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Historically Speaking: Was Jesse James killed or did he die of old age?

Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Constitution Staff Photo dated May 19, 1948. Retrospect — Jesse James the centurion, studies the portrait of himself, extreme left, Frank James, right, and their mother. The historic picture goes with him, wherever he goes.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

Remember a few years ago, a tintype was purchased at a secondhand store by Randy and Linda Guijarro in California? It was believed to be that of Billy the Kid, Sallie Chisum and members of Billy’s gang — the Lincoln County Regulators. They were celebrating a wedding in 1878 and playing croquet. The tintype was purchased with a group of other unidentified tintypes for just $2, and was valued at $5 million. The story made international news and a documentary about it aired on the National Geographic Channel.

Even after all of that, it seems as though the verdict is still out on that picture.

This was not the first time a photo was found in a secondhand store that seemed to be of value, if not monetarily, then at least historically, and shrouded with just as much intrigue. Both photos had an association with our area of the country.

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An article written in the Roswell Daily Record about 71 years ago tells of another photo, which is allegedly of Jesse James, his brother Frank and his mother. The verdict is still out on that one, too. You be the judge to decide if the story is true:


Roswell Daily Record, June 9, 1948

“Roswell Man Identifies One of Infamous James Brothers From Locally Owned Photo

“The original photograph of Jesse James, his brother Frank, and the mother of the two Missouri outlaws has been discovered in the secondhand store of Brooks Craig, Roswell merchant, 404 S. Main St. The photograph is now on display at the Foster photo shop, and is shown above. Jesse is seated left, Frank right.

“A copy of this photograph is the one used by a man in Lawton, Oklahoma who claims he is the original Jesse James. The man claiming he is Jesse has been living under another name.

“The Lawton Constitution claims it has indisputable proof that the white-haired old man really is Jesse James, who was supposed to have been murdered by ‘that dirty coward’ Ford, while Jesse was hanging a picture in his Missouri home. Whether the photograph on display is the picture Jesse was hanging is not known.

“Oddly enough, the Lawton man, now over 100 years old, does greatly resemble the beardless picture of James. Although his face is covered by a beard and mustache, the nose and ears are remarkably similar.

“Brooks Craig, the secondhand merchant, bought the photograph along with miscellaneous odds and ends from a family immigrating from Oklahoma to California. At that time, Craig did not believe the photograph was of the famed trio — even though the seller claimed it was.

“The photograph is remarkably clear, airbrushed in color and is not faded from age. The antique wooden frame around the oval photo is warped and cracked, but aside from a few careless scratches, the photo is clear enough to show that Jesse James’ blond beard was badly in need of a shave. His brother, Frank, is a bit more handsome, and the mother of the James boys is attractive and patrician in appearance.

“A few days ago, an elderly man dropped in to the Record office who knew Frank James personally. He identified the one man in the picture as Frank, but since he hadn’t known Jesse personally, couldn’t positively identify him. The elderly man who identified himself as J.S. Donaldson, of Route one, Box 286A, said he believed Jesse was not killed by Ford, as reported.

“Donaldson told an intriguing story that in 1908, Frank James told authorities of the Dallas fair that he would produce Jesse for $10,000, and a promise of Jesse‘s freedom. The fair authorities refused to pay and nothing more was heard of the episode.

“The legend has come down in song and story that Jesse was killed by the dastardly Ford — shot in the back. But the actual burial place of Jesse is shrouded in mystery — and there are no accurate eyewitness accounts of his death.

“Accounts in the Roswell Public Library are indefinite. The ‘Crittenden Memoirs,’ written by a former Missouri governor, contain an account of newspaper stories relating the death — but Crittenden himself didn’t see the corpus delicti.

“A few days ago, an old resident of El Paso denied that the Lawton man could be Jesse — but not convincing enough to move the man in Oklahoma.

“History does record that the police in Missouri were vastly relieved when Jesse was reported dead. The daring bandit held up railroad trains, banks, and once robbed the Jackson County fair of its gate receipts. James was supposed to have been a semi-Robin Hood, robbing the rich railroads to avenge a wrong, and giving the money to the poor. But the actual recipients of the James largess were the James family.

“The James boys were two wild youngsters who were the despair of their preacher father, who finally went off to California in the Gold Rush and disappeared. Mrs. James, the mother, was a beautiful woman — but possessed of the same devilment and violence that characterized Frank and Jessie.”

A front page article in The Lawton Constitution dated May 19, 1948 has pictures of the alleged Jesse James. Noted with captions.

Another article from The Lawton Constitution, dated Thursday, May 20, 1948 headlines:

“Jesse James Day Set For Lawton”

The story reads, in part:

“Lawton will observe Saturday as ‘Jesse James Day,’ and will invite the nation to join in reception for the colorful old character when he makes his first public appearance since publicly announcing his real identity.

“Milton Keating of the Lawton Chamber of Commerce has begun preliminary plans to set up facilities on the courthouse lawn in downtown Lawton where the one-time outlaw chief will address an audience over a public address system at 2:30 p.m. At the request of Jesse himself, it was scheduled for Saturday afternoon when a greater number of people will be in town.”

So, we have two articles from the Lawton newspaper in May of 1948, with pictures of the alleged Jesse James, and even celebrating a ‘Jesse James Day.’

One of the articles has the alleged Jesse holding a picture, which is the same picture, that was featured in the Roswell Daily Record article the next month, June 1948.

Was that the true Jesse who lived to the old age of 100 years under the name of Frank Dalton? Was it just a coincidence that the Roswell Daily Record found and featured the picture in the secondhand store the next month? Was the picture here truly the original, and the one in Lawton a copy? Was Frank Dalton really Jesse James, like Brushy Bill claimed to be Billy the Kid?

I wonder what happened to the photo that was in the secondhand store here?

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.


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