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Granbury, Texas -- where the dead go to be buried

Saturday, September 02, 2000

GRANBURY, Texas -- Among the various graves of Jesse James, my personal favorite lies in a dusty patch of burial ground in the flatlands of east Texas, where a small stone monument honors either the king of bandits or the irresistible logic of stubbornness.

"There is," said the store lady who directed me to the graveyard, "some controversy." She spoke the last word in tones ordinarily reserved for such admissions as derangement, alcoholism or having voted for Michael Dukakis.

Perhaps the stone, placed some years back by true believers, explains it best:

Jesse Woodson James
Sept. 5, 1847 -- Aug. 15, 1951
Supposedly killed in 1882

The resolve of Texans to believe that the mortal remains beneath that stone are those of Jesse James dates to the turn of the century, when J. Frank Dalton turned up to work the local railroads. He became close to the town and, in moments of trust, confided his great secret: He was Jesse James. The fellow shot in Missouri was an impostor.

Dalton came and went over the years. At one point, there were reports of a 102nd birthday party out of state. In 1951, an antique man claiming to be 103 was wheeled into Granbury on a stretcher. It was Dalton, dying, and come back for a last look at the town he loved.

Locals were touched by his loyalty. Many paid 25 cents each to look at him in his rented room.

"It was embarrassing. They were exploiting the old man," said Mary Kate Durham, a Granbury historian who believes Frank Dalton really was Jesse James, but objects to anyone charging strangers two bits to watch him die.

Die he did. Locals buried Dalton/James in a borrowed plot in the town cemetery and, in competition with Kearney, Mo., as well as one other town, laid claim to laying Jesse James in the earth.

It was only a matter of time before DNA testing caught up with the controversy. Bud Hardcastle, an Oklahoma car dealer who firmly believes in the Dalton-James claim, set out to prove, conclusively, scientifically, undeniably, that the man in the grave was Jesse.

"I did 20 years of research on the subject," Hardcastle said. "I went into the caves he hid out in when he was supposed to be dead. He stayed in my grandfather's house in the '20s."

Hardcastle began a campaign to exhume the body, take a section of bone, and submit it for DNA testing against known descendants of the James family. That someone found James DNA in a tooth taken from the family farm where Jesse was originally put to rest does not impress Hardcastle.

That, he said, could be any James tooth.

After $8,000 in legal fees, the great day arrived on May 30. A retinue of true believers, outright skeptics, morbid reporters and someone with a backhoe broke the ground and lifted up a steel vault containing the remains of William Henry Holland, whose resting place had, until that moment, been a mystery to his descendants.

"They dug up the wrong man," lamented Durham, who became highly suspicious when the anthropologists who examined the body noticed that it had only one arm. Perhaps Dr. Richard Kimball was looking for such a man, but the one they wanted died with both arms intact.

"They had the tombstone over the wrong grave," said Hardcastle, who hopes to go back into the ground sometime this month and extract the correct Jesse.

In late August, Holland's relatives gathered to rebury their man. Jesse James' tombstone -- one of them, anyway -- sat behind the plot, where it has been kept out of the way for the next dig.

Granbury, which also boasts being the hideout of John Wilkes Booth after the wrong man was killed and buried up north, is planning a "Roar Back to the '20s" theme day this weekend. It will include re-enactments and a one-woman play on the life of Bonnie Parker, half of the bank-robbing duo of Bonnie and Clyde.

Seems they stopped there one day in the '30s and had this picnic on the courthouse lawn ...

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