On April 3, 1882, the famous outlaw Jesse James got up to straighten and dust a picture hanging on the wall of his Missouri home. A new recruit to his gang, Robert Ford, sneaked up behind him, drew a revolver, and fatally shot him in the back of the head.
A decade later, Ford was shot to death in a saloon in Colorado at age 30.
Jesse’s death has been immortalized in film and books and now, a tintype and heirloom from a centuries-old family connection has emerged that depicts something remarkable: James seated next to his killer, Robert Ford.
And a renowned forensic artist — the same one who identified the sailor who kissed the nurse in Times Square and a photo of that other outlaw, Billy the Kid — has declared that the photo is authentic, the Houston Chronicle reported.
The tintype is undated. In it, two stony-faced but young and handsome men are seated side by side, one bearded and the other clean-shaven. Sandra Mills’ grandmother, Isabelle Klemann, used to tell her stories about that photo and her family’s connection to the James gang. She kept it wrapped in a handkerchief in her dresser drawer, History added.
“This is Jesse James and the coward Robert Ford,” Klemann would tell her granddaughter.
The tintype of the famous pair was owned by Mills’ ancestors, John and Pauline Higgins. They’re believed to have harbored Jesse and his gang in their Cedar County, Missouri, farmhouse in the 1870s. The snapshot was passed down five generations until it reached Mills. Her grandma wanted her to sell it and use the profits to buy land. But no one believed that the photo of Jesse James and Robert Ford was real.
“I’m just a farm girl, so nobody wanted to listen. We got no respect from anybody.”
Like Billy the Kid, James rarely sat for photos, as he was often on the run from the law, and therefore pictures of him are extremely rare — and valuable.
Mills reached out to forensic artist Lois Gibson, who gave her the amazing news. After a lengthy study, she declared that the picture is the real thing: like grandma Isabelle always said, it shows the famous outlaws seated together before their friendship came to a violent end.
The first corroborating piece of evidence comes from Mills’ family connection to the James clan. Respected historian Fred Cruse Hardison has studied the James family tree and found that Pauline was a first cousin of Jesse’s sister-in-law, Annie Ralston. In 2015, that may not sound like much of a connection, but in the 19th century Midwestern frontier, the link was tight, and the two likely were neighbors.
James also had an extensive web of accomplices more than happy to hide them in their farmhouses while they evaded justice. It’s not a stretch for Hardison to believe Mills’ ancestors were part of that web.
Gibson’s findings are more remarkable, though controversial.
In addition to the fact that the man being referred to as Robert Ford really looks like Robert Ford, she found that the facial features in Mills’ tintype match those in other photos of Jesse. She transposed four photos of him on top of the new one, and found the hairline, nostril shape, the distance between the nose and upper lip, the bigger left eye, and the longer eyebrow all matched up.
Even the way Jesse sits in another full-body photo matches his posture — which he had to hold for a full minute — in this one.
If authentic, the photo of Jesse James and his killer, Robert Ford, could fetch millions of dollars, like a likeness of Billy the Kid did in 2011. A newly authenticated photo of him could garner $5 million.
But a man who claims to be a descendant of Jesse has lambasted both Mills and Gibson, claiming the latter compared the tintype to unverified photos, and that her scientific scrutiny wasn’t up to snuff. So far, he’s the only one to accuse her of being a “liar,” “con-artist,” and “fraud.”
One thing is clear, the hunger for a picture of Jesse James — and one with him next to Robert Ford — is strong, said a biographer of the outlaw, T.J. Stiles.
“We have to assume that he did not have many photographs taken of himself, and that only those closest to him ever got their hands on one. But we want so much to find that hidden treasure, that rare photograph of the eternal fugitive.”
[Photo Courtesy “Jesse james portrait”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]