The End of An Outlaw

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We drove to the tiny river town of St. Joseph, Missouri just north of Kansas City to see the home where Jesse James was killed. We got there too early, the house wasn’t open yet, so we went into the Patee Museum next door.

The Patee Museum was built as an opulent hotel for westward travelers but also provided shelter for Jesse James’ family following his murder in 1882. It has since served as a female college, a shirt factory and finally was reopened in its current form as a museum in 1963.

One specific attraction grabbed our attention – the headquarters of the fabled Pony Express. As most of you know, the Pony Express was the only postal service to the West, delivered solely by horseback along rough and risky trail routes rife with smugglers, thieves and hostile Indians. The historic founding office featured the original desk that was used to collect mail fare and dispatch, recruit and keep track of riders (many of whom were the best horsemen of the day). Due to the danger and high cost of the trails, the postal fee at the time was quite expensive – $5 for half an ounce. As competition increased, the price would decrease to $1 per half ounce.

The Pony Express Headquarters

The Patee Museum also featured a room dedicated to transportation with a replica mail train, stage coach and other vintage autos, a street with 1860s shops and a restored carousel called the “Wild Thing.” Since it was an additional cost to ride, we skipped it.

While this museum surely holds the interest of western historians, for us, it mostly offered air conditioning until the Jesse James house opened.

As soon as was possible, we walked out the back door of the Patee Museum to Jesse Jame’s home. A very tiny house by today’s standards, only four rooms, it provided a comfortable quarters at the time to Jesse, his wife and his children.

For those who don’t know Jesse’s story, we could suggest a few books if interested that explore his volatile childhood, his mischievous teenage years and of course his storied and vicious career as the leader of the James gang.

We paid our admission of $3 each, and were guided into the living room where a gruff voice, piped in from the loud speakers, explained the circumstances surrounding the murder of James and the history of the house. He casually said that the room in which we were now standing was the site of Jesse James murder by a former member of the James gang, Bob Ford, who was looking to collect on the $10,000 in reward.

What was originally believed to be the bullet hole – just inches above a framed needlepoint that, as the story goes, Jesse had climbed up to straighten when Ford’s bullet found it’s mark – is now protected by glass. Visitors at one time were allowed to touch the hole (and many took portions as souvenirs), so it has grown much larger over time. The wood floor is also uneven as morbid collectors carved out matchbook sized memorials that were soaked by Jesse’s blood.

Most historians now believe that the bullet never left Jesse’s head and the hole more likely had been a second shot, or perhaps a clever addition to the lore.

We perused the other two rooms with paintings of Jesse James and other memorabilia, but the most interesting display was the artifacts recovered from an exhumation in the 1990s to confirm the person killed was the famous outlaw. Many believed, including his mother, that Jesse actually faked his death and died much later in seclusion. In 1996, however, the DNA test confirmed that the body killed in this small house was in fact Jesse James (to a 99.7% reliability). He had been living by a pseudonym for many years and in fact his children did not know their real names or who their father really was until after his death.

This museum is great for one reason, to share quantum space with the greatest outlaw who ever lived.He is a legend that will live on and we were once in the house where he lived and died.  For more information visit here.