Visiting The Jesse James Home Museum in St. Joseph

The Jesse James Home Museum is a house in St. Joseph, Missouri where the outlaw Jesse James lived and was gunned down on April 3, 1882, by a member of the James Gang for reward money.

Many say it was Robert Ford who gunned him down, but there are other suspects in the murder of Jesse James. We visited the museum and while the house is small, there is a lot of history here for any Wild West fan. Keep reading to learn more about the last day of Jesse James’ life and the suspected killers as well his last home which is now a museum.

Jesse James Home Museum in St. Joseph, MO

The home where Jesse was killed is now a museum and located a little less than 1 hour from Kansas City, Missouri at 12th and Penn Street in Saint Joseph. The Jesse James Museum includes artifacts from Jesse’s life and death, as well as items from Frank James and the Ford brothers.

The Outlaw Jesse James

Jesse James Outlaw

Jesse James was a bank and train robber in the American Old West, best known as a member of the James-Younger gang of outlaws.

He was born in Kearney, Missouri, and is one of the Wild West’s most famous criminals.

Jesse James is said to have taken part in as many as 19 robberies of banks, trains, and stagecoaches in the midwest and as far as Mississippi and West Virginia.

Upwards of 20 people died as a result of the robberies, including seven of Jesse’s own gang.

Jesse James was one of America’s most successful bank robbers in the 1800’s and eluded authorities for nearly 15 years.

The Jesse James Home Museum in St. Joseph is just one of more than 10 places in Missouri you can visit that share the story of the outlaw Jesse James. In fact, we have a full Jesse James Roadtrip guide!

The James Farm and Museum in Kearney, the Jesse James Bank Museum in Liberty and The Independence Missouri Jail are some additional best museums showcasing the life of Jesse and Frank James as well as the James Gang.

The Jesse James Home

Front door of Jesse James Museum

The house where Jesse was killed is a one-story, Greek Revival-style house, and what surprised me most, was how small it was. It is just 24 feet, 2 inches wide, and 30 feet, 4 inches deep. 

Originally located at 1318 Lafayette Street, a block north of its current location, it was moved to be included as part of the Patee House Museum complex at 12th Street and Penn Street.

Plaque at Jesse James home in St. Joseph

The museum is a one-bedroom house and it has the famous bullet hole in the wall from the day Jesse James was shot in the back of the head.

From the porch, we entered the museum through the front door of the house, where we found ourselves in a small room with Jesse James memorabilia.

From there, we entered the living room, where a short movie plays about Jesse James. This sitting room is where Jesse was shot.

Living room of Jesse James Home

Standing in the living room, looking at the bullet hole in the wall where Jesse James was shot, turns wild west folklore into reality.

Jesse James bullet hole in wall

Technically it’s no longer exactly THE bullet hole since over the years, before becoming a museum, people have taken pieces of the wall as souvenirs.

Jesse was killed with a 44 caliber Smith and Wesson. While the museum doesn’t have the actual gun used, they have a gun on display that is similar to the one that was used.

44 Caliber Gun

From the sitting room, there are two additional rooms. The first, includes artifacts about Jesse James, the James Gang, and portraits of the James brothers.

James Boys Books
Portrait of Jesse James
Portrait of Jesse James

There’s also an interesting exhibit with artifacts from the grave including the coffin handles, a small tie pin Jesse James was wearing the day he was killed, a bullet removed from his right lung area, and a casting of his skull, showing the bullet hole behind his right ear.

There is also an exhibit detailing the exhumation of Jesse’s grave that took place in the 1990’s.

The second room is set up as a bedroom from the 1800s.

Jesee James on the run

After a life of notorious criminal activity that made Jesse James famous, the outlaw attempted to settle down, or at least hide from the law.

He moved to St. Joseph, Missouri on November 8, 1881, under the alias of Tom Howard with his wife Zerelda and two children, Jesse Jr and Mary where he rented a house.

On Christmas Eve 1881, he moved to a second house; this one on Lafayette Street. The docent at the museum explained that he moved to the Lafayette Street house because it was located 70 feet higher.

This gave him a better vantage point to see anyone riding towards the house. It was the days of riding horses and dirt roads — so he could see the dust from the dirt road from quite a distance if someone was riding towards his house.

Jesse lived here for 100 days.

The Day Jesse James was Shot

The short story that is told is that Bob Ford shot Jesse James in the back of the head when Jesse had his back turned to dust a photo in his home in St. Joseph for a $10,000 reward.

The longer story is that Charlie Ford had been living with Jesse and his family in the home. 10 days before Jesse was killed, Bob also came to live at the house.

