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A Jesse James impostor took truth for a ride

John William James, who showed up in Los Angeles in 1933, was just one of several men who impersonated the infamous outlaw over the years. Ten intact fingers was one indication he was lying about his identity.

January 16, 2011|By Steve Harvey, Los Angeles Times
  • An undated artist's sketch of Jesse James, who was killed in St. Joseph, Mo., in 1882.
An undated artist's sketch of Jesse James, who was killed in St. Joseph,… (Associated Press )

When outgoing New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson turned down a petition to pardon Billy the Kid (1859?-1881) last month, he obviously didn't have to deliver the bad news to the Kid's face.

But when the subject of forgiving another 19th century outlaw arose in Los Angeles in 1933, the suspect claimed to be present.

"I'm the original Jesse James," a white-haired gent confessed to officers at the old Central Police Station.

The notion that he had been killed in 1882 by fellow gang member Bob Ford (known thereafter in Missouri as the Dirty Little Coward) was all a hoax, he said.

The mystery man told police that brothers Bob and Charles Ford "and myself planned the murder of another gang member for double-crossing us. He was murdered and buried under my name. Why, I was present at my own funeral!"

The would-be desperado declared he had recently hitchhiked to Los Angeles from Missouri, quite a trip for a fellow who would be 86 if he were James.

He intimated that after "40 years of wandering," he "might lecture on the folly of crime for pay," if all charges against him were dropped, The Times said.

The fellow had come to the attention of L.A. authorities because he allegedly threatened a local resident, Stella James, the daughter-in-law of the real Jesse James.

The bad feelings between the two dated to a confrontation in Missouri, where she had exposed him as an impostor by producing one of her father-in-law's wedding shoes. It was size 6½, far too small for the would-be Jesse, author Ted Yeatman wrote in his book, "Frank and Jesse James."

Rather than lock him up, Los Angeles police turned him over to authorities for a sanity hearing.

There, a judge allowed Frank Wickheiser, an old friend of the family, to cross-examine the pretender.

The handlebar-mustachioed Wickheiser, who previously went by the name of Billy Judson for reasons he did not specify, said Jesse James had "raised me up from a kid."

Wickheiser eyeballed the subject.

"Hold your hands up," he ordered.

The self-described James raised his hands "for probably the first time in his life, if it was his life," The Times said.

"Where is your finger off?" Wickheiser asked him.

"My finger was never off," the subject answered.

"Goodnight!" Wickheiser said in disgust.

Asked for an explanation, Wickheiser told the judge that the real Jesse James, as a youth, had accidentally chopped off the tip of a finger on his left hand with a hatchet. (Other accounts say James lost it in a gun accident.)

"His third finger was off," Wickheiser repeated.

"To where?" the Jesse wannabe joked, perhaps to divert attention from the fact that he had held up 10 intact fingers.

The inquiry found the defendant to be sane.

"You're either the notorious bandit or else you are a notorious liar," the judge added.

"For a moment the old man turned his watery eyes, no hint of steely glint in them now, to the perplexed face of the jurist," The Times wrote. "A faint smile formed on his thin lips, which hid his toothless gums.... 'I'm Jesse James,' he said."

He disappeared from the news until a year later, when he was arrested on a charge of impersonation and obtaining money under false pretenses. He was in a sideshow on the old Ocean Park pier, where he gave "lectures about himself as the historic bandit," The Times said.

Research revealed the man to be one John William James.

The outcome of the Ocean Park case has been lost to history. But, according to Yeatman, the ersatz James died in a Little Rock, Ark., mental hospital in 1947.

Jesse James, however, had several real-life links to Southern California.

His son, also named Jesse, and daughter-in-law Stella retired to Los Angeles in their later years. The younger Jesse, who died in 1951, was a lawyer.

He was briefly in show business, playing his father in a 1921 movie, "Jesse James Under the Black Flag." He reportedly fainted twice during the scene in which the Dirty Little Coward shoots James in the back of the head as the latter is adjusting a painting on a wall.

A granddaughter of the outlaw worked as an escrow officer in a Culver City bank. Another granddaughter worked as a secretary in a Los Angeles bank.

And a great-grandson, James Ross, was an Orange County Superior Court judge who wrote the book "I, Jesse James," a collection of family stories. He died in 2007.

John William James was just one of several Jesse James impersonators over the years.

To clear up remaining doubts, descendants consented to a 1995 DNA analysis of the remains in Jesse James' casket. The verdict: It was probably Jesse.

Oddly enough, when he was unearthed, he was lying face down.

Biographer Yeatman wrote that some wondered if all of the "impostor stories, bad fiction and movies had caused Jesse James to turn over in his grave."

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