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Visitors drawn to Jesse James’ hometown

They also flock to Missouri town where bandit died

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KEARNEY, Mo. — Towns where a notorious criminal once lived usually don't want to be remembered for the connection. Residents generally don't like thousands of people making pilgrimages to visit the birthplace of a brutal killer.

Likewise, for several decades the people of Kearney in northwest Missouri detested the town's connection to Jesse James, the 19th century outlaw born and raised here. And some residents of St. Joseph would have preferred if people remembered their city as the place where the Pony Express began, not where James died.

After all, James killed at least 17 people and robbed untold numbers of banks, trains and stagecoaches. His 15-year crime spree earned Missouri the moniker "The Outlaw State" when lawmen failed to capture him.

Yet, people are drawn to this gun-toting, dapper-dressing outlaw and his legendary exploits with his brother Frank and their gang.

In "The American Songbag," poet Carl Sandburg wrote, "Jesse James is the only American bandit who is classical, who is to this country what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin is to England, whose exploits are so close to the mythical and apocryphal."

Today, people from afar visit the farm where Jesse and Frank grew up, and the house in St. Joseph where Jesse was shot to death April 3, 1882.

Perhaps the ultimate James-related experience is to stroll through the house at the Jesse James Farm and Museum, breathing the stale, damp air; walking through the dimly lighted rooms and across the floors where Jesse James would have played as a child.

James' mother and his brother began offering paid tours of the farm shortly after Jesse's death. Later, Frank's son, Robert Franklin, kept the house fairly intact, but by the time Clay County bought the farm in 1978, it was in disrepair.

The county restored the house, and today it looks much as it would have more than a century ago.

"It's just like you would expect their mother to be walking through the door," says filmmaker Ron Casteel, who has made documentaries about Jesse James and Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War. "It's one of the best-preserved and restored historical sites that's available most anywhere in the U.S."

A few feet from the house is the grave where Jesse James first was buried to discourage grave robbers. In 1902, some remains were reburied next to his wife in Mount Olivet Cemetery, also in Kearney.

Guided tours of the house leave every half-hour from the nearby visitors' center, itself a mini museum with artifacts and mementos, including family photographs, Jesse James' last pair of boots, his last cartridge belt and bridle, and the feather duster he was supposedly holding when he was killed. A short film offers a quick introduction to the James brothers and their gang.

Each year, about 18,000 people visit the farm in the suburban Kansas City town, and huge annual festivals lure James enthusiasts from across the country.

The farm uses the legend of Jesse James as an American Robin Hood to its advantage and often blurs the line between myth and history. The visitors' center devotes one wall to quotes comparing James to Robin Hood, and another section to posters from Hollywood movies depicting James.

In nearby Liberty is the first bank the gang ever robbed, though Jesse James likely was not there. The bank's vault appears as it did in 1866, when the men apparently committed the first successful peacetime daylight robbery in U.S. history.

Another 25,000 people pass through the Jesse James Home about 35 miles away in St. Joseph, where fellow gang member Robert Ford — "that dirty little coward," as the ballad says — shot James in the back for the reward money.

Museum director Gary Chilcote admits that some St. Joseph residents would prefer he dump the Jesse James Home and focus on the Pony Express Museum or the Patee House Museum, both of which celebrate the city's rich Old West history. The two museums and the house are owned by the Pony Express Historical Association.

But Chilcote says the association has an obligation to preserve the artifacts and tell the story of Jesse James and his gang members honestly.

"We don't hold them up as heroes. But we don't want to plow (the house) under," he says.

The house is packed with antiques, including some furniture that would have been there during Jesse's 100-day stay, as well as pictures of him after his death and handles from his coffin.

The premier attraction, however, is the so-called "bullet hole," which is now nearly one-foot wide because tourists have chipped away at it. The museum eventually put a protective frame over it. However, the hole may not be from the bullet, since some experts believe it never exited Jesse James' head.

Casteel says the legend of Jesse James as an American Robin Hood began before the outlaw died. But while it's certainly clear that Jesse James and his gang stole from the wealthy, it's unclear whether any of them redistributed the wealth.

Web sites: Liberty: www.libertymo.com; Kearney: www.kearneymo.com; St. Joseph:www.ci.st-joseph.mo.us/; Friends of the Jesse James Farm: www.jessejames.org