Fake Jesse or Real Jesse?

Death photo of Jesse James or Charley Bigelow?
According to a lot of seemingly knowledgeable people, Jesse James the outlaw did not die at the hands of Bob Ford in St. Joseph, Missouri on April 3, 1882. Often referred to as "America's Robin Hood," the rumors and stories that it was all staged for Jesse to escape his past and begin a new life are still being debated today. So where do these folks believe he lived out his life? In the small Texas town of Granbury.

Most know the story of how Jesse supposedly died. While at his home in Missouri, Bob Ford and his brother came to visit their friend Jesse. Unbeknownst to Jesse though, the Fords had entered into an agreement with the governor to kill Jesse for a pardon of their crimes and the reward money. Jesse removed his gun belt and turning his back to his "friends," stepped up on a chair to straighten a picture hanging on the wall. Bob quickly drew his revolver and shot the unarmed Jesse in the head and then ran from the house.

Members of Jesse's family, his friends, former members of Quantrill's Guerrillas, the doctor who prepared the body for burial, and a few citizens who had recently been robbed by Jesse all identified the body as Jesse James.  But if his death was staged, would the tight-knit James family members say it wasn't really Jesse laying there in that coffin? Would members of Quantrill's Guerrillas, men who had taken an oath to protect each other, men who had ridden with Jesse and had suffered together and fought side-by-side in some of the most ferocious, bloody, in-close and hand-to-hand battles fought during America's most in-humane war, turn on one of their brothers? The doctor who examined the body told Jesse's son that he knew it wasn't really Jesse because he had examined him 6 months earlier and found he had cataracts in his eyes. The body buried as Jesse did not have any eye problems. 

What about the citizens who had recently been robbed by Jesse? In the area at this time was a man by the name of Charley Bigelow who looked so much like Jesse James that even Jesse said "he could be my twin." Bigelow was supposedly an undercover detective for the Pinkerton Agency, but was actually committing robberies of travelers and small stores. Trying to throw off the law, he often would say, "You've just been robbed by Jesse James!" before riding off. Before fingerprints or DNA was even dreamed about, a mistaken identity is totally understandable

Many researchers claim it was Bigelow who was laid to rest under the tombstone engraved with the name Jesse James. Within weeks, Bob Ford was granted his pardon by the governor and the reward money? Well, the story has always been told that the governor got the majority of that $10,000 and Ford had to be grateful just to have gotten his pardon.

Headstone in Granbury for J. Frank Dalton or 
Jesse James? Writing at the bottom of the 
stone states, "Supposedly killed in 1882"
The story goes that friends and family members helped Jesse escape to South America until the news of his death became widely known and accepted in America. At that point, he came back and changing names as often as he changed his underwear, safely lived a law-abiding life mostly in Oklahoma and Texas. For a short time, he served as a sheriff in Oklahoma Territory and even as a Texas Ranger. In old age, he finally took the name J. Frank Dalton which is the name he died with. Why J. Frank Dalton? Dalton was his mother's maiden name and Frank was his beloved brother. The "J" was, of course, for Jesse.

   Jesse, or "J. Frank Dalton," began telling stories shortly before his death, of the exploits he had undertaken in his younger days. In many of these stories he included facts that only someone who had actually been there would know. When he died, the undertaker who performed the autopsy confirmed that J. Frank Dalton had the exact same wounds in the exact same places as Jesse James was known to have. He also confirmed that Mr. Dalton had suffered for years from failing eyesight due to cataracts.

Visitors to his grave often leave small tokens, mostly
coins, bullets, and whiskey. 

Could Jesse have pulled off one of the greatest hoaxes in American history by faking his own death? Is the real Jesse James buried in an unremarkable grave in little Granbury, Texas? According to some historians and J. Frank Dalton's headstone, perhaps he did.

Center of Texas Oak Tree

Center Oak
In 1871, a geographical survey determined the center of Texas to be in the tiny settlement called Hughes Store. In the middle of this settlement was a large oak tree which, according to the old timers, had been there as long as anyone knew. The survey crew decided this old oak tree was growing in the exact center of Texas and placed a "this is the spot" marker beside it. The tree shortly became known as Center Oak and a town began to grow around the tree to serve the needs of the hard working families living in the scattered ranch and farm houses.

Taking it's cue from the Center Oak, the town's residents voted to change the community's name to Center City, a rather intrepid declaration of their intention to become important. When places so small they can barely be called a town change their name to include "city," it's a sure sign the residents are people with vision and ambition. Perhaps Center City could have become an actual city if all the people's dreams came true and, for a while anyway, their dreams actually were well on the way to fulfillment. 

Several mercantile establishments opened and then a bank and a hotel were built. A blacksmith shop and several saloons came next. A gristmill opened and a post office was gained in 1874. Soon, stage and freight coaches began stopping in town for a change of horses, to drop off and pick up mail and to load and unload travelers.  Until a 2-room school could be constructed, classes were held for the children of the area beneath the old oak tree. Plans were made for Center City to become the seat of government for Mills County and a large plot of land which included the Center Oak was reserved for a courthouse. While plans were being developed for the courthouse and funds sought, the giant Center Oak tree provided shade for the court trials that were held under its spreading branches and a traveling preacher began holding church services beneath those same branches every other Sunday.

In 1885 however, the dreams for Center City to actually become a city were dashed when the railroad bypassed the town, choosing instead to establish a stop in Goldthwaite which then became the county seat. In the early 1900's, surveyors, using newer and more accurate tools, determined the geographic center of Texas was actually about 50 miles west of the Center Oak tree along a lonely, middle-of-nowhere section of Highway 377. Center City continued as an ongoing commercial center for a few years, but it lost any chance it had to actually fulfill the goal of those early dreams. Slowly, over time, with one or another business going under every couple of years, with the closing of the school and finally the closing of the post office in the mid-1920's, Center City simply gave up and reverted back to a settlement of scattered ranches and farms.

In the late 1930's, the state decided to widen Highway 7 between Goldthwaite and Gatesville. Construction plans callously called for removal of the old historic oak. The remaining citizens however, knowing the significance of the tree and perhaps feeling it stood as a symbol of their shattered but still remembered dreams, banded together in a show of will to protect it. Letters were written, meetings were held, threats against the road crews and their machines were made and the state conceded. The highway was re-routed 100 feet to the north. The Center Oak was saved and Center City went back to sleep.

Time has a way of slipping by and today it seems it has completely forgotten Center City. It's no longer listed on most state maps and appears on numerous "Ghost Towns of Texas" lists. Other than the 12 remaining residents, all that's left is a small combination general store and gas station, an old lodge building, a small church and the Center City cemetery which was established in 1874 and contains more than 500 graves. Sadly, the Center Oak tree died in 2011 after bearing witness to the birth and gradual death of a town and men's dreams. During its life, it provided shade for roving bands of Indians, cowboys, Texas Rangers, pioneers, ranchers and farmers, romantic picnics and lawless men being tried for their crimes. For the last 100 years though, all it has seen has been the changing of the seasons. It's not known for sure what caused such a magnificent old-timer to die. Perhaps like Center City itself, it just got tired and gave up the fight.