Where Jesse James Was Killed
St. Joseph, Missouri
Jesse James lived in lots of houses over his 34 years, as he spent lots of time running from the law. Most of those houses are forgotten -- and yet his last home, known simply as the Jesse James Home, has become a bona fide tourist attraction. But not because people want to see the house. People want to see the bullet hole.
The bullet hole was made at roughly the same moment that Jesse James was shot in the back of the head by one of his supposed friends, Bob Ford. This happened on April 3, 1882, but you'd never guess it from the interest that people still have in the hole. People reason that the bullet that made the hole also took a shortcut through Jesse's head -- which makes it a celebrity death hole, and a thing worth visiting. For over 50 years tourists were even allowed to touch the hole. That was a bad idea, as the hole is now a fist-sized blob, enlarged by generations of groping fingers. It looks as if Jesse James had been shot with a potato.
The hole is high off of the floor, and is protected from further picking by a rectangle of glass that's been screwed into the wall. Over it hangs a framed needlepoint, "God Bless Our Home," which Jesse was either straightening or feather-dusting when he was shot. Yes -- big bad Jesse James spent his final moments in house-husband domesticity. This troubles some fans of the Wild West. The manager of the house, Gary Chilcote, is diplomatic during the tour, but made his feelings clear to us off-camera: Jesse may have been straightening, but he was definitely not dusting. A painting of the Murder Moment hangs next to the hole, with no feather duster in it.
In 1995, fans of the bullet hole received shocking news. Jesse James was dug out of his grave to prove that he really did die in 1882 and not in 1951, as others have claimed (The digging was done by James E, Starrs, who also dug up the victims of Alferd Packer). DNA extracted from a tooth found in the grave proved with 99.7 percent certainty -- a figure that's cited frequently here -- that it was Jesse. But the grave also yielded an unexpected discovery. Jesse's skull had no exit wound for the bullet! So what made the bullet hole? The theory now is that it was made by a bullet fired by Charley Ford, Bob's brother, who was also in the house on that fatal day, and evidently was also blasting away at Jesse's head.
The room on the other side of the bullet hole wall has been turned into an exhibit of Jesse James grave artifacts. "There wasn't too much left of him," Gary tells us. "Here's a picture of Jesse being brought in, in a Xerox box." The centerpiece of the display is a rotating pedestal on which is an exact replica of Jesse's disinterred skull, with a day-glo orange bullet at the point of impact. Arrayed around the skull are Jesse's coffin handles, a diamond-shaped stickpin, and a bullet found in his right lung. In front of the display is a carefully arranged line of Jesse's stubby teeth, many with gold fillings (A sign suggests that he ground them nervously). Other cases exhibit broken glass from the lid of Jesse's coffin, and a jar filled with "petrified walnuts" that washed out of his grave.
The news that the bullet hole is probably not what it was thought to be is disappointing to some, but people still come to see it. It is, after all, the "see the bullet hole" bullet hole, famous now just because it's been famous. And Jesse James really did die here, even if his passing wasn't exactly covered in glory. "Jesse has accomplished a lot more since he died than when he was alive," Gary told us. "And when professor Starrs was done with him, we put him in a nice coffin and put him back in the hole."