Milt Perry: Debunking Myth with Facts

Many people have contributed to keeping the history of Frank & Jesse James accurate and vibrant, including the late Milton Perry. At the time of his death in 1991, Perry was considered one of the world’s top authorities on outlaw Jesse James. He had been curator of the Clay County Historic Sites for 13 years, restoring the Jesse James birthplace on the farm east of Kearney and the Jesse James Bank at Liberty, MO.

Perry was curator of Truman Library at Independence from 1958 to 1976, and had once been curator of history for West Point Museum at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, NY.

Perry was a frequent guest speaker at historical meetings and conventions held worldwide. In his research on Jesse James, he was a frequent visitor to St. Joseph and made stops at Gallatin. He expressed an interest in confirming the exact railroad bed where the 1881 train robbery occurred near Winston and was a friendly consultant on details being compiled by editor Darryl Wilkinson for the re-enactment of the 1883 Trial of Frank James. He stepped down from his Clay County post just three weeks before his death from heart attack while changing his residence to Lake Tahoe, NV.

The following is a series of comments Mr. Perry frequently used for speeches, including those presented during luncheons of the Gallatin Rotary Club, during 1990-91.

JESSE JAMES AMONG BEST KNOWN
(2nd in series)

It may come as a surprise to many Americans, but as far as Europeans are concerned, Jesse James is one of the best known of all citizens of the United States. Movies and books about him are popular, several historical organizations are composed of persons interested in the American West, and even at one time, a popular musical group called itself “The James Gang.” Jesse James represents the nearest thing we have to a Robin Hood, and whether he actually robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, he has that image in folklore, the same as the man who became Robin Hood, but who in reality probably was a poacher.

Visitor registers at the James Farm near Kearney, MO, and the Jesse James Bank in Liberty have the names of many Europeans. Recently, one showed up bearing a copy of the full page story in the London Daily Telegraph about the farm and bank which was published last February. The writer had been here last summer and toured the area with me.

A visit to Jesse’s grave in Kearney, after Memorial Day, revealed another interesting fact. There, in front of the marker, were 11 separate groups of flowers, ranging from complete bouquets to single roses, all placed there by those who revere his memory. It must be remembered that Jesse James was shot on April 3, 1882 — 106 years ago, and at that time was the most sought-after outlaw in the country.

It is also a fact that a large marble monument over his grave was chipped at by those who wanted a bit to put on their mantle, badly defacing it. The current marker, a flat granite piece put there in 1960, has chips missing where a new generation has been taking pieces home.

Fortunately, the original tombstone base, which bears Jesse’s name, age, and date of death on one side and that of his wife, Zerelda, on the other side, was not destroyed, as had been widely believed up until March of this year.

Apparently, Jesse’s daughter Mary James-Barr, had the stone removed in the early 1930s before the rest of the monument could be destroyed. Then Frank James’ son, Robert James, gave it to a friend who sold it to someone else. After a series of hits and misses, I tracked down the stone and the owner agreed to donate it to Clay County on the condition of anonymity. This major artifact of 19th Century history is now on display at the Jesse James Farm near Kearney, MO.

 JESSE JAMES, THE CONFEDERATE GUERRILLA
(3rd in series)

The best known photograph of Jesse James, and one that shows him as a Civil War guerrilla, was taken in Platte City, MO, in June of 1864. A group of Confederate soldiers, of which the guerilla unit was a part, captured the town and occupied it for two days. During the occupation some of these soldiers had their pictures taken, among them were Jesse and Frank James.

The picture shows Jesse wearing a “guerilla shirt,” a long garment that slipped over the head and hung to mid-thigh. These shirts had four pockets in which extra ammunition, pistol parts, and personal items were kept. Most of them were cotton, linen or wool or some combination, and often included colorful silk edging and embroidery. The shirts were usually made by their wives, mothers or sweethearts. Perhaps Jesse’s was made by his mother, Mrs. Zerelda Samuel.

Jesse is shown wearing a soft felt hat with the brim pinned up and a feather hanging from the back. These hats were favored by those riders rather than the tall, wide-brimmed ones artists of later periods seem to think were used.

Jesse served with Bill Anderson’s company of Confederate guerillas from June, 1864, to May, 1865. He never rode under the most infamous of the guerilla leaders, William C. Quantrill, as is generally thought. He fought in battles at Centralia, Albany and Fayette in Missouri. He was wounded twice, once in Ray County in August, 1864, when he was shot in the right chest, and again in May, 1865. The second wound was received while riding with a group of guerillas who were about to surrender, but were mistaken by Union Cavalry and attacked.

Jesse suffered a third wound during the war when he shot off the tip of his middle finger on his left hand while loading a pistol. This aided in identifying his body after he was killed in St. Joseph on April 3, 1882.

Jesse’s body was moved from its original grave at the farm to Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, MO, in 1902. Clay County excavated the original gravesite in 1978 and found several artifacts which were left behind when the body was moved.

JESSE JAMES IN THE MOVIES
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Because of his popularity with the public, Jesse James has been the central figure of many motion pictures. At this time, approximately 40 have been made, not to mention numerous television features. The films have ranged from potboiler double-feature bills of the 1940s to multi-million dollar epics with big stars and beautiful photography.

The first film about Jesse James was written and produced by his son, Jesse E. James (“Jesse Jr.”), entitled “Under the Black Flag.” It starred none other than Jesse Junior playing his father and used several other members of the family in bit roles. It was filmed locally, but it was a dramatic and economic failure. A planned sequel was never made.

The best-known of all was “Jesse James” (1939) starring Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank and included an all-star supporting cast. Its filming in the Ozarks village of Pineville, MO, which served as Liberty in the move, was an event of national interest. This film was followed by a sequel, “The Return of Frank James” starring Fonda.

A host of films, many of which were “B” movies, have been made since then and starred such actors as Roy Rogers, Robert Wagner, Robert Duvall, Stacey Keach, Kris Kristofferson and other notables portraying Jesse James. Roy Rogers (“Jesse James at Bay”, 1941) was the only singing Jesse, and, conversely, Robert Duvall played him as a psychopathic killer in “The Great Northfield Raid” (1972). However, Tyrone Power played a Jesse so handsome and so good that every other mother in the nation defended him.

One film, “The Long Riders” (1980) starred four sets of brothers playing the four sets of brothers know as “the James Gang.” It was definitely a unique casting treat. In 1986 a film called “The Last Days of Frank & Jesse James” starred Kris Kristofferson as Jesse and Johnny Cash as Frank with June Carter-Cash (Johnny’s wife) as their mother, Zerelda James Samuel. Both of these films have been more historically accurate, accuracy now seeming to be more of the trend …and it’s about time. As a matter of fact, after the premiere of “Jesse James” one of Jesse’s granddaughters remarked that while Jesse and Tyrone both shared the name Jesse James and both rode a horse, the comparison stopped there.

Because the James boys were born and raised in Clay County, the county commission feels the responsibility to maintain the accuracy of stories told about their lives. It is doing so by producing the outdoor drama, “The Life & Times of Jesse James.” This is staged on the ground of Jesse’s birthplace near Kearney, where the audience can see history recreated where much of it actually occurred.

THE OUTDOOR DRAMA
(6th in a series)

In 1978 when Clay County purchased the old James Farm, birthplace of Jesse James and home of the James family for more than a century, the first priority was to restore the crumbling structure. It was my responsibility not only to oversee the restoration, which took two years, but to interpret the history which unfolded there and to put it all together in a meaningful way for the hundreds of thousands of people who would visit the site.

It was a tough act to follow. Since Jesse’s death in 1882, visitors have been coming to the farm for tours. The first “tour guide” was the boys’ mother, Zerelda James-Samuel, then it was Frank James. These tours continue today with a new visit center and audio-visual presentation. In addition, the county is quickly obtaining quite a significant collection of James family artifacts donated to the county by surviving relatives.

In 1984 Clay County started producing an historical outdoor drama, “The Life & Times of Jesse James” with the idea that it would be performed on the very spot where the incidents took place; a living history museum. Clay County was the recipient of the National Association of Counties Achievement Award for this innovation, which promoted economic development and tourism. People attending can judge for themselves whether Jesse was a good guy or bad guy based on the circumstances of his time, the tumultuous Civil War era.

For once, an accurate portrayal of the life and times of Jesse James is being produced. It is apropos that it happens right where the legend began, on a peaceful farm near Kearney, MO.