(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: JULY/AUGUST 2007)
A hole mars the parlor wall of a small white house with green shutters at 12th and Mitchell in St. Joseph, Missouri, a quiet river town. The ragged gash passes through red floral-print wallpaper and the dingy plaster beneath, gaping just below a "God Bless Our Home" needlepoint hanging crookedly from its nail.
It would be like a lot of holes in a lot of old houses, except for a few things. For one, the hole is 125 years old and covered with a gold-framed glass pane. Plus, 20,000 people visit it each year, coming from every state and about 20 countries to this house 45 miles north of Kansas City.
I'm staring at the hole with Gary Chilcote, who runs the museum that owns the little house. He's retired from the St. Jo newspaper, but still carries a reporter's notebook in his shirt pocket and a reporter's cut-to-the-chase attitude. He says: "We still have people try to straighten that needlepoint. We remind them what happened to the last guy who tried to do that."
That guy was known as Thomas Howard when he lived here, but you'd know him as Jesse James. After breakfast on April 3, 1882, he stepped onto a chair to dust and straighten the needlepoint. Robert Ford, a recent addition to Jesse's gang, drew a revolver, pointed it at the back of Jesse's head and pulled the trigger. America's most famous outlaw fell dead on the dark wooden floor where I'm standing.
Legend says the bullet continued on, ripping a hole in the plaster. The next day, souvenir hunters showed up, and even though no one ever found the bullet, the legend persists.
Jesse James Continued
And in the case of Jesse James, legend is often all there is. Even while his gang robbed banks and trains across the central Midwest after the Civil War, lawmen only vaguely knew what he looked like. Folklore portrayed Jesse as a Robin Hood who gave farmers the money he stole from oppressive railroad barons and Yankee bankers. He left press releases about his robberies, and he has inspired shelves of books and more than 30 movies (including the upcoming The Assassination of Jesse James, starring Brad Pitt, who grew up in Missouri). But while you still can visit Jesse's haunts from Missouri to Minnesota, the truth remains elusive.
I start unraveling the story in St. Jo with Gary. His James research goes all the way back to an interview in the early 1970s with a nearly 100-year-old man who saw Jesse's body on a school field trip to the mortuary. I ask which popular image is true: Was Jesse a Confederate knight who kept harassing wealthy Yankees after the war? Or was he a murdering robber with a knack for self-promotion?
"Jesse James was not Robin Hood," Gary says, unreeling a speech he's obviously given before. "He was a cold-blooded killer. He didn't rob and give to the poor. He robbed and kept the money for himself. He learned how to kill during the war and was too lazy to be a farmer. And he wasn't a particularly good outlaw. He lived hand to mouth."
I note one strike against Crusading Knight and head 35 miles southeast to Kearney, a growing town just northeast of Kansas City's suburbs. Jesse grew up three miles outside of town on a farm his family occupied until 1959.
The restored home (the original white cabin and an addition) sits far back from the highway and the farm's museum. A low, shadowy porch brow adds to the sense of a place keeping its distance from the outside world.
In the dim kitchen, I inhale the scent of ancient wood smoke and listen to Rebecca Prestwood, an assistant historic sites director talking about this room's former mistress. Jesse's mother, Zerelda, was an imposing woman who stood 6 feet tall. After weathering Yankee atrocities (including hanging her husband in the cabin's yard), she named her daughter after a Confederate guerrilla leader. She lost an 8-year-old son and part of her arm in a violent detective raid on her house. When Jesse died, Zerelda buried him in her yard under a gravestone announcing he was murdered by a coward. She watched the headstone from her bed and sold pebbles from the grave to tourists.
I comment on Zerelda's bitterness, meaning it sympathetically. But it must sound like criticism to Rebecca. She's called Jesse a murderer in our conversation, but she's a child of the South (raised in Texas and living in Missouri). She curtly says: "You don't really know if they were good or bad. It was just events. I can't say I would've done things differently from Zerelda. I can't even say I would've done things differently from Jesse and Frank (Jesse's brother and partner in crime)."
I find less empathy in Northfield, Minnesota. The town 45 miles south of the Twin Cities has two colleges, lots of coffee shops and bookstores on its historic main street and a motto of "Cows, Colleges and Contentment."
The James gang was internationally notorious when it attacked Northfield's First National Bank on September 7, 1876. Townspeople grabbed whatever guns they could and tore into the eight gunmen. Only Jesse and Frank made it back to Missouri. Today, 100,000 people celebrate Northfield's Defeat of Jesse James Days each September. Local children gather to hear raid reenactors ask, "Who was the hero of the Northfield raid?" The kids shout, "Northfield!"
Joseph Lee Heywood is the persistent face of that heroism. He was a quiet 39-year-old bank clerk, husband, father and treasurer for both the town and Carleton College. Heywood refused to open the vault, and a robber (probably Frank James) shot him in frustration. The gang took $26.70 of the bank's $15,000, even though the vault actually was unlocked the whole time.
I enter the old bank wondering where Heywood found such resolve. Even after adjusting for the more duty-bound 19th-century mind-set, it's hard to imagine a man dying for other people's money. Then Hayes Scriven, the Northfield Historical Society's executive director, clarifies what was at stake that day.
"There was no FDIC then," Hayes says. "If a bank got robbed, that money was gone. In my opinion, if the bank had been robbed, Northfield would have folded."
We walk toward a case holding a large open book, and Hayes says, "This is our most-viewed artifact." It's a bank ledger with entries dated "Sept. 7-76" in Heywood's graceful writing. The day's entries end with an incomplete line, then resume on September 9. When a new clerk replaced Heywood at the ledger, I wonder, how long did he stare at the red blotches I see splattered across the pages-evidence of a man who died protecting his town's dreams?
It gets me thinking about the bullet hole in St. Jo, which doesn't ring as true as the ledger. The hole is now about 6 inches long and 3 inches high, chipped away by souvenir hunters long ago, before glass covered it. But the hole remains the museum's big draw. A sign outside announces "See the Bullet Hole."
During my visit, I quiz Gary about the authenticity of this hole, which, like Jesse's legacy, has grown so large and ragged over time that it's hard to say what was originally there. Smirking, Gary says a lawyer advised him to cover the hole if he couldn't prove it was real. But in Jesse's case, legend is often more valuable than truth. As Gary told the lawyer: "You'll kill the goose that laid the golden egg! Who are we to say it's not authentic?"