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Danville author digs past stigma and silence to write about family of outlaw Jesse James

By Stephen Burnett
KyForward correspondent

As an actor in Broadway plays and on television, author Eric F. James of Danville was not accustomed to death threats. But, Eric said, that probably should be expected when one begins studying and writing about the family of infamous outlaw Jesse James.

(Photo from Eric F. James)

It’s like the reverse of studying Elvis, he said: Conspiracies abound.

But while many people may wish the rock ‘n’ roll king still lived, some in 1882 were horrified at the accusation that the bandit king actually cheated death.

“When Jesse was assassinated (in 1882), the family was left with what to make of it all,” Eric explained. “Immediately off the bat, they were being accused that Jesse had faked his death; that wasn’t him in the coffin, and you’re doing this for publicity and money, and all those kinds of things. … People are still claiming that Jesse lived to be 120 years old!”

To this day, that stigma — much of it based on very real persecutions against them — haunts James family members. That partly led to Eric’s own search for answers, delving into his own genealogy and then that of the more-infamous James family more than 10 years. Now with last month’s publication of Jesse James: Soul Liberty, the author has begun a five-book series that explores the family’s story. That book’s subtitle is Behind the Family Wall of Stigma and Silence.

There’s apparently no shortage of interest in the Jesse James family story. Copies of Eric’s book sold out before his recent appearance at the Historic Midway Museum and Store in Midway recently. And six people came to that event who professed their own connections to the James family. One said he owned the farm where Jesse and Frank James’s mother’s grandparents are buried, James said. Another man said that he owned a farm in Kearney, Mo., that adjoined the farm where Jesse and Frank James were born.

Eric James doesn’t claim a relation. People reading his books can judge for themselves, he said.

“I’ve put my life on the line; I’ve put my reputation on the line,” he said, adding that he wants to explore facts based on family members’ testimonies and historical record — unlike some other authors who repeat the wanton hyperbole that marked Jesse James’ life even while he lived.

Search for family

Growing up himself in Chicago’s south side, politically owned by the Democrats and the Daley family, Eric’s family already had one connection to a famous frontiersman: land once owned by Levi Boone, great-nephew of Daniel Boone. But cousins expressed curiosity about James’s surname. “Like Jesse James?” they would ask. Eric thought that a very unlikely stretch.

But when he asked Jesse’s great aunts, they would respond with something like: “‘You know all you need to know about Jesse James, and that’s that.’”

Eric couldn’t have known that when he chose a school history course over a Russian course, that would later help him pursue that family riddle. “What made the course advanced is we weren’t taught history; we were taught to teach ourselves history,” James explained. “We had to pick a subject of our own interest and go research it. … Then near the end of the semester, we would present a paper to our class, and it would not be the teacher who would grade us, but our fellow classmates who would question us on the subject for two days and then give us a grade.”

That proved to help him throughout all of life — during acting in Broadway shows, to some appearances on television (including a Colombo bit role), to his 35-year career in real estate.

Eric’s focus changed in the 1990s when both his parents died within nine months of each other.

“You begin to feel the loss of family,” James said. Family aunts and uncles were also dying. He began to realize that those family members rarely discussed their own genealogy.

Although some of his family members were gone or not speaking, the Internet was available. So Eric began posting on genealogical bulletin boards, offering information and seeking more. At that point he hadn’t even thought of any research into the outlaw-James family.

One breakthrough came with an email from a teacher in Texas. She said Eric should talk to an 80-year-old woman in Somerset, Kentucky, who would know all about his family history.

And that she did. After Eric spoke with the woman, she began sending him large packages of records once a week for 10 weeks.

In 2002 came a second breakthrough: another large package sent by a relative of Joan M. Beamis, author of Background of a Bandit. She began researching that 80-page James family history in 1950. All proceeds from its 1970 publication went to the Kentucky Historical Society.

“Inside that FedEx box were all of her search files that went into the making of that book,” he said. “In those files there was a letter in which she talked about her first efforts at trying to find out about the family. She had grown up not knowing anything about the relationship until she was in high school.”

Then one day Beamis’ father let it slip that she was the first cousin of Jesse James. But he refused to say more, and dropped the subject.  

Another of Beamis’ relatives, visibly shaken, also admitted the relation. It was enough to pique Beamis’ interest and spark her research, Eric said.

Likewise, Beamis’ work urged James onward – and back to Kentucky, specifically to Baptist churches.

Kentucky connections

The James family banded together in colonial Virginia during the American revolution, Eric said, and later became rebel Baptist preachers, ostracized because of their lack of registration. Coming to Kentucky, they started several Baptist churches, some of which remain to this day.

