Jesse James Wax Museum
Wild West outlaw Jesse James was murdered in his home in 1882. Or... he wasn't. Some folks believe that Jesse's "death" was a hoax, and that he lived under a fake name for years and years -- until he died on Aug. 15, 1951!
If that really happened, it's good news for the Jesse James Wax Museum, whose entire existence is built around that startling premise.
The museum had its origins with Rudy Turilli, the general manager of Meramec Caverns. In 1948 Rudy befriended a very old man named J. Frank Dalton, and became convinced that Dalton was in fact Jesse James. Rudy began collecting evidence to prove his theory, and moved Dalton, who was 100 years old and bedridden, to Meramec Caverns as a living tourist attraction. For over two years the ancient outlaw lived inside the "Jesse James Cabin" at the cave, where he would receive curious tourists as guests.
The story of Jesse James, J. Frank Dalton, and Rudy Turilli was then assembled into the Jesse James Wax Museum, which opened in 1964. It has outlived both Rudy and his wife Francena, and is now owned by a second generation of Turillis. Like their parents, they seem in no way inclined to alter their position. Rudy, dead since 1972, still speaks defiantly in the museum's introductory video: "Beyond a shadow of a doubt I can prove to the world that he [Jesse James] did not die until 1951!"
Several wax dummy dioramas in the museum bring its main characters back to life. "James Family Homestead" shows Jesse's mom at her sewing machine -- missing her right arm, which a sign says was blown off by a Pinkerton detective. A later tableau shows dummy Rudy recording an interview with bedridden Jesse, who looks far more presentable in wax than in photos taken at the time, which are also on display. There are more photos of Jesse's 102nd birthday party at Meramec Caverns, and of Jesse propped in a chair outside his cabin, posing for a framed oil portrait that still hangs in the museum.
Artifacts on exhibit include brother Frank James' umbrella and bathtub, and Jesse's baby shoes, shaving razor, and bullet-proof vest. Where they came from and how they prove the Turillis' theory is not explained. A detailed "James Family Tree" fills a wall, with Jesse's name buried among dozens of other, lesser, James's.
A great blow fell on the Turillis in 1995, when Jesse's supposed remains were dug out of their 1882 grave and subjected to DNA tests. The results proved -- well, 99.7 percent anyway -- that the bones were indeed Jesse's.
Francena, still running the museum at the time, didn't buy a word of it. We visited not long afterward, and listened as she rattled off a fact-filled counter-argument, handing around what she claimed was Jesse's six-shooter to delighted kids and baffled adults in our tour group. She produced, for our benefit, a list of eight scars, gunshot wounds, and deformities that matched Jesse 1882 to Jesse 1951 (Francena didn't need the list; she knew it by heart). With a pointer, she compared photos hung in the gift shop of Jesse and J. Frank Dalton, particularly the shapes of their ears. "See? They're identical!" she cried, triumphant.
Francena passed away in 2003, and her enthusiasm and tenacity are missed. But the museum carries on, inviting new generations of the curious and conspiracy-minded to walk amid puzzling evidence -- such as the chair in which Jesse James got his last haircut. J. Frank Dalton is buried beneath a tombstone with Jesse James' name in Texas, and the framed photos of their ears remain on the wall of the Jesse James Wax Museum to challenge the skeptics.