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Jesse James’s ‘Haunts’: Legends, History, and Forensic Science

Joe Nickell, PhD, is a former Pinkerton detective and historical sleuth. He has written articles and encyclopedia entries about Jesse James, and his books include Crime Science and The Science of Ghosts.

An American embodiment of the Robin Hood legend, notorious outlaw Jesse James, with his older brother Frank, rode boldly into U.S. history in the wake of the Civil War, during which the two had trained for a career of daring bank and train holdups. Born in Missouri, they nevertheless had many connections to Kentucky, and it was these the editor of The Kentucky Encyclopedia (Kleber 1992) asked me to investigate—with special attention to the 1868 robbery of the bank at Russellville to determine if it was actually perpetrated by the James gang. I completed that assignment (Nickell 1992), as well as a longer, historical-journal article (Nickell 1993a), and produced other related writings (Nickell 1993b; 1999). The following is a summary that also looks into Jesse James ghostlore and other legends.


The James boys, Frank (1843–1915) and Jesse (1847–1882), were born and reared in Missouri, the sons of Robert Sallee James (1818–1850) and Zerelda Cole James (1825–1911). Beginning in 1839, Robert attended the Baptist institution Georgetown College (where I once taught and examined the original records).

Zerelda’s grandfather, Richard Cole, Jr., operated a stagecoach inn near Midway, Kentucky. I visited it and the home of Zerelda’s guardian, Judge James Lindsay, where the couple was married on December 28, 1841. They then moved to Missouri. Following the births of Frank and Jesse, they had one more child, Susan Lavinia, born in 1849 (Nickell 1993a, 218–220). After Robert S. James died during the California gold rush, his widow remarried but was soon widowed again, and finally, in 1856, she wed Dr. Reuben Samuel, by whom she had four more children.

Figure 1. The Long Bank in Russellville, Kentucky, was robbed in 1868. Was it by the Jesse James Gang as legend holds? (Photograph by Joe Nickell.)
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