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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

Jesse James
Miss Shirley’s Story

by C. F. Eckhardt

(Author’s note: When I first collected this story, back in the early 1970s, Jesse James’ grave had not been opened. The opening of that grave and the evidence found in it, including the mitochondrial DNA evidence but not limited to that alone, has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the remains therein are those of Jesse Woodson James and no one else.)

I met the lady I must call ‘Miss Shirley’ once and once only. It was at the home of one of her relatives in the small Collin County town of Wylie. She was, at the time, well on the shady side of 90. My ostensible reason for meeting with her was to gather her memories of my grandfather, Dr. George F. A. Eckhardt, DDS, who was for a short time in 1904-05 the town’s only dentist—and its mayor. My real reason was to hear a story she had to tell about an entirely different sort of man—a man named Jesse James.

“My maiden name was Shirley, young man,” she told me, and required me to promise I’d not publish anything she told me until after her death, and never reveal her given or married names. “If you know anything at all about the Jameses and Youngers, that name will mean something to you. My second cousin was Myra Bell Shirley. Her middle name was spelled B-E-L-L, not B-E-L-L-E. It’s a family name from way back. She had a woods colt and she claimed Cole Younger fathered the child. She named the girl Pearl Younger after him. I must say none of the family believed Cole Younger fathered that child. He was a handsome man. Myra Bell was never pretty, and after she had the smallpox her face was badly scarred. (Note: There is apparently no written evidence to indicate Belle Starr ever had smallpox. However, a close examination of photos of her as an adult indicate her face was heavily scarred by something, whether smallpox or serious acne it is impossible to tell.)

“Of course we were never allowed to discuss her after her error, but of course we did, among ourselves. Besides, one could hardly miss all the disturbance she caused, both in Texas and up in what’s now Oklahoma. Most of the family was very pleased when she dropped the name Shirley altogether and started using the names of the men she lived with. She used that Reed man’s name for a while until she took up with that Indian, Starr. I don’t know that she ever used that other Indian’s name, though I understand she’s supposed to have married him. (Belle Starr’s husbands were James Reed, who fathered her son Edward, Sam Starr, a Cherokee, and Jim July, a Creek. Edgar Watson partisans to the contrary, Jim July very probably was her killer.)

Now, I’m not real sure what all I really remember about the Jameses and the Youngers from all that long ago. I was just a little girl, only about three, when they stopped coming to our farm at Scyene. I don’t know how much I really remember and how much I remember because it was told to me so many times. The only one of the men I really recall well was Cole Younger. He was a big man, bigger than either of the Jameses, very handsome, and far friendlier. I used to sit on his lap, so they tell me. He had a watch with a hunting case, the kind they don’t make any more. It was the kind with the lid over the face. It could be opened by pushing on the stem. The lid would fly open on a spring. Cole Younger used to take the smaller children on his lap—I was one of them—and then hold the watch in front of his face. He would blow on it and it would open. Then he would tell the child ‘Blow my watch open. The child would blow and blow, but the watch wouldn’t open. He would tell the child ‘You’re not holding your mouth right.’ The faces we would make trying to blow that watch open! My sisters told me about it, so I’m not sure whether I really recall it or I just remember it because it was told to me so often.

“I am sure of one thing, though. I met with Jesse James and talked to him for two hours in the fall of 1921 in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

“My father had two wives and two sets of children. His first wife died—she was from Arkansas—and his second wife, my mother, outlived him two years. My half-brothers and half-sisters lived with us for a good many years. I was very close to them. My own mother had no close kin, so I was very close to my father’s first wife’s family. In 1921 my half-sister’s aunt died in Fort Smith. I was widowed by then, as was my only surviving half-sister. I lost my first husband in the Great War.

“I remember we got the news by telegram. A boy rode a motorcycle all the way out from Dallas to our farm to deliver it. The telegram had a black border around it. That way you knew it was a death message.

“My brother had an Oakland car, but in those days you couldn’t drive very far, especially not if it rained. You could barely drive in Arkansas at all, even if the weather was dry. I was in Arkansas by car in 1947 and they still didn’t have any decent roads.

“Of course you couldn’t fly. Nobody in his right mind got into an airplane in those days. One crashed not far from our farm in 1919. It was made of wood and canvas and wire. It burned up in just a minute, they said, and burned up the man in it as well.

“My half-sister and I had to go to Fort Smith on the train, and that took most of two days. We had to go to Dallas to get the train. My brother took us to the train in his car. From Dallas we had to go to Texarkana, and there we changed trains to go to Fort Smith. The train to Texarkana was a through train and it had Pullman, so we had a compartment to Texarkana. The train to Fort Smith was a local and all it had was chair cars. It stopped at every crossroads and pig farm in western Arkansas, and it took all day to get to Fort Smith.

“Funerals nowadays aren’t what they were then, at all. We stayed nearly a week in Fort Smith, meeting relatives we hadn’t seen in years and weren’t likely to see again for years. We caught up on all the family doings, including—of course—those things you didn’t put in letters. There was a lot of oldfashioned—and newfangled—sinning going on in those days, just like now, but we didn’t tell the whole world about it like they do these days. We kept a lot of things in the family, but we wanted to know about them.

The third day we were there my half-sister and I went shopping in Fort Smith. I didn’t really want to go shopping, but I went with her. We stayed out very late, I thought, and just as the stores were closing we went in a small drygoods store on a side street. There was a very old man there, not very tall, nearly bald, and very short-sighted—at lease he wore thick glasses. He was very neat and dapper in his dress. I remember he was wearing kid gloves, a full suit with a vest, an oldfashioned high collar with a tie, and gray spats over his shoes. He was a regular dandy. My half-sister looked around the shop to be sure there was no one there but us, and then she told him our names and said ‘Cousin Jesse?’

“He looked at us very sharp, and then he said ‘Go out, go around the block, and come to the back door while I close up.’ We did, and when we got in he introduced himself by his assumed name and then told me “I am your cousin, Jesse James.’

“My sister talked to him about fifteen minutes, telling him about the family in Texas. Then he told me the story of how he came to be alive and living in Arkansas when he was supposed to have been dead for nearly forty years. He said the Ford boys, who were some sort of distant kin, were trying to get into the gang so they could turn him in to the Pinkertons for the reward. He said no one ever believed the Fords has the sand to shoot anyone, even in the back.

The man killed in Missouri was a James, all right, but he wasn’t Jesse. He was a cousin who bore a strong resemblance to Jesse. The Fords didn’t know Jesse by sight, though they were kin some way. When the man was introduced to them as Jesse James they didn’t know the difference.

The plan was for Jesse to go away on a ‘business trip’ as Mr. Howard, which was the name he was living under then. This man would return in his place. He had been rubbing his hands with coal oil to cause a rash, and he wore gloves over the rash. Jesse always wore gloves because he was missing a finger. The Fords would then turn the man in as Jesse, and he would prove he wasn’t by taking his gloves off and showing that he had all his fingers. The Pinkertons would have to turn him loose. After a while he would go away ‘on a business trip’ an the real Jesse would return. Since ‘Mr. Howard’ had already proved he wasn’t Jesse James, the Pinkertons wouldn’t be able to accuse him again. The rash was the man’s reason for wearing gloves. Gentlemen didn’t go around showing off their ailments to the world then.

“Of course, that wasn’t what happened. Bob Ford shot the man and killed him, right there in the little house they were living in. I don’t know anything about that business about him supposedly turning his back to straighten a picture of a racehorse and being shot from behind. I doubt it. Jesse’s wife was a good Baptist. I doubt she’d have permitted a picture of a racehorse in her house. (This bit of legend comes from the play “The Outlaws Of Missouri”, also titled “Missouri Legend,” by Elizabeth B. Ginty. It’s possible it’s pure stage business.)

“They had to change plans in a hurry. Zee—that’s Zerelda Mims James, Jesse’s wife—identified the man as her husband. They brought old Mrs. Samuel down from the farm at Centerville and she did, too. They brought in someone else, a man who hadn’t seen Jesse in years, and I suppose he went along, anyway he agreed the dead man was Jesse. They took the body up to the farm and buried the man there under Jesse’s name.

“The next plan was for Jesse to hide out for a couple of years, change his looks quite a bit, and then come back under a different name. He and Zee would ‘meet,’ he would court her, and they would marry. It didn’t work because Jesse said the Pinkertons knew all along the man who was killed as Mr. Howard wasn’t Jesse. They kept a close watch on Zee and the children. Except for a few moments before the funeral he was never able to speak to his wife again. I don’t think his children were ever told he was alive, for fear that they would accidentally say something and give him away.

He said he went West for a while and down to Central America, and he made quite a bit of money there. Sometime between 1890 and 1900 he came back to the States and settled on a large farm in northern Georgia. He farmed until about 1910, when he decided he was getting too old to farm. He sold the farm at a good price and moved to Arkansas, and eventually he bought the drygoods store.

“He said he had made his peace with the Lord and repented his sins, but that he would not give Billy Pinkerton the satisfaction of catching him if he had to die without anyone but a few members of his family knowing who and where he was. He really hated Billy Pinkerton, and he said Billy Pinkerton really hated him.” (One of the Pinkerton agents Jesse James killed was a close personal friend of William Pinkerton. Whether or not the Pinkerton Agency did, in fact, maintain surveillance on Jesse’s family after Jesse’s death and the surrender of Frank James is unknown.)

I asked Miss Shirley if she had any reason to suspect that the man might have been an imposter. “I don’t think so,” she said. “He knew an awful lot. My half-sister was considerably older than I was and she knew Jesse James well when she was a child. She believed he was Jesse James, and so do I.”

I asked if she thought Jesse lived very long after that. “I don’t know,” she said, “but I doubt it. I never knew when he died, just that he did. I heard about 1935 that he was dead and had been dead a while. He appeared somewhat frail when I met with him in 1921.”

Now—do I believe she talked to Jesse James in Fort Smith, Arkansas in 1921? I believe she believed she talked to Jesse James in Fort Smith in 1921, and I believe she felt she had good reason to believe so. Obviously the man was not Jesse James, but he had to have been a member of the James-Younger gang in the 1870s and 1880s, He was well acquainted with both Jesse and the Shirley family. As Miss Shirley put it, “he knew too much not to be Jesse.”

Is it possible America’s best-known outlaw lies buried under an assumed name in Fort Smith, Arkansas? From what we now know, the answer is no. But—if he wasn’t Jesse, who was he?

Since Miss Shirley adamantly refused to tell me the name the man used in Fort Smith, or the name and location of the store, I have no way to check the story. Let it stand as it is.

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

October 8 , 2007 column

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