More Options

Jesse James’s ‘Haunts’: Legends, History, and Forensic Science

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 40.4, July/August 2016

An American embodiment of the Robin Hood legend, notorious outlaw Jesse James, with his older brother Frank, rode boldly into U.S. history in the wake of the Civil War, during which the two had trained for a career of daring bank and train holdups. Born in Missouri, they nevertheless had many connections to Kentucky, and it was these the editor of The Kentucky Encyclopedia (Kleber 1992) asked me to investigate—with special attention to the 1868 robbery of the bank at Russellville to determine if it was actually perpetrated by the James gang. I completed that assignment (Nickell 1992), as well as a longer, historical-journal article (Nickell 1993a), and produced other related writings (Nickell 1993b; 1999). The following is a summary that also looks into Jesse James ghost-lore and other legends.


The James boys, Frank (1843–1915) and Jesse (1847–1882), were born and reared in Missouri, the sons of Robert Sallee James (1818–1850) and Zerelda Cole James (1825–1911). Beginning in 1839, Robert attended the Baptist institution Georgetown College (where I once taught and examined the original records).

Zerelda’s grandfather, Richard Cole, 
Jr., operated a stagecoach inn near Midway, Kentucky. I visited it and the home of Zerelda’s guardian, Judge James Lindsay, where the couple was married on December 28, 1841. They then moved to Missouri. Following the births of Frank and Jesse, they had one more child, Susan Lavinia, born in 1849 (Nickell 1993a, 218–220). After Robert S. James died during the California gold rush, his widow remarried but was soon widowed again, and finally, in 1856, she wed Dr. Reuben Samuel, by whom she had four more children.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Frank James joined a Confederate guerilla band, and his fifteen-year-old kid brother did likewise two years later. Jesse thus embarked on a course of outlawry that would end only with his violent death in 1882.

Figure 1. The Long Bank in Russellville, Kentucky, was robbed in 1868. Was it by the Jesse James Gang as legend holds? (Photograph by Joe Nickell.)

The James Gang

After the war, the so-called James Gang—largely a postwar band of former Quantrill’s Raiders, originally led by Cole Younger—was held responsible for numerous robberies in several states. These included, in Kentucky, a pair of stagecoaches near Mammoth Cave and banks in Columbia and Russellville (Nickell 1993a; Beamis and Pullen n.d., 10–19, 45, 56–60).

The Long Bank (owned by Nimrod Long) in Russellville (Figure 1) was the scene of a “daring” robbery on the afternoon of Friday, March 20, 1868. Days before, a man using the apparent alias of “Thomas Coleman” attempted to sell a $500 bond, but it was suspected of being counterfeit. On the Wednesday before the robbery, he tried again with a $100 treasury note, which was also declined. He was accompanied by a man who appeared to be observing the layout of the bank. Finally, on March 20, “Coleman” and two others arrived at the bank from different directions, hitched their horses, and walked inside. While they attempted to cash a $50 counterfeit note, two other riders came up and waited outside.

The robbery began when Coleman drew his gun, but owner Long sprang toward a rear door, receiving a bullet-grazed scalp in return. (A bullet hole was left in the bank’s wall where I examined it during my visit to the historic building.) Nevertheless, Long escaped and ran to the street where the two sentries were now firing their Spencer repeating rifles at anyone who approached. The three robbers ran outside carrying saddlebags filled with greenbacks and silver and gold coins. The band then fled out of town and, although citizens soon pursued them, vanished in the woods (Nickell 1993a, 222–224). Were the bank robbers indeed the James Gang?

To answer this question, I approached it from several angles. One strategy was to assess the perpetrators’ modus operandi (or M.O., “method of operation” [Nickell and Fischer 1999]) for which I had had special training (Nickell 2008). I also used additional clues, such as aliases, descriptions, and other factors. It is necessary, however, first to recognize that the group—at this time really the Younger-James gang—was a loosely constituted band whose membership could vary from robbery to robbery.

In fact, both of the James brothers had an alibi for the Russellville robbery: they were holed up in Chaplin, Nelson County, Kentucky, recovering from gunshot wounds. But the modus operandi of the crime was exactly that used and developed by the Younger Gang: “genteelly dressed” men arriving in town posing as cattle buyers or the like, then converging on the bank, with half going inside and the rest keeping guard with Spencer rifles—the two groups able to communicate with each other through a man inside the doorway. The desperadoes then fled on fast horses, splitting up to take preplanned routes, and disappeared. The 1872 Columbia bank robbery, for example, followed the same M.O., and the robbers escaped into Nelson County, a known James sanctuary (Nickell 1993a, 225–232).

Despite the alibi of the James brothers, Louisville detective D.G. Bligh, who investigated the case, believed they were nevertheless involved. Moreover, two of the actual robbers were identified: One, having a “defect in one eye,” was George Shepherd, a Chaplin resident and compatriot of the James brothers; so was the other, George’s cousin Oliver Shepherd, who had been away from home at the time of the robbery and who signaled his guilt by resisting arrest. Oliver was shot to death, and George was sent to prison for his role. The alias used by the leader of the band, “Thomas Coleman” (as given in the legal indictment against the five holdup men, probably having been taken from a hotel register), almost surely identifies Thomas Coleman “Cole” Younger (1844–1916), the original leader of the “James Gang” (Nickell 1993a, 228–232; “Russellville” 1868; Settle 1977, 30–44).

