Science, speculation collide at gunman's grave

July 18, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

KEARNEY, Mo. -- If an outlaw has any dignity, Jesse James might have died of a lack of it -- were he not so dead already.

On a hilly Missouri burial ground, a group of scientists -- Yankee scientists at that -- dug into the sunbaked earth yesterday to exhume the Western legend's bones to determine how he died and if the remains are really his. More than 113 years after the death of the post-Civil War era's most prolific train robber, a team of historical sleuths had come to pare away the myth surrounding his 1882 killing by fellow gang member Robert Ford.

The forensic experts who dug up his worn metal coffin were alien enough. But their presence, on the first day of a painstaking examination process expected to take months, brought more interlopers. There were stone-faced strangers from Oklahoma and Texas -- all insistent, with well-rehearsed outrage, that they are James' descendants. There were prying reporters and pesky T-shirt sales agents. And in the bitterest affront, there were blue-uniformed Pinkerton men roving around the grave -- hirelings from the same hated company whose operatives hunted James more than a century ago, now assigned to guard his body.

"If you listen close, you'll probably hear those bones turning over," said Emmett Hoctor, an amateur historian from Nebraska, one of more than 200 people who stood by the James family plot at Mount Olivette Cemetery to watch the day-long disinterment .

The exhumation was a laborious process, starting with a chugging Bobcat loader that dug carefully into the earth over James' grave to make sure that soil subsidence did not catapult his mother's coffin over on his. Then came the scientists, who poked into the pit with shovels until they reached the coffin -- so decomposed with age that the retrieval of the bones may not be done for several more days.

"They sure bury them deep in Missouri, especially the outlaws," said James E. Starrs, the project's white-bearded leader. Mr. Starrs was among the experts who testified during a Baltimore hearing over whether to exhume the body of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. The request was rejected.

The man they came to unearth lived 34 hard years, saw his father hanged by enemy Union troops and rode with Confederate guerrillas from Texas to Kansas. After the Civil War, he turned to robbery, leading the James-Younger gang, a criminal band said to have emptied nine banks and eight trains and killed as many as 32 people -- none in cold blood, his partisans insist. On April 3, 1882, James reportedly was shot fatally in the back of the head by Ford. His original gravestone read: "Killed by a coward whose name isn't worthy to appear here."

Despite his violent lifeline, James is practically a patron saint in Kearney -- where his family farm now stands as a museum -- and in the small towns that range around the hills of western Missouri. Myths die hard here, especially when they bring a little attention to people whose lives would otherwise pass with anonymity.

"Jesse James is a part of my family's history," said Doris Brown, who insists, like so many, that the outlaw stopped by her family's homestead one night for supper. "My grandmother wouldn't tell a fib."

"Everyone wants a piece of Jesse James because he's a common man's hero. And in an age when people are angry, here was a man whose attitude of rebellion fits in perfectly," said Mr. Starrs, who has headed up exhumations of the victims of alleged Colorado cannibal Alfred Packer and the assassin of Louisiana political legend Huey Long.

For James' known descendants, the dig raised a ray of hope that they might finally have the scientific ammunition to debunk impostors who have plagued family gatherings and clouded bloodlines for generations. As part of the sleuthing, three known James descendants have volunteered to provide genetic material to the forensic scientists to provide a definitive DNA link to the bank robber's bones.

"I'd give up a gallon of my blood if it would silence these people, once and for all," said Oklahoma City defense lawyer Robert Jackson, a Jesse James descendant who went to court recently to win permission for the exhumation.

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