(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.