day back in Missouri.

Dalton – claiming to be Jesse James – died and was buried in the Granbury Cemetery in 1951. The headstone claims only one name – Jesse Woodson James.

If this were “To Tell the Truth,” perhaps two people would have gotten out of their seats when the announcer said, “Will the real Jesse James please stand up.”

Jeff Wallace is a retired editor of the Aiken Standard.

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