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Ethelrose Owens; Last Grandchild of Outlaw Jesse James

December 30, 1991|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ethelrose James Owens, the last of Jesse James' grandchildren, who until three years ago kept her grandfather's guns, clothing and even his wallet hidden in her home in Orange County, is dead at 84.

David Chambers, a family spokesman and James biographer, said Sunday that she had died Dec. 22 at a retirement home in Huntington Beach.

"She was a wonderful woman, with a typical James sense of humor. She was the last link--the last to remember the James family when Frank (James) was alive," Chambers said from his home in Westlake Village.

For years, Mrs. Owens told The Times in 1988, she had secreted her famous grandfather's possessions in her Huntington Harbour mobile home.

She was worried, she said, that someone might break in and steal them.

But after she loaned the Winchester rifle, London-made shotgun and Colt revolver that contributed to the legend of Jesse James, she made public her identity.

Her nephew, Orange County Superior Court Judge James R. Ross, had persuaded her to loan the guns and other of the renegade's personal possessions--including the boots he wore when he was shot to death--to the Jesse James Museum near Kearney, Mo.

It was at the family farm in Kearney that Mrs. Owens remembered "having to be quiet" around her famous great-uncle, Frank James, who died in 1915. "He was strained, not relaxed too much."

Jesse James was slain in 1882 in St. Joseph, Mo., by Robert Ford, after a promise of a $10,000 reward.

Between them, the James brothers and eight other men committed about 25 robberies of trains, banks and stagecoaches from Iowa to Texas. They supposedly launched their life of crime after being hounded by Northern officials who were angry over their allegiance to the South in Civil War days.

Mrs. Owens said that the tales that made the James brothers into national folk heroes were greatly exaggerated.

Both brothers always wore business suits, she said in the 1988 interview, not cowboy garb as depicted in films. That was one reason, she theorized, they proved so elusive to law enforcement. They blended in with crowds.

Also, she said, Jesse James left no treasure-trove. His widow found only about $250 in real property and had to struggle all her life. She spurned countless offers to sell his personal effects, passing them along to her children and eventually grandchildren.

Judge Ross traveled to the Missouri museum when the James' memorabilia went on display and discovered that Pinkerton detectives had been hired to guard them. It was the Pinkerton agency that had tried for many frustrating years to capture the elusive James brothers.

"I told them jokingly that I hope they do a better job of guarding the artifacts than finding Jesse James," he said at the time.

Mrs. Owens--who worked for the Federal Reserve Bank--was the youngest of four daughters born to Jesse James Jr. and his wife, Stella. They came to California from Missouri in 1926. She was married to Cal Owens, a general contractor in Los Angeles, who died earlier. They had no children.

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