A few months prior to this Bob Ford and additional gang member Dick Liddil surrendered to Sheriff James Timberlake in Ray County for the December 4, 1881 murder of Wood Hite (who was Jesse James’ cousin and also married to Ford’s sister), in Ray County, Missouri.

After their confession, Bob Ford and Liddil were brought in to meet with Governor Crittenden, who promised Ford a full pardon if he killed James, who was by then the most wanted criminal in the USA.

James Gang wanted sign

Legend has it that, after breakfast on April 3, 1882, Jesse, Charlie, and Bob moved into the sitting room to discuss a plan to rob the Platte City, Missouri Bank.

At some point that morning, Jesse read the daily newspaper and learned of his gang member Liddil’s confession for participating in Hite’s murder and grew increasingly suspicious of the Ford brothers for never reporting this information to him.

According to Robert Ford, it became clear to him that James had realized they were there to betray him. However, instead of scolding the Fords, Jesse walked across the living room to lay his revolvers on a sofa.

Jesse turned around and noticed his mother’s needlepoint above the mantel was crooked and stood on a chair in order to adjust it.

The docent of the museum confirmed that Jesse’s great-granddaughter Betty Barr says he was adjusting a needlepoint made by Jessie’s mother & not dusting a photo. It was common knowledge that Jesse’s wife Zerelda kept a tidy house and a picture would never be in need of dusting.

Some say it was Robert Ford who drew his weapon and shot James in the back of the head.

Other’s believe that both Bob and Charlie shot him from behind at the same time. Bob was in one corner of the room and Charlie in the other.

Jesse James was 34 years old. Bob Ford was 19. Charlie was 20.

After the killing, the Fords wired Crittenden to claim their reward. They surrendered themselves to legal authorities but were shocked to be charged with first-degree murder.

In one day, the Ford brothers were indicted, pleaded guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging. Two hours later Crittenden granted them a full pardon. They never received the reward money.

Was Jesse James shot in the head?

Jesse James Skull cast

The above is a casting of the outlaw Jesse James skull. The bullet entered behind his right ear and — some believe — came out over his left eye, leaving the legendary bullet hole in the wall.

The 1882 autopsy documented that a bullet entered his head behind the right ear and there was no exit wound.

Did Jesse James Fake His Death?

One of the bigger controversies was whether or not Jesse James faked his death to end his lawless career.

Did Jesse James really die in this home in 1882 or did he run and hide from the law? Rumors circulated for more than 100 years about this.

Jesse James photo dead

Jessie’s corpse was brought to the Heaton-Bowman-Smith funeral home in 1882, shortly after he was shot and where an autopsy was conducted. The funeral home now includes a small museum that has the original death ledger as well as the original casket (also called a corpse basket).

Jesse’s casket was considered a cheap pine box with silver-plated handles.

Jesse james casket
Jesse james undertaker's basket

Fast forward to 1995. James Starrs, a professor of law and forensic sciences at Geroge Washington University received court permission to exhume the body of Jesse James to obtain DNA.

Jesse James exhumation

At this time his body was buried at the Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearny, Missouri, just a few miles from his childhood home.

Jesse James items in grave

The above display is at the St. Joseph Home Museum and includes items from the 1995 exhumation of Jesse James.

Based on the DNA from the body in the grave and comparing it to known relatives and descendants of Jesse James, professor Starrs concluded with 99.7% certainty that the body in the grave was Jesse James.

James Gang

The 1995 exhumation verified it was Jessie James. It also confirmed that a bullet entered his head behind the right ear and there was no exit wound.

After the exhumation, a casting of his skull was created because the skull was found in 32 pieces in the grave.

The skull was reburied in 1995 in the Mt. Olivet gravesite in Clay County.

Who Shot Jesse James?

Bullet hole from jesse james death information

How is there a bullet hole in the wall, if the 1882 autopsy and 1995 exhumation confirm that a bullet entered his head behind the right ear and there is no exit wound?

So, does it make sense that both Bob and Charlie fired their guns when Jesse turned his back? 

Official testimony said that only Bob fired because he was a touch quicker. 

What do you think happened?

Jesse james Time Line

History of Jesse James

To get a better overview of the timeframe of Jesse James, I’ve bullet-pointed a few of the major milestones in the outlaw’s life. There are numerous other important dates in James’ life but below highlights the timeline leading up to his death in St. Joseph.