Riding into Legend

Although only five men robbed the bank in Russellville, popular writers would extend the number to eight or even a dozen and spur them into town at a gallop with guns blazing. Soon, the legend grew that the robbery was that of the James brothers.

Jesse’s cowardly murder by Bob Ford in 1882 helped make him the focus of later legends. Pistols, often with his name carved thereon, proliferated. So did photographs “said to be” of the outlaws or their family members (Nickell 1994, 78). Among other artifacts, there are no fewer than three gold watches alleged to have fallen from dead Jesse’s pocket.

In the legends, the James Gang’s adventures multiplied. For example, Jesse was said to have robbed a bank in West Virginia in 1875 (more on this presently). Again, he has been seriously credited with another Kentucky heist—that of a Muhlenberg County coal mine office—although Jesse, his wife “Zee,” and their two children were in Kansas City at that time, while Frank was in Texas (Nickell 1993a, 231, 236).

The James brothers’ alleged hideouts were also ubiquitous. Said one writer, there were a reputed “thousand places where Frank James and Jesse James had been seen and it wasn’t only Kentucky; it extended all the way to Florida, New York” (qtd. in Watson 1971, 75).

The Impostors

As artifacts and tales about Jesse James proliferated, so did the persons who—following his death on April 3, 1882—claimed to be the real, escaped-from-death outlaw, some seventeen by one count (Nickell 1993b).

Jesse had been living as “Thomas Howard” with his wife and children in St. Joseph, Missouri. On that fateful day, young Bob Ford and his brother Charles—new members of the James Gang—were at the home. Bob Ford intended to kill Jesse for the reward money offered by Missouri Governor Crittenden, so when the unarmed notorious outlaw and respectable family man stepped up on a chair to dust a picture, Ford quickly drew his pistol and shot Jesse in the back of the head, killing him instantly. The act inspired a ditty: “. . . Oh, the dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard! And they laid Jesse James in his grave.”

Almost immediately, however, came doubt that the dead man really was Jesse James. This was despite a positive identification by a coroner’s jury—relying on people with personal knowledge of his features and on distinctive identifying wounds (including a pair of scars on his right chest and a missing left middle fingertip). Scarcely had a year passed when a Missouri farmer claimed he had seen Jesse James. Other sightings followed, not unlike those of Elvis Presley in more recent times. Eventually, men claiming to be the “real” Jesse came forward (Nickell 1993a, 234–235). As American folklorist Richard M. Dorson (1959, 243) observed: “In the tradition of the Returning Hero, who reappears after his alleged death to defend his people in time of crisis, ancient warriors have announced that Jesse James lives in their emaciated frames.”

The last—and best known—Jesse James claimant was one J. Frank Dalton. I recall him on a television program when I was a boy. I have an old book that was used to promote Dalton’s claim—first made on May 19, 1948—that he was James; the book (Hall and Whitten 1948) was published in that year. According to Dalton—then said to be nearly 101 years old—the man killed as Jesse was Charley Bigelow, a former member of the James Gang. Jesse’s wife acted her part in the conspiracy, the book says, crying out, “They have killed my husband.”

Figure 2. The author at the site of Jesse James’s grave in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri, where his remains were exhumed in 1995. (Author’s photo.)

Investigating ‘Jesse’

This is all fantasy and conspiracy nonsense of course, aimed at the credulous. I compared some of Dalton’s “memories” (as related by the authors of his story in 1948) and found them absurd. For example, except for the date of the Russellville bank robbery, he gets almost nothing else correct, referring to the town as “Russell” and describing what had been a carefully planned act as a wild raid: “A group of mounted men, armed with revolvers and bowie knives, dashed through the streets of Russell, shouting and yelling. They rode up to the front of the bank and two lines of men were placed across the street to keep anyone from interfering.” Then the James brothers went inside the bank, where Frank trained his pistol on the cashier while Jesse “took the money from the safe” (Hall and Whitten 1948, 19).

Other evidence discredits Dalton. Whereas writers cite his “damaged fingertip” (“J. Frank Dalton” 2015) and specifically the “mutilated tip on the left hand index finger” (Taylor 2014) as supposed proof that he was Jesse James—in fact, as we have already seen—the actual digit in question was Jesse’s left middle finger, and its tip was missing (Settle 1977, 117–118). Then there is the handwriting. Forensic document examiner Duane Dillon determined that Dalton’s writing characteristics were distinctly different from James’s (Starrs 2005, 185).

As a historical document consultant (see Nickell 2009) and author of textbooks on handwriting (Nickell 1990; 1996), I independently compared Dalton’s “Jesse James” signature (on the cover of the 1948 book by Hall and Whitten) with known signatures of James (Hamilton 1979, 89, 91).

