Jesse James Home (St. Joseph, Missouri)
See the Bullet Hole!
April 21, 2001
Directions: Located 5 minutes from I-29. Take U.S. 36 west to the 10th Street Exit, then 6 blocks north and 2 blocks east.
Welcome to part II of my St. Joseph travelogue – in which I show you the Jesse James House and various neglected ruins laying forgotten by all but me, apparently. As you may or may not recall, at the end of the last episode I had just driven away from the Glore Psychiatric Museum Cemetery and was busy dabbing my eyes in memory of the forgotten numbers that were held prisoner in the Asylum in Olden Days. After that particularly engrossing stroll down memory lane, I decided it was time to see another morbid sight: the house where Jesse James died. Of course, this one doesn’t quite have the poignancy, but you know, how often to you get to visit a site whose proudly displayed slogan is “See the Bullet Hole!” Obviously, this was the place for me!
So, my friend Lacey and I started driving aimlessly across St. Joseph and we were immediately impressed by the number of old, abandoned buildings that littered the landscape. It was nearly a ghost town, and it made us both quite sad, but also excited to explore some of the ruins. Okay, we didn’t actually set foot inside them… we just walked around them and I took some pictures.
The first old building that caught our eye was the former Stuebner Cleaning Co. I just have a thing for forgotten brick buildings – they’re like aging reminders of where we’ve been… and unfortunate evidence of where we are now. This one had a nice central workyard too and I was quite smitten with this old door. There just seemed to be a lot of beauty in these old ruins.
Ah, but I’ve bored you long enough with culturally and historically insignificant old small-town factories. It’s time to move on to our goal – the Jesse James home – it’s that small, almost unnoticeable little structure at the right that is dwarfed by the huge Patee House next to it. With the Patee House out of the frame, it looks slightly more impressive and the tree in bloom added a nice touch. (It was an especially lovely time of year in Missouri.)
As I wandered towards the front door, I passed by a few Curious Things. First was this intriguing monument which had absolutely no explanation. I’m thinking it might have something to do with the adjacent Patee House, because it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with Jesse James… Oh, sweet mystery of life!
I also passed by a lovely little group of old gravestones… though where they came from or what they represent was not explained. I can’t imagine there’s really anyone buried underneath them, although I didn’t have my shovel so I couldn’t test that theory. Maybe it’s supposed to be the graves of Jesse’s victims? Maybe there was an old church graveyard there at one time? Maybe it’s just for show? Or maybe they moved some old James family corpses there. Oh, sweet mysteries of life! [Pamm later wrote me with the following explanation: “Hello, I was just looking at your great pictures from your trip to St Joseph, Missouri, especially the ones from the Jesse James Museum. The cemetery headstones in the yard, you did not know to whom they belonged. They are my family. The Russells’s were early settlers in St Joe, and when their old family cemetery was discovered, these headstones were moved here to preserve them. So Sorry, no dead bodies, or juicy stories of victims to go with them, just rocks : ). I had been looking all over the internet for a picture of these, so Thanks a million, I finally got to see them.” Thanks for the explanation – mystery solved!]
The third Curious Thing was this Victorian Outhouse. Lovely thing, isn’t it? But kind of strange, nonetheless. But we like Kind Of Strange things, don’t we?
I finally made it up to the entrance of the home. I immediately gravitated over to a case filled with James memorabilia, highlighted by a handsome post-mortem photograph. After perusing the case I wandered into the living room of the tiny house. The history of the house is pretty interesting, actually (at least to terminally dull people like me). It used to be a few blocks away, atop a nearby hill. After James’ death, it sat neglected and was set to be torn down. A man who knew the historic significance of the house was driving by it one day when they were beginning the process of demolition. He stopped and offered to buy the house – and had it moved to preserve it. Eventually it was moved into its current location. Thank goodness for that man, or I’d have nothing to take pictures of!
