From what lair and hideaway of authors is the history of Jesse James and his family being written today? The places may not be where you suspect.
“I wrote Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War in a study in a floor-through apartment in a brownstone on 6th Avenue in Brooklyn, between Park Place and Sterling, and finished it at a desk in the living room of a basement apartment in another brownstone on the same block, after I was forced to move. In both places I usually went out for lunch; I got a Jamaican beef patty and coco bread or ate at the little North African restaurant next door, where they baked fresh, from scratch, each pita in a pizza oven, even if you just had the lentil soup with caramelized onions. I am still haunted by the memory of those delicious tan disks, puffed like balloons as they came out of the wide oven door.”
Stiles’ memorandum prompted me to describe the places where I wrote Jesse James Soul Liberty, Behind the Family Wall of Stigma & Silence.
My years of research began in my home base at The Meridian in California. I was living in a townhouse in the heart of downtown Dana Point, where I was a city commissioner. The great-grandson of Jesse James, Judge James R. Ross, lived nearby in Fullerton. Judge Ross also kept a summer retreat in San Clemente next door. In Fullerton, Judge Ross sentenced me to 10 years of hard labor. He charged me, “Why don’t you write a book about the Jesse James family? Everyone writes about Frank and Jesse. No one ever writes about the family.”
Years of accumulated research that I acquired while I traveled extensively back and forth across the nation filled my townhouse to overflowing. I needed more space, affordable space, and a lot of it. I retreated from Dana Point to Danville, Kentucky. Historian Ron Bryant, then associated as research historian at the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort, advised me, “If you just move to Kentucky, instead of making all your research excursions here, the doors of Kentucky history will open for you.” Ron could not have given me better advice. I moved, and indeed the doors of information opened widely. Ron became my guiding authority, trusted guru, and friend.
At the turn of the previous century, Margaret Sallee and her husband Thomas Stratton Lanier built the Victorian home I occupied in Danville. The name of their daughter Edna graces Danville’s Edna L. Toliver School today, where Edna was the school’s principal. Next door, In the four-square house, lived the Hamlins. Robert Hamlin is a Samuel family descendant from the family of Jesse’s step- father Reuben Samuel. His wife, Mary Stith, operates the family business, the Stith Funeral Home.
Their daughter, Anne Yeager Hamlin-McCrosky, herself a third generation undertaker, assisted me when Judge Ross also tasked me with the exhumation of Jesse James’ twin children in Tennessee and subsequent re-internment with their parents in Kearney, Missouri. From the confines of my Victorian drawing-room in Danville, in the dusty midst of a cacophony of tradesmen, coming and going, constantly creating and solving decades of historical problems, I set forth to tear the old house apart and restore it. As I did, I proceeded to write my history of the Jesse James family.
A couple of years later, I and my writing removed to a comfy, new, clean and quiet, townhouse on the outskirts of Danville. In the serenity and quietude there, my book lumbered near to completion. I took the smallest of the three bedrooms of the townhouse for my writing space. The room only was big enough for a desk, a printer, a phalanx of reference bookshelves, a closet full of stationary and office supplies, and the mega-story of my book. Total focus was mine.
Completing my book occurred in Danville’s old Hemp House situated on Kentucky’s historic Wilderness Road. I could not resist the lure of living in a 200-hundred-year-old home, where history is pungent as the musk of every room and no floor is straight. In a room addition of the Civil War period, constructed above a cistern and well, my first volume of Jesse James Soul Liberty, Volume I was completed. and sent forward to publication and sale from amazon the world.
I now am writing Volume II, This Bloody Ground, in the oldest part of the house, built circa 1800.
This second volume focuses upon Jesse’ grandfather, from the American Revolution to his frontier Kentucky settlement and demise that left Jesse’s father an orphan. From my computer screen, I can gaze outside my window upon the old Wilderness Trail that I am writing about. It is the trail first blazed by Daniel Boone into the Kentucky frontier, together with his trusted ax man Johannes Vardeman. Boone is a direct ancestor of Jesse James’ grandchildren and their progeny. Vardeman is a James family in-law. Later, Jesse and Frank’s grandfather John M. James patrolled the Wilderness Road, as John secured protection for the migrants who entered into this blood land.
In this author’s well, I am inspired to open two doors, one door to the earliest history of the Jesse James family and the second door to the earliest formation of the Kentucky Commonwealth as the Jesse James family built it.