In contrast to the real Jesse’s “Jesse W James” and “JWJames,” Dalton omits the middle initial, writes the first name above the last, fails to connect the first J with the following e and the second J with the following a, uses an entirely different form for the three s characters, adds an uncharacteristic final stroke to the last s, and more. The real James did not pen the words “Jesse James” written by J. Frank Dalton.

I also ran down two stories of old men in my hometown area who thought they had encountered Jesse James in 1875, about the time he supposedly robbed a West Virginia bank (mentioned earlier); one was in Morgan and the other in Elliot County, Kentucky. In 1950, the latter (then in his nineties) reportedly visited J. Frank Dalton in Missouri and declared, “He is Jesse James” (Nickell 1999). Dalton died the following year. His death left for many the question: Who is buried in Jesse James’s grave?

Identifying Jesse James

That question has since been answered by James E. Starrs, a professor of law and forensic science at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He headed the James identification project. (He and I were fellow speakers in 1998 at a forensic conference in Nova Scotia where we swapped investigative stories over lunch.) In July 1995, the project exhumed the remains from the grave in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri (having in 1902 been transferred there from Jesse’s initial burial in his mother’s front yard). (See Figure 2.)

The skeletal remains yielded evidence consistent with being those of Jesse James. For example, an anthropological analysis showed the remains to fit his known profile as to sex, age, height, and racial typing. A spent bullet was found amid fragments of the right ribs where Jesse was known to have carried an unremoved bullet. The skull—carefully reconstructed—yielded evidence of a single entrance wound behind the site of the right ear. Found later were traces of the lead from a bullet’s passage on a fragment of an occipital bone. Many of the teeth had gold fillings and evidence of tobacco chewing (nicotine staining and corrosive influence)—both expected from known facts of the outlaw’s life (Starrs 2005, 181–185).

The definitive evidence came from mitochondrial DNA (mt DNA), i.e., genetic material passed from mother to child. A DNA specimen from one of the teeth matched that from blood samples taken from Robert Jackson and Mark Nichols, the two known descendants of Jesse’s sister Susan. The remains thus proved to be those of Jesse Woodson James (1847–1882) with a significant degree of scientific certainty. The sequence of base pairs in the DNA matching was “so singular” that it was reportedly “the first time it was encountered in the entire mt DNA database for the Northern European population” (Starrs 2005, 185–186).

Ubiquitous Ghost

In death, the legendary Jesse James attracts mystery mongers—including buried-treasure enthusiasts and ghost hunters—like a magnet. Often the two topics are combined.

A large component of the lost-treasure genre consists of proliferating yarns about lost mines and outlaws’ buried loot, including the alleged troves of the James Gang. As it became fashionable to identify places where Frank and Jesse had allegedly had a meal or hidden from pursuers, numerous caves were supplied with suitable “legends.” Said one writer, “There was hardly a cave they hadn’t hidden in” (qtd. in Watson 1971, 75). Buried treasure (real or hoaxed) was sometimes used to promote caves as commercial attractions. (For example, see Hauck 1996, 340.)

The same problems with lost-treasure tales are also true of haunting yarns—so many of them also beginning with the ubiquitous “It is said that.” I have spent quality time in places allegedly haunted by the ghost of Jesse James. For example, as a board member I attended a meeting of the Historical Confederation of Kentucky at the old Talbolt tavern in Bardstown in 1993 that was, however, uneventful as to ghost activity. A display in the inn’s upstairs foyer warned guests that they might experience ghostly phenomena (Holland 2008, 195), thus using the power of suggestion to set them up for a “haunting” experience.

Reportedly, there were various banging noises, common to the setting of old buildings and the effects of temperature changes on timbers and stairs; the sounds of people talking and laughing, possibly real people at the bar or nearby; the chiming of a bell eleven times at 4:00 am, likely a clock needing resetting; and a dream of a man being hanged, perhaps the effects of alcohol, and the “eerie” atmosphere, together with the historical backdrop.

I have also toured the old James farm where Jesse’s original gravesite still reposes in the front yard. (From there, his mother sold pebbles to souvenir hunters for a quarter each, replenishing them as necessary from a nearby creek [Settle 1977, 166].) The entire farm is haunted, according to sources citing the usual anonymous experiencers. The sounds of “low voices” and “restless horses” that were allegedly heard by a single staff member (possibly due to imagination or to sounds carried on the wind) were claimed in another source, exaggeratedly, to be from multiple reports (Taylor 2000; cf. “Missouri Legends” 2015). Supposedly, lights “have been seen” inside the farmhouse at night, one source claiming they are “moving” (Taylor 2000) and another that they go “on and off” (“Haunted” 2013); a common explanation for many such ghostly house lights is reflections on the window glass from various external sources (Nickell 1995, 50–51).

With ghost tales of Jesse James—as with buried-treasure and other legends of the notorious outlaw—we must remember the old skeptical maxim: Before trying to explain something, first be sure that it really occurred.


Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at