Saga of gun used to kill Jesse James takes new twist

March 30, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

The pistol used to kill outlaw Jesse James in 1882 is scheduled for auction next month in England. But a Carroll County man says the revolver was stolen 25 years ago from his late father -- and he wants it back.

Henry A. Lingenfelder of Manchester said his eyes popped yesterday when he read in The Sun that the Smith & Wesson .44-caliber revolver, Serial No. 3766, was being offered for sale by an anonymous American vendor through Wallis & Wallis of Lewes, Sussex, and is expected to fetch at least $150,000.

"I memorized that serial number years ago. It was imprinted on my brain since dad had that pistol years ago. It's one of those things you remember, and when I read it I knew immediately that was it, no doubt. I want to find who stole it," said Mr. Lingenfelder, 59, a former director of the Baltimore Maritime Museum.

The pistol -- along with several other firearms and a watch that once belonged to Wild Bill Hickok -- was stolen in 1968 from a Jesse James museum in Sullivan, Mo. Mr. Lingenfelder's father, the late Henry G. Lingenfelder of Towson, had lent the revolver for exhibition.

Mr. Lingenfelder said he called Maryland State Police yesterday, and then the British Embassy in Washington, which directed him to the Major Fraud Unit of Scotland Yard. He said he has called his lawyer and is drafting a letter to the British police asking them to halt the sale pending investigation.

Roy Butler, senior partner of Wallis & Wallis, did not return a reporter's phone call yesterday.

Mr. Lingenfelder said his only information about the pistol since the theft was a mysterious telephone call three years ago.

"It was a man with a British accent who said the gun was in England and [asked] would I contest the ownership. I said, 'You're darn right, I would.' He hung up. I never heard anything else until today," he said.

Mr. Lingenfelder said his father lent the pistol in 1967 to Jesse James biographer Carl W. Breihan of St. Louis, for display at a museum being set up in Sullivan, Mo.

Mr. Breihan had concluded that the pistol was indeed the one Bob Ford, a member of the James gang, used to shoot the outlaw in the back of the head in St. Joseph, Mo. on April 3, `` 1882.

Mr. Breihan, 77, said yesterday that he still believes the burglary, "on a bad, stormy night" in the spring of 1968, was an inside job. He had lent the museum several pistols and the Hickok watch. "I haven't seen them since," he said.

No one was ever arrested and until now, none of the loot has surfaced. The museum closed after a highway was rerouted and cut off access to it, Mr. Breihan said.

Although Mr. Lingenfelder is contesting ownership of the revolver, he said the insurance company paid his father's claim for it. "It was the only gun in the museum that was insured," he said, but he could not remember the name of the insurance company.

In a 1957 interview, Henry G. Lingenfelder, who collected Smith & Wesson revolvers, said he had bought the pistol five years earlier from the estate of E. Stanley Gary.

The gun was brought to Baltimore in 1904 by Corydon F. Craig, son of the jailer in St. Joseph, where Bob Ford and his brother Charley -- who was present and helped plan the killing -- were held during their trial.

The Fords were convicted of the murder and sentenced to hang. A few days later, however, Gov. T. T. Crittenden pardoned them. Upon his release, Bob Ford gave the pistol to Mr. Craig, the jailer, in appreciation for the kind treatment he and his brother had received.

Mr. Gary bought the gun with Mr. Craig's affidavit attesting to its provenance. He later sent the pistol to Smith & Wesson, where it was engraved, "Bob Ford killed Jesse James with this revolver at St. Joseph, Mo. 1882."

The same engraving is described on the pistol up for auction in England.

The elder Mr. Lingenfelder obtained the documents with the gun, and his son was busy yesterday searching for them among his mother's papers.

In seeking further authentication, the elder Mr. Lingenfelder corresponded with Mr. Breihan, who was in the final stages of his biography, "The Complete and Authentic Life of Jesse James."

Until then, Mr. Breihan had accepted contemporary accounts that Bob Ford had shot James with an ivory-handled Colt .45-caliber Peacemaker, one of the most popular weapons of the time.

Bob Ford's inquest testimony included the statement, "I saw that all was done for with Jesse when I saw that heavy .44 Smith and Wesson slug hit him in the head."

But skeptics and adherents to the Colt theory surmised that Mr. Ford might have meant that he used Smith & Wesson ammunition in a Colt revolver.

Mr. Breihan eventually changed his manuscript and accepted the Lingenfelder pistol as genuine when he found in Charley Ford's testimony this statement: "Bob had a Smith and Wesson revolver and it was easier for him to get it out of his pocket, so he got in the first shot."

According to The Sun's account at the time, the brothers had plotted the assassination for several months.

April 3, 1882, was a hot day, and after breakfast, Jesse James stripped off his coat and vest and then his pistols, so the passers-by wouldn't see them as he moved about the house he had rented for his family under the alias Thomas Howard. The Ford brothers shared a rear room.

As he stood on a chair to dust some pictures, the Fords stepped between James and his guns, and drew their pistols. Bob Ford moved to within a few feet of the outlaw and fired a shot into the back of his head. The brothers fled from the house as Mrs. James rushed into the room.

This shooting completed Jesse James' assumption into the pantheon of American folk legends. It also gave rise to the popular Ballad of Jesse James, which says of Bob Ford, "It was that dirty little coward, that shot Mr. Howard, that laid poor Jesse in his grave."

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