All posts by Eric F. James

Meet Eric James - a Broadway & TV has-been, living in the Kentucky Bluegrass. A former law journalist turned politico, blogger, publisher, author, historian, archivist, & lecturer, Eric continues to build upon the success he earned during his 16 years in show business & 35 years as a pioneer in international real estate brokerage. Presently, Eric is writing Volume II of his five-volume history of the family of Frank & Jesse James- Jesse James Soul Liberty. He also publishes & writes their official web site Stray Leaves, and blog Leaves of Gas.

A Mountain of Genealogy Comes Down to Earth as Entertaining History

screenshot of book review

“Mr. James has conquered the Everest of writing a family history genealogy book that is interesting enough for the rest of us to want to read.”

Transforming 12 years of genealogy research into a biographical history book that appeals to most any reader who enjoys a good tale, indeed, has been one of the most formidable challenges of my life.

Physically, I’ve never climbed Mt. Everest, though the prospect of doing so often has fascinated me since I was a  teen. I preferred writing to mountain climbing.

Having now climbed the Mt. Everest of turning a massive genealogy database of close to 300,000 related people into an epic view of one family and their panoramic history, and the reflection of their discovery of self in that view, has left me standing on the mountaintop, definitely feeling the chill of the thrill. When I was the author standing alone on the mountaintop, though, I was challenged with bringing that thrill back to earth in an intimate and engaging story for the average reader. This was the most formidable challenge in writing Jesse James Soul Liberty.

Eastman’s Genealogy Newsletter is a primary meeting ground for genealogists and family historians at all levels of experience. From how-to and tech tips to the latest news in archival development and events, Eastman’s covers the full spectrum of genealogical interest. In recent months, the book reviews of Bobbi King have been added as a regular feature.

Bobbi King has reviewed a couple of family history books on Eastman’s before mine. Mostly they appear as personal memoirs, more than an objective history book. So I was very pleased when Bobbi accepted the challenge to review mine.

In her book review of Jesse James Soul Liberty, Bobbi King gently reminds genealogists that a good family history book should be interesting to an audience beyond a book’s own subject family.

As I was inadvertently climbing my Mt. Everest, every step that lead to each successive discovery or view made me wonder, how can someone else see what I do and enjoy the experience of it. The view from the top of the James family’s precipice is spectacular, and each step leading to that view is an insightful reminder of what it takes to make a magnificent mountain. Magnificent mountains always have interesting stories to tell.

– ERIC F. JAMES, Author

Film by Elia Saikaly



Younger Gang Fiddle at Auction

Frank Younger just sent me this additional background information about Jim Younger’s violin, to be auctioned today in the Wilbur Zink Collection at Heritage Auctions. Frank’s email now will be included when the fiddle is transferred to its new owner.

auction fiddle

“Just to let you know, the case in which Jim Younger’s violin appears in the auction picture is not the original case. I am the one who restored the violin (it was not in bad shape at all, just some glue joints which had given up the ghost.) The “original” case was literally falling apart. It was, as I recall, painted black and looked not unlike a small coffin – this type may still be seen, usually carrying beginner-student violins. I insisted that Wilbur replace the case; he sometimes took the fiddle to different venues to give a talk and there was a very real danger that the case would “let go” while carrying with disastrous results to the fiddle.

“The size of the fiddle is what we call a 7/8, which is applied to any violin larger than a 3/4 but smaller than full size. I replaced the bridge and added the fine-tuners found on the tailpiece to make it easy to tune and easier to play for the “Younger Desperadoes” CD, and left the original bridge with the fiddle The instrument is strung with new strings. Although I would have liked to re-set the sound post, I could not knock it down using the usual method of going through the E-string side f/hole. It could have been glued in (!) but I do not know. I could find no sign of a maker. It appeared to be a factory violin, but of this I am not sure.

“As I recall, the bow was a disaster. I cannot recall if I re-haired it or not. The frog looked to me to be roughly carved from a bone.

“After the repairs I played a few tunes on the fiddle for Wilbur, using my bow. It certainly sounded like it had