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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

Jesse James, Supposedly

by Clay Coppedge
Popular myth has it that Old West outlaw Jesse James was a folk hero, the Robin Hood of his day. Along with his brother Frank and cohorts like the Younger brothers, he robbed from the railroads and the banks and was a friend to the poor.

Maybe so. Maybe not.

The question people here have is this: Did the James Brothers ride through Bell County?

Probably.

Did they perpetrate any of their dastardly deeds in Bell County?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Did Frank and Jesse James check in at the Stagecoach Inn in Salado under their own names?

Maybe, but the register supposedly proving this was supposedly stolen in the 1940s. (Talk of Jesse James is invariably full of the qualifier "supposedly" and this piece is no exception.)


That the James and Younger brothers spent some time in Texas is not in dispute, and local legends of the James and Younger brothers in Bell and surrounding counties abound.

One concerns an incident in the 1870s at the old Bishop farm near Pendleton.

H.C. Farrell lives not far from the site of the old Bishop house on the east side of Cedar Creek. Farrell said last week when asked about the story that the old house is no longer there, a victim of one too many floods on Cedar Creek, but the story remains, passed down through his wife's family and recounted in Temple attorney and local historian Jim Bowmer's book "The Unknown Bell County."

The story goes that once, in the 1870s two strangers on horseback approached the old Bishop place just about supper time, seeking food and lodging. As Bill Bishop showed the two young men to the barn so they could stable their horses he commented on their "fine Missouri stock."

Bishop was told somewhat tersely that the horses were bought in Denton, thus disavowing any connection with the James' home state of Missouri.

While showing the men to the "visitors room," Bishop noticed that one of the men was missing an index finger.

This upset Mr. Bishop, who stuttered so badly when he was excited that he could not speak. He tried to communicate to his wife what he had noticed by drawing a picture of a hand in some flat dough where Mrs. Bishop was rolling bread. He then marked out the index finger.

The missing index finger is significant because Jesse James was widely believed to be missing one of his fingers. Of course, modern historians don't agree on which digit Jesse James was missing, or if he was even missing one at all, but it was accepted as fact in his day.

When the two men left the next day, they left behind some gold coins as a show of appreciation for the Bishops' hospitality.

A U.S. Marshall came by a couple of weeks later looking for some outlaws who had robbed a stage-coach near Salado, adding somewhat derisively that some people claimed it was Jesse James who had robbed that stagecoach.

From records of the James and Younger brothers' deeds, it is unlikely they robbed a stage in Salado, though some accounts have them robbing a stagecoach near Austin (or San Antonio) in April (or May) of 1874.

Another story has it that Frank and Jesse stopped at Owl Creek to bury their ill-gotten gains - supposedly from the Austin (or San Antonio) bank robbery - obviously planning to pick it up at a later date. Their nefarious activity was observed by a local man, who wisely kept himself concealed while the outlaws went about their business.

In the years that followed, the man dropped by the spot often to confirm its location. His plan was dig it up when he felt it was safe, but he died without ever attaining a sufficient feeling of safety.

Another story about Jesse James in Bell County has the outlaw stopping by one of the Cabaniss ranches near Salado for food and lodging in the 1870s. He always left a $10 gold piece as a show of appreciation (and possibly hush money) but the woman who lived there, Mrs. Maggie Nutt, wouldn't even touch the money, believing it was tainted. Instead, she left it for a kindly woman who worked for her to dispose of as she saw fit.

There are also stories of Frank James and Cole Younger coming through here after their long rider days were done.

In Lampasas, it is believed that Frank James operated a leather shop there briefly.

When the Great Frank James and Cole Younger Wild West Show - yes, there was such a thing - made a stop in Killeen Cole Younger mentioned riding through the country during his outlaw years. No one asked him to supply any specifics and he didn't volunteer any.

In the past century, nearly everything ever written or reported about Jesse James has been disputed, including his death.

Half a dozen men claimed, or their families have claimed, that Jesse faked his death and lived to a ripe old age. His grave in Missouri was dug up for the sake of DNA testing, but even those results are in dispute.

All of this puts us in mind of J. Frank Dobie, who wrote: "History has no more business interfering with legend than legend does with history, and where history is doubtful, legend is assured."

That is certainly the case when talking about Jesse James.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" >

July 3, 2006 column

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