Betty Dorsett Duke Book All Smoke, No Gun

BOOK REVIEW: Jesse James: The Smoking Gun by Betty Dorsett Duke (Betty Dorsett Duke: 2011), 337 pp., soft cover, $19.

By Nancy B. Samuelson

This is the third book written by Betty Dorsett Duke in an attempt to convince the world that her great-grandfather, James L. Courtney, was really Jesse James. Like her previous books, this one is another example of half-baked ideas, lack of scholarship, and wild imagination.

Jesse James, The Smoking Gun-book

The smoking gun is a photograph that Ms. Duke bought on e-bay. She claims this photo was taken in Texas in 1875 and is the wedding photo of Frank and Annie James with friends and family, including Belle Starr. The photograph is most likely one taken in 1888 at the time Mrs. Caroline Quantrill

(mother of the famed guerrilla leader) visited Missouri. Mrs. Quantrill was given a reception at Blue Springs, Missouri in May 1888. There was also an ice cream social held in her honor and she spent some time in September visiting with Mrs. Reuben Samuel, the mother of Jesse and Frank James. Woodcuts or sketches of Mrs. Quantrill appeared in the Kansas City Journal, the Kansas City Star, and other newspapers during her stay in Missouri. This same photo that Duke labels her “smoking gun” is currently displayed on quantrillsguerrillas.com and Mrs. Samuel and Mrs. Quantrill are identified as the two elderly ladies in the center of the photo.

There are other misidentified and questionable photos in the book as well. On page 280 there is a photo identified as Arkansas Tom Dalton. This man is, in fact, Roy Daugherty, alias Arkansas Tom Jones. He was a member of the Bill Doolin gang and was captured after the gun battle in Ingalls, Oklahoma Territory on September 1, 1893. On page 138 there is a supposed picture of Wood Hite, a cousin of Jesse and Frank James and a sometime member of the James gang. There has never been a published photo of Wood Hite as far as I know. Some time ago I contacted the Logan County, Kentucky Historical Society in an attempt to locate photos of the Hite family. The Society does not know of any photos of this family.  They did supply a couple of photos of some of the Hite graves. Several more of the photos in this book are very questionable as well.

Ms. Duke spends a great deal of space recounting all the problems with the Dr. James Starrs  exhumation and DNA testing of Jesse James in 1995. She has said most of this before, and many other people have questioned this as well, including this reviewer. Ms. Duke does add a new wrinkle in this book. She now says Stephen Caruso, Deputy Counselor for Clay County, Missouri in 1995, admits that the hair and tooth from the James Farm that was provided to Dr. Starrs was not what it was said to be. Caruso has allegedly stated that the hair provided was from the head of John Hartman the Director of Clay County Parks Department and the tooth was not from the James Farm. If this information is correct then the Starrs DNA testing was completely and totally faked.

Ms. Duke has a lot of other misinformation in her book. She claims there is no documented evidence that Frank and Jesse James lived in Tennessee. There was testimony in both of Frank James’ trials to the effect that he lived in Tennessee and was known as Ben Woodson while there. She states that Rev. Robert S. James reportedly died in a mining camp called Rough and Ready (since renamed Placerville) California.  Rough and Ready still exists today and Placerville is a completely different town.

A lot of people change identity here and there throughout the book. None of this is explained to the satisfaction of this reviewer. Quanah Parker becomes a good friend of the James boys and builds a house for them according to Duke. It is very odd that none of the biographies about Quanah Parker have ever mentioned this. Burk Burnett, Dan Waggoner, Billy Dixon and several other well known western characters are brought up in this book.  Duke claims most of these men were associated with her great-grandfather James L. Courtney. Evidence to support these claims is either lacking completely or very garbled.

Ms. Duke comes across as very paranoid in this book. She makes a lot of claims about the “James Establishment” putting her down because if the truth were known then the James Farm and some other museums would lose money. She also claims that some of these “James Establishment” people are making threats to harm her and her family.

In summary, this is another very bad book trying to prove that Bob Ford did not kill Jesse James in April 1882. Unless you find crackpot theories highly entertaining do not waste your money on this book.

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Stalkers of Famous & Infamous Families (posted July 28, 2010)