  • September 5, 1847 Jesse Woodson James was born on in Kearney, Missouri.
  • April 12, 1861 The Civil War began.
  • 1864 Jesse joins “Bloody” Bill Anderson’s guerilla forces at the age of sixteen.
  • April 9, 1865 The American Civil War ended
  • October 1864 Union soldiers ambush ” Bloody” Bill Anderson’s guerrillas in Independence, Missouri. Bill Anderson is killed. Jesse James and a few other guerrillas escape.
  • Early February 1866 Jesse and Frank James meet with Cole Younger to plan their first bank robbery.
  • February 12, 1866 A group of gunmen carried out the first daylight, peacetime, armed bank robberies in U.S. history. This happened in Clay County, Missouri and has been credited to the James Gang.
  • For The Next 12+ Years The James–Younger Gang robbed stagecoaches, stores, banks, and trains throughout the Midwest.
  • Apr 24 1874 Jesse James marries his cousin Zerelda (Zee) Mimms in Kansas City, Missouri.
  • September 7, 1876 In the infamous failed attempt to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota, the James-Younger Gang was destroyed. 3 members were killed and Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger were badly wounded but escaped and then captured just two weeks later. Frank and Jesse escaped back to Missouri unharmed.
  • October 8, 1879 The Chicago, Alton & St. Louis train at Glendale, Missouri, was robbed by the James Gang of about $10,000. This was the first robbery after the demise of the James-Younger Gang.
  • 1880 Robert Ford met Jesse James. Robert was 18, and along with his older brother, Charles, he joined the James Gang.
  • September 1880- September 7, 1881 Several additional James Gang robberies from trains, banks, stagecoaches.
  • December 24, 1881 Tom Howard (a Jesse James alias) and family rent a house on Lafayette Street in St. Joseph, Missouri.
  • January 10, 1881 Thomas Theodore Crittenden was sworn in as Missouri’s 24th governor. He offered $5,000 each for the capture of Frank and Jesse James and $5,000 each for the capture, arrest, and conviction of the remainder of the James Brothers Gang. The governor paid out $20,000 in reward money provided by Missouri railroads but refused to divulge to whom.
  • January 1882 Bob Ford and gang member Dick Liddil surrendered to Sheriff James Timberlake in Ray County. They were brought into meet with Crittenden. Crittenden promised Ford a full pardon if he killed James, who was by then the most wanted criminal in the USA.
  • April 3, 1882 Jesse James was shot and killed in St. Joseph, Missouri by the Ford brothers to collect half of the $10,000 bounty placed on James and his brother Frank, by Governor Thomas T. Crittenden.
  • October 5, 1882 Frank James surrendered to Governor Crittenden in Jefferson City. He was in fear of being assasinated for the reward money.
  • Governor Crittenden paid out $20,000 in reward money provided by Missouri railroads but refused to divulge to whom.
  • May 6, 1884 Charles Ford committs suicide after being on the run since Jesse’s murder because he was scared to death of Frank James.
  • June 8, 1892 Bob Ford is shot down in a saloon in Creede, Colorado by Ed O’Kelley.

Jesse James Home Museum

This is a very short tour and it’s not guided. It’s a small place, but very interesting. The docent working during my visit was a wealth of information.

Next door to the house is a small graveyard with tombstones from the 1850s that were moved from the Russell Cemetery in the 1970s. Take a peek around the side of the house to see this tiny graveyard.

tombstones from the 1850s

The Jesse James Home was acquired by the Pony Express Historical Association in 1977.

While the Jesse James home museum takes about 10-15 minutes to see, unless you chat with the docent, plan on several hours for the Patee House Museum.

Jesse James Home Museum is located at 1201 S 12th St, Saint Joseph, MO 64503

I recommend calling to confirm hours due to weather and volunteer availability. Admission: $4; age 60+, $3; age 6-17, $2.

The Jesse James Home Museum is part of the Patee House Museum complex.

The Jesse James Museum is just a small part of the history of St. Joseph.

If you love Old West history, next door to the Jesse James Home Museum is the Patee House Museum and 1860 Pony Express headquarters. The museum is housed in an 1858 former luxury Patee House Hotel and is filled to the brim with anything and everything you can imagine from the 1800s and beyond including a mock town with stores, a saloon and businesses.

Other attractions include the Glore Psychiatric Museum, the Remington Nature Center, and Krug Park. There is a lot to explore in St. Joseph.

Make it an Overnight: St. Joseph Hotels

For St. Joseph lodging, the Whiskey Mansion Bed & Breakfast, and the Shakespeare Chateau Inn & Gardens Bed & Breakfast are great choices for those looking for a historic vibe (which you most likely are, considering you’re on a Jesse James Road Trip).

Check or for the best hotel prices in St. Joseph.

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