You all know how Jesse James died, right? What – you don’t??? Where have you been???? Anyway, here’s how Jesse died: he was hanging out with some guys one day, probably planning his next criminal act, when he noticed a needlepoint hanging on the wall was crooked. Being the anal retentive murderer that he was, he slid a chair under the needlepoint and climbed up on the chair to straighten it. As he was doing that, Bob Ford – not a buddy of his after all – calmly strode up behind him and shot him in the back of the head. Jesse collapsed, and his wife ran in from the other room to see Ford and his cronies running away from her fallen hubby. Of course, because James was a wanted man, no criminal charges were ever pressed against Ford and he became quite the celebrity (“The Man Who Shot Jesse James!”) before dying in some tragic circumstance I can’t quite remember…
Well, anyway, here I was standing in the room where it all happened – and oh, the air was electric! Well, okay, maybe not electric… but there was a faint sniff of ozone in the air, anyway. I turned around and what did I see but the famous bullet hole and a wall hanging imitating the one that Jesse had been straightening all those years ago. Why you could almost step back in time – the wallpaper was vintage – and if it wasn’t for the fact that souvenier hunters had been scavenging pieces of the hole for years – causing it to grow in size – the wall would be the same as when Jesse had last laid eyes and hands on it all those years ago. (People are just so damned greedy!!!) I must sadly inform you that the chair was a replica… only a fragment of the original one remained. I tend to think the wall hanging isn’t vintage either…
I wandered off into the adjacent room to find another treasure trove of morbid delight: information on the exhumation of Jesse! You see, some old man once claimed that he was the “real” Jesse James and that the body buried in Jesse’s grave must belong to another man. It’s one of those “haunting” and “enduring” controversies that allow a really great excuse to go and dig up bones! So, on July 17, 1995 a-diggin’ they did go! They found that Jesse’s grave and remains had been compacted to about a four inch width, so not much of the coffin remained. But what did remain ended up in this display cabinet so that I could gawk over it. Look at all this great stuff!! A bullet from Jesse’s right lung which stemmed from an old Civil War injury! The tie tack he was wearing when he was buried! The original ‘At Rest’ plaque, fragments of wood, handles and the shattered glass frontispiece from the coffin! It was almost as good as being there!
They also had on display a plaster casting of Jesse’s skull, with an orange bar showing the trajectory of the bullet. ‘Course it would have been better if it was the REAL skull, but y’know, life just can’t be that interesting… And here’s what they had to say about Jesse’s teeth. Gosh, I hope my teeth never end up in a museum… I can just imagine what they’d say: “Significant number of cavities indicate an overabuse of sugar, worn tooth surfaces betray a lifestyle that caused her to grit her teeth a lot… from this we can surmise that she worked for EDS…” I tell ya, some things are just better left buried!
Oh, and they did some DNA tests and proved that, wow, wouldn’t you know it?, that really WAS Jesse James buried in that grave! That old guy was just a wannabe!
Over in a case across the way was some more memorabilia – including a vintage photo of the house at its original location and a fragment of the original chair. Exciting stuff, eh?
So, that’s about all there was to see at the Jesse James museum. So, what else can a nostalgic old skulker do in a town like St. Joseph? Why, look at abandoned buildings, of course! Did you have any doubt??? Here are the steps leading up to one of my favorite old forgotten houses in St. Joseph. It was a beautiful brick house, overgrown and in decline. I found something especially poignant about this tulip in bloom – a remnant of a long-neglected garden. I could imagine at one time a woman kneeling over the earth as she placed this very bulb in the ground and looking about at her beautifully tended grounds and home. I wonder if her ghost haunts the sad remnants today, and cries a mournful tear at the surroundings? As Lacey and I circled the house, we were a bit shocked to see some old plastic flowers in one of the windows. (And does anyone else see a face in this window? I swear I can make out two big eyes filling up the width of the window staring at me… Creepy! And Elizabeth sees something else: “Ohmigawd!!! Didn’t you notice the girl in the window?!? Her face is in the upper left hand corner of the lower pane of glass. She is wearing a, what is it called, a pinaforte – a white bibbed apron that reaches down to the knee with ruffled shoulders. They used to be worn over a dress up ’till the early 1900’s. Am I crazy or what? Didn’t you see that? Her hand is reaching to part the curtains. I can see half of her face, she is looking out the window right at you!” Enough freaking out the Comtesse, people!) The flowers actually made us wonder if maybe we were not alone, in a far more mundane meaning of the term… but come on… would anyone seriously traverse these steps on a daily basis? No, I think it’s another relic from a time long past…
St. Joseph is full of such beautiful, neglected relics. Check out this place, with its putrid, green paint peeling to reveal the lovely brickwork underneath. Not every place was a downtrodden ruin though – quite a few of the loveliest buildings still retained some hope for a restored tomorrow. Check out this unique house. Or this lovely gothic retreat. Or my personal favorite – this amazing corner house. It really was a lovely town – as this central courtyard, this view towards the river, and this view of the mighty Missouri itself can attest. And since you know by now how much I love to snoop around and photograph urban ruins, you know that I can’t really complain about those either. All in all, St. Joseph was a perfectly lovely (and somewhat morbid) little town… and I hope you enjoyed it too!
Julie writes with some additional information about the Jesse James home: “Just saw your Web page on Jesse James house. Did you know that it was given to the Patee Museum in the mid-1980s? And that it was originally purchased by my grandfather and sat on the Belt Highway for years near the spot where the Hi-Vee grocery store now sits?”
For more information on the Jesse James Home, also see:
City Of St. Joseph Website