History

Robert Ford Killed Jesse James—Or At Least That's What They Want You to Believe

Friday A/V Club: Jesse James trutherism

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Ever since word went out that Robert Ford shot Jesse James, there have been legends that the dead man was really someone else and that the outlaw secretly survived. Alan Lomax ran into one of those tales when he toured the South with a tape recorder in 1959. Neal Morris (*), an Arkansas banjo player, told Lomax that the James brothers had often hid out at his grandfather's place ("because nobody expected them down in Arkansas, don't you see") and that grandpa had given him the scoop on the robber's alleged death. Jesse James wasn't even in that part of the country when Bob Ford supposedly shot him, Morris claims; instead, "Quantrill was the man that the Ford boys killed."

Morris presumably means the Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill, who had fought alongside James in the Civil War. Historians say Quantrill died at the end of the war, but there were rumors that he survived his reported demise too. So Morris has managed to combine two secret-history stories into one: Quantrill didn't die in 1865, and then in 1882 he died in Jesse James' place.

Morris wraps up his account by singing the ballad "Jesse James," which presents the more familiar tale of Ford blasting James in the back. "That's the story that's been told, don't you see," he says at the end, "but us people, a lot of these people in the mountains, don't believe it."

I'd call this "fake news," but the whole thing is so wonderfully strange that I'd like to hold out a tiny smidge of hope that against all odds it's true:

In 1948, an Oklahoma man called J. Frank Dalton claimed that he was really Jesse James and that the fellow killed by Robert Ford had been a Pinkerton named Charles Bigelow. You can read all about that here. The body of the man shot by Robert Ford was exhumed for DNA tests in 1995; you can read about that here. To listen to Woody Guthrie turning that "Jesse James" ballad into a song about Jesus, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

(* It's spelled "Neal" on the Association for Cultural Equity's online archive of the Lomax recordings. When Atlantic Records released a selection of those tapes as an anthology called The Sounds of the South, they spelled it "Neil." I have no idea how Mr. Morris himself spelled it, or if he cared.)

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  1. Everyone knows that Jesse James is in Patagonia right now with that Butch kid, Cass Sunstein. and the real Dread Pirate Roberts.

    1. I saw that on the Travel channel this weekend. Butch Cassidy wrote a book about his life long after he was supposed to have died in South America, with details “only he” could have known. And Billy the Kid lived into his 90s.

  2. What does this post have to do with Donald Trump?

    1. He’s sending Sessions after Jesse James?

  3. It’s worth noting that the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an excellent movie.

    1. I just came here to say exactly this.

      When I saw the movie I thought it was a little dark and probably not accurate… but when I read the actual history of Jesse James, it may be somewhat truthful in its portrayal.

      1. The book is much better…one of my favorite novels.

        I thought Pitt was miscast (again) in the film but Casey Affleck was superb as Robert Ford.

        1. I’m not sure if Pitt was miscast here, but I don’t really have a strong opinion.

          Yes, Casey Affleck was excellent.

    2. It’s got nothing on The Long Riders. Actual brothers playing the James (Keach), Younger (Carradine), Miller (Quaid) and Ford (Guest) brothers.

      1. Another great film with the slo-mo running of the gauntlet.

        The horses sound like alien creatures and the slugs hitting the bodies: vvvvvvvrrRoooop! *squib bursts*

    3. Except it was shot in Canada, which looks nothing like Missouri

      1. Odd, given that the area haunted by James is still very rural to this day*. Then again, most of that land has been converted into cow pasture and farmland today, which wouldn’t accurately depict the landscape of the time. The Ozarks would have been a sufficient local given the similar plant life. Plus, ol’ Pitt was born and raised in the Ozarks…don’t know why that’s relevant.

        *My father was raised in Jesse James’ hometown before moving to parts unknown. I’ve been there many times.

  4. Jesse James is a tight end for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    1. Damn, I thought all their players still had Nazi like names, like Rothlessburgermeisterburger and Heimz Himler Hilterburgermeister.

  5. It’s the they that should be italicized, if you ask me.

  6. GOOD OLD BOY #1: “Hey, guys, the folklorist is coming again, what shall we tell him this time?”

    GOOD OLD BOY #2: “Tell him Jesse James hid out in Arkansas with the Siamese Twins.”

    GOOD OLD BOY #3: “We already told that one, how about I say my grandpappy Killed the Lindbergh baby?”

    GOOD OLD BOY #1: “But your grandpappy *did* kill the Lindbergh baby.”

    GOOD OLD BOY #3: “Sure, but coming from a crazy old coot like me it will seem made up.”

    GOOD OLD BOY #2: “Good thinking, because nobody’s gonna believe what a bunch of BS artists like us tell that gullible SOB.”

  7. That’s one hella mustache. I need to get me one of those.

    1. You know who else had a moustache people imitated?

    2. You know who else had a memorable mustache?

      1. Rollie Fingers?

  8. It was actually Dolores.

  9. (* It’s spelled “Neal” on the Association for Cultural Equity’s online archive of the Lomax recordings. When Atlantic Records released a selection of those tapes as an anthology called The Sounds of the South, they spelled it “Neil.” I have no idea how Mr. Morris himself spelled it, or if he cared.)

    Hey, if it works for [J.] Neal/Neil Schulman….

    1. …or [A.] John Kiehl/Keel, or Boris Dzula/Julla….

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