Death Stalking Jesse James
February 2, 2012
He was just a little fella back then, barely seven, and lost within the grit and glitter of the Alabama-Mississippi State Fair, his mind awash with the spectacles he was supposed to see and the scandals he wasn’t. Dempsey Biggs looked around and couldn’t believe his eyes, and he believed everything that stretched out before him – naked belly buttons hiding behind frayed feathers and freaks that couldn’t have been born but were and shouldn’t have been. The boy’s senses, in that year of our Lord 1907, ran wild, then rampant then out of sight.
Dempsey Biggs elbowed his way to the edge of a sweating crowd and glanced up into the face of a somber man with cutting eyes who never smiled. The man, his face blurred by a heavy mustache, spoke softly, but his words were as clear as the ring of a hammer against a blacksmith’s anvil.
He stared down from his wooden platform and swore, “My brother’s a living man.”
One farmer gasped. Another spit. And a holy woman prayed.
“I could produce him today,” the man with the cutting eyes said. “I could bring him out here and show every one of you that my brother is alive if the law would just guarantee his immunity.”
“Who is he?” Dempsey Biggs asked the tall Delta farmer standing beside him.
“Who’s he talking about?”
“But Jesse’s dead.”
For a moment, the man with the cutting eyes almost smiled.
Twenty-nine years later, Biggs was standing in his hometown streets in downtown Wichita Falls, Texas, when a respected gentleman, John T. Young, stopped beside him, his face white, his expression confused.
“Did you see where J. Frank Dalton is in town, putting on a show over at the Princess Theater?” he asked.
“He came to my office this afternoon and called me by name,” Young continued. “And he reminisced awhile about the time in 1879 when he and his brother rode by our farm up in Missouri. They hung around just long enough to eat mama’s supper and sleep on a hayloft out in the barn. J. Frank Dalton remembered it all.”
“He’s not J. Frank Dalton.”
“Then who is he?”
“But Jesse’s dead.”
John Young told Dempsey Biggs the strange tale that the white-haired old man with the white beard had passed on to him that day, just before the doors opened down at the Princess Theater.
Late one April afternoon in 1882, the James boys, along with Bob Ford, rode slowly into St. Joseph, Missouri. In town, they knew, was a two-bit outlaw named Charley Bigelow who had robbed a few banks and a few trains and who whispered to the victims that he was Jesse James. He even bore a strong resemblance to the outlaw.
“If he can steal as Jesse,” Frank said softly, “he can die as Jesse.”
And so he did.
That night, according to J. Frank Dalton, the James boys met with Missouri Governor Tom Crittenden, who had offered a $10,000 reward for the celebrated outlaw – dead or alive. The next day, Jesse hid in the closet while Bob Ford brought Charley Bigelow into the house. While Bigelow stood alone and looked at pictures of fine Kentucky racehorses on the wall, Bob Ford shot him down, then swaggered into the streets and bragged, “I just shot Jesse James.”
Jesse quickly put on Bigelow’s blood-drenched coat and lay on the floor while Frank dragged the dead man away. The curious ran inside and stared – some with grief and some with relief – at Jesse’s still body. Some shouted, and some cried. And when the room was empty again, the James boys stuffed Charley Bigelow into a wooden crate and nailed it shut.
At first, Jesse ‘s mother gazed down at the face of death and said, “Gentlemen, this is not my son.” But later, when she realized that the grave would be Jesse’s only chance to escape justice, she had the crate buried in her front yard to keep prying eyes from ever learning her secret and his truth.
The governor handed Bob Ford the $10,000 reward. Bob handed half of it back. In the choir, in the shadows, Jesse James sang at his own funeral. He served as one of his own pallbearers. Then as he rode south toward for South America, Bob Ford was pardoned. Frank James surrendered to the governor, was tried, and acquitted. For $5,000, it seems, all of their sins were washed away.
That was the tale J. Frank Dalton spun, the tale that reached the ears of Dempsey Biggs. He never forgot it.
That afternoon, Jim Marlowe, who had married the James boys’ sister, stormed into the Princess Theater to prove that J. Frank Dalton was a dastardly fraud.
“You know a fella named Jim Marlowe?” he yelled.
“I guess I ought to,” Dalton said. “He’s my brother-in-law. How’re the folks, Jim?”
In the mid 1980s, Dempsey Biggs moved to Granbury, Texas, and he learned of a 104-year-old man who had died and been buried there in 1951. According to police records, Jesse James had seven bullet wounds, a rope burn around his neck, a fingertip that had been damaged by an exploding gun, and burned feet.
So had the old man who had come to Granbury nine days before his death.
“What was his name?” Biggs asked.
“J. Frank Dalton.”
Dempsey smiled reverently. “Well,” he said. “I guess Jesse’s finally dead.”
He checked with the courthouse records and pulled the old man’s death certificate. It agreed with him. The name was typed and easy to read. No smears. No smudges. Jesse James was what it said. Dempsey Biggs nodded and walked down to the burying ground to pay his final respects.
Jesse James, at last, was at peace a long way from home and nowhere near a bank.
Caleb Pirtle III is author of Place of Skulls, Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk, and Other Voices, Other Towns.