Following Jesse James | Midwest Living

Following Jesse James

At historic sites in Missouri and Minnesota, visitors discover that America's most famous outlaw still arouses plenty of passion.

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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.

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