Fake Jesse or Real Jesse?

Death photo of Jesse James or Charley Bigelow?
According to a lot of seemingly knowledgeable people, Jesse James the outlaw did not die at the hands of Bob Ford in St. Joseph, Missouri on April 3, 1882. Often referred to as "America's Robin Hood," the rumors and stories that it was all staged for Jesse to escape his past and begin a new life are still being debated today. So where do these folks believe he lived out his life? In the small Texas town of Granbury.

Most know the story of how Jesse supposedly died. While at his home in Missouri, Bob Ford and his brother came to visit their friend Jesse. Unbeknownst to Jesse though, the Fords had entered into an agreement with the governor to kill Jesse for a pardon of their crimes and the reward money. Jesse removed his gun belt and turning his back to his "friends," stepped up on a chair to straighten a picture hanging on the wall. Bob quickly drew his revolver and shot the unarmed Jesse in the head and then ran from the house.

Members of Jesse's family, his friends, former members of Quantrill's Guerrillas, the doctor who prepared the body for burial, and a few citizens who had recently been robbed by Jesse all identified the body as Jesse James.  But if his death was staged, would the tight-knit James family members say it wasn't really Jesse laying there in that coffin? Would members of Quantrill's Guerrillas, men who had taken an oath to protect each other, men who had ridden with Jesse and had suffered together and fought side-by-side in some of the most ferocious, bloody, in-close and hand-to-hand battles fought during America's most in-humane war, turn on one of their brothers? The doctor who examined the body told Jesse's son that he knew it wasn't really Jesse because he had examined him 6 months earlier and found he had cataracts in his eyes. The body buried as Jesse did not have any eye problems. 

What about the citizens who had recently been robbed by Jesse? In the area at this time was a man by the name of Charley Bigelow who looked so much like Jesse James that even Jesse said "he could be my twin." Bigelow was supposedly an undercover detective for the Pinkerton Agency, but was actually committing robberies of travelers and small stores. Trying to throw off the law, he often would say, "You've just been robbed by Jesse James!" before riding off. Before fingerprints or DNA was even dreamed about, a mistaken identity is totally understandable

Many researchers claim it was Bigelow who was laid to rest under the tombstone engraved with the name Jesse James. Within weeks, Bob Ford was granted his pardon by the governor and the reward money? Well, the story has always been told that the governor got the majority of that $10,000 and Ford had to be grateful just to have gotten his pardon.

Headstone in Granbury for J. Frank Dalton or 
Jesse James? Writing at the bottom of the 
stone states, "Supposedly killed in 1882"
The story goes that friends and family members helped Jesse escape to South America until the news of his death became widely known and accepted in America. At that point, he came back and changing names as often as he changed his underwear, safely lived a law-abiding life mostly in Oklahoma and Texas. For a short time, he served as a sheriff in Oklahoma Territory and even as a Texas Ranger. In old age, he finally took the name J. Frank Dalton which is the name he died with. Why J. Frank Dalton? Dalton was his mother's maiden name and Frank was his beloved brother. The "J" was, of course, for Jesse.

   Jesse, or "J. Frank Dalton," began telling stories shortly before his death, of the exploits he had undertaken in his younger days. In many of these stories he included facts that only someone who had actually been there would know. When he died, the undertaker who performed the autopsy confirmed that J. Frank Dalton had the exact same wounds in the exact same places as Jesse James was known to have. He also confirmed that Mr. Dalton had suffered for years from failing eyesight due to cataracts.

Visitors to his grave often leave small tokens, mostly
coins, bullets, and whiskey.

Could Jesse have pulled off one of the greatest hoaxes in American history by faking his own death? Is the real Jesse James buried in an unremarkable grave in little Granbury, Texas? According to some historians and J. Frank Dalton's headstone, perhaps he did.