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.)
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.)
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
“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
“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
“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.
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.)
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.
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
October 8 , 2007 column