BLEVINS — On a serene hilltop in this quiet Central Texas farming community, one of the fundamental tenets of American history is under attack.
For decades, Southerners have disagreed on Jesse James' place in the nation's collective memory. And now, decades after his death, there's disagreement on his final resting place.
History says James was buried in Kearney, Mo., after being gunned down on April 3, 1882, in his St. Joseph, Mo., home by fellow gang member Bob Ford.
But a Texas woman says James lived and died here, 30 miles south of Waco. He faked his death in Missouri, she says, and lived out his days here as a gentleman farmer. He died peacefully in 1943 and is buried under the name James L. Courtney in a family grave plot overlooking Deer Creek in Falls County.
Betty Duke, 64, says there are photos and writings that prove her point. Her only goal in writing three books about Courtney's claim, she says, is to make sure that her great-grandfather's legacy is honored and that history is accurate.
“This is the story we were told as we grew up,” she said. “I suspect it was well known to people around here, too. Some of them have told me so.”
Officials with the James Farm and Museum, a historical site in Missouri, have heard the story — and others like it — before.
“There are several people out there with alternate scenarios,” said director Elizabeth Beckett. “They have believable stories, without a doubt. But a person can't just read one book. You have to know the whole picture. There are people who come here and don't think that Jesse is buried here. That's fine.
“But we've got the real deal here.”
Jesse James occupies a peculiar place in American history and in the folklore of the Deep South.
Throughout history, some have viewed James as a murderous, bank-robbing thug. Others, however, speak of him as hero who never surrendered after the Civil War. To them, he fought the institutions — banks and railroads — that ran roughshod over the common man.
In that way, Martha Grace Duncan says, James fits the mold of “the noble bandit.”
Duncan, a law professor at Emory University, wrote “Romantic Outlaws, Beloved Prisons: The Unconscious Meanings of Crime and Punishment,” which analyzes why some outlaws are treated with reverence in folklore
Robin Hood is the best example of the noble bandit. He stole from the rich, gave to the poor, and fought against the usurper King John, while remaining loyal to Richard the Lionheart.
“We may not want to be revolutionaries or rebels or criminals ourselves,” she said, “but we can't help being fascinated with those who do step over the line and succeed in hiding out. A part of us is attracted to this.”
James was no Robin Hood. He robbed the rich, but many of his biggest fans have overlooked the fact that he kept the money for himself and his gang and gunned down innocents in the process.
For a small core of die-hard fans, Duncan says, that doesn't matter. The overall fight, they say, was more important than a few misdeeds.
“For some Southerners,” she says, “there was a situation of moral inversion. The legal government, after the war, was in the wrong in their minds.”
The official story is that James went underground and was living under an assumed name when he was shot.
Duke says that was a setup, too. The body identified as James, she suspects, may have been one of his cousins. During that time, there were copycats robbing banks throughout the South and Midwest.
Her great-grandfather told his family that he arrived in Texas in 1871 in Clay County, which is near Wichita Falls on the Oklahoma border.
The assumed name Courtney, Duke says, was likely borrowed from a family that lived near James' boyhood home. The birth date on the Courtney tombstone, she says, jibes with the birth date James' mother gave to authorities at the time of his death.
In his diary, which Duke has kept, Courtney signed his name “J. James” on several occasions. Family members say he was suspicious of strangers and had inexplicable stockpiles of cash hidden in his house and barn and buried all over the farm.
Even more compelling, she says, are several old family photographs. When compared to documented photos of James, the resemblance is striking.
Another family photo shows James Courtney's mom missing an arm. Historical records state James' mom, Zerelda Samuel, lost an arm when hired guns, trying to kill or capture James, firebombed the family's farmhouse.
Beckett, the museum director, is polite when addressing Duke's research, but she isn't buying it. She says a 1995 exhumation of James and subsequent DNA testing showed there was a 99.5 percent chance that the right guy is in the right grave.
The conflicting stories, Beckett acknowledges, are good for business. When James' remains were exhumed — ostensibly to prove that he wasn't buried in Kearney — museum visitation doubled. She has no problem with Duke making her case in the court of public opinion because it drums up business for her museum and interest in history.
And Duke is happy to oblige her.
Says Duke: “It's our heritage. It's important that history gets this right.”
rbragg@express-news.net