One of those is Flat Lick Baptist Church, founded in 1799 in Shopville, Kentucky.

When Eric visited the church for his research, one of the deacon’s’ first questions was, “‘Tell us your history with Frank and Jesse James, because we’re writing our church history,’” he said. Of course, Eric replied that he did not know, which apparently what the deacon had hoped to hear from them.

It turned out that Baptist church records were a better way to trace the James family.

Eric learned, for example, about the Rev. Jeremiah Vardeman, a Flat Lick Baptist Church member who gave the Rev. Robert S. James — father of Frank and Jesse — $20,000 to move to Missouri and start a college. Using that years-ago experience of finding records on his own, James visited courthouses, attics and churches, doing research however he could.

As for the James brothers’ mother, Zerelda Cole, her father was Richard Cole Jr., owner of two Woodford County taverns. In 1825 Cole was born at one of those inns. “The (James) boys used to come and steal horses from Airdrie Farm … and also from other farms in the area,” he said.

Oddly, people Eric met along the way echoed a refrain he had once heard from his own kin: “‘You know all you need to know.’”

Fewer of those fears were evident in the records of in-law families — those who had married James family members, but did not carry the surname. Often they had more information about the James family than they had about themselves, Eric said. That led him to a third level of research – records in communities where the in-laws had lived.

In 2003, Eric moved to Kentucky at the recommendation of Ron Bryant, a former director member of the Kentucky Historical Society. At about that same time, another recommendation would set Eric on the path to writing five books – from Judge James R. Ross, Jesse James’s great-grandson. During a half-hour meeting that turned to an all-day discussion at Ross’ home, Ross suggested Eric write a book that would provide yet-unpublished details on the entire James family.

“Little did I know he handed me a 10-year sentence to hard labor,” Eric said.

Soul Liberty

The stigma persisted. Several family members wouldn’t talk with him; some warned him to mind his own business.

“I started to convince them that this wasn’t going to be just another ‘building up the legend and mythology’ — just trying to get down to the hard facts of what happened,” Eric explained. “Some started opening up to me, and they’re accounted in the book. Their stories are told in their words.”

The book also covers several examples of real stigmas against the family, perhaps based on their infamous ancestor. One of them, Daniel Lewis James Jr., co-wrote the film The Great Dictator (1940) with Charlie Chaplin, but was later blacklisted from Hollywood work.

Many writers, publishers and leaders are members of the James family, Eric said. Yet they still keep their connections quiet.

“I can’t explain why (the family stigma) is, but it appears now to be genetic,” James offered. “In doing all this work, I’ve come into contact with a lot of genealogists, and a lot of genealogists seem to be of the belief that a lot of those things like behaviors, not just physical characteristics, can be transferred from generation to generation.”

Other books and media about Frank and Jesse James haven’t helped. Out of the hundreds that have been published, only three have sources to back up their facts, Eric said.

To those three books, Eric hopes to add his own, starting with next year’s release of his second book covering more of the outlaw-James’s family’s origins.

“I imagine these books will take me to my grave,” he said, laughing. “Between finishing these books and writing these books and promoting these books, and answering the questions (from interviewers), my time is going to be quite consumed, I think.”

Meanwhile, Eric along with Judge Ross (who died in 2007) started a James Preservation Trust to address family issues, and even set up a system to DNA-test professing James family members. The trust has confirmed several claims and issued challenges to others, such as to TV motorcycle customizer Jesse James.

Early reviews and Internet sales for Jesse James: Soul Liberty have been positive. The rest of the books will continue the family’s Kentucky connections. That may include one side of the James family, recently found and confirmed, who was related to slave traders who started banks in Lexington. Some of those banks still exist, so “that may rock Lexington’s world,” he said.

But Eric added that provoking questions and discussion is only a secondary fruit of his quest.

“What greater way to get somebody interested in taking a course or in studying history, if it’s not about you? That’s what keeps me going now. As much as I’m dealing with 5,000 living relatives of Frank and Jesse James and almost 3,000 people associated with them throughout their history — I’m learning about their histories, too — this is essentially about me.

“If we could start teaching children, say, ‘Look we’re going to start talking about you and your family,’” and teach them skills to do that, he added, “what better way to teach them a lifetime of work but also integration into society?”

Even basic-level genealogy teaches you about your family and how you act and live, Eric said. That may be one way to help children discern their connections beyond self-interest, celebrity cravings and the present, he added.

“It’s a social responsibility for not only ourselves and our lives, but our communities. That’s how we build communities that are strong.”

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