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House Where American Outlaw Jesse James Died Still Draws Visitors

April 3 is an important date in the Midwestern city of St. Joseph, Missouri because two historic events happened there on that day, 22 years apart. One involved a short-lived, but thrilling chapter in mail delivery and the other was the cold-blooded murder of a local resident who turned out to be a wanted outlaw. VOA's Greg Flakus has more from St. Joseph.

A song still popular today with folk singers tells the story of what happened here on April 3 1882, when, as the lyrics assert, that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard, laid poor Jesse in his grave. Howard was the alias being used by James, who was wanted in Missouri and several other states for robbing banks and trains. The dirty little coward was Robert Ford, a gang member who thought he would gain fame and a reward for killing James.

Visitors to St. Joseph can stand in the very room where it happened and listen to a recording that describes the shooting.

Robert Ford was despised as a coward partly because he shot James from behind, but also because many people in Missouri sympathized with James and saw him as a hero who fought against powerful banks and railroads on behalf of the poor. But Jesse James House Museum Director Gary Chilcote says that is not the view presented here.

"We do not consider Jesse James a hero," he says. "He was not an American Robin Hood. He did not rob from the rich and give to the poor. He stole from everybody and he kept it."

The Jesse James house sits today a block down the hill from where it was in 1882. It is now next door to one of St. Joe's other historic attractions, the Pattee House, a large brick building that served as a hotel and the headquarters of the Pony Express-a relay system for getting mail back and forth between Sacramento, California and St. Joseph that utilized young men on fast horses. It only operated from April, 1860 until October, 1861, but its romantic image remains fixed in American history.

Chilcote says many local residents would rather emphasize the city's association with western expansion and the Pony Express, but the outlaw who died here draws more interest.

"Jesse James. The Convention and Visitors Bureau has just begun to realize that that is really the big ticket," Chilcote says. "People have heard of the Pony Express, but everybody has heard of Jesse James throughout the world. They want to come here and see where he lived and where he died."

Chilcote says more than 600,000 people have gone through the little four-room wooden house in the more than 30 years he has been operating the site. He says people from all 50 states and 26 foreign nations came to the house just in the past year.

Among recent visitors were Jose Nicolas and his wife Cassandra, who said it was worthwhile even if their two children thought it was a little creepy to stand in the room where the outlaw died.

"It is history and whether it is good or bad, I think history is very important," Jose said.

"It is important what happened in this country and how this country was founded and it is good to know that there is not glory behind crime," added Cassandra.

Gary Chilcote says he gets a different reaction from some Missourians who trace their lineage back to the frontier times in this area. For some of them, he says, tales of Jesse James are part of family lore.

"Most of them want to tell you the story of their grandmother who was facing eviction from her house. She owed $50 on her rent or whatever and this wonderful man came and ate dinner and paid with a $50 gold piece and said, 'Now you pay off your landlord when he comes.' And, of course, as soon as the landlord leaves, he is robbed and the gold piece disappears. You work in Jesse's house for a day and three people will come in and tell that story. We have researched this and no one has ever found any evidence that that happened," Chilcote says.

But the legend persists, helped in large part by Hollywood. A movie about the killing of Jesse James released last year was titled The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Robert Ford was shot dead a decade later in a Colorado barroom, perhaps by a man who had heard that old folk song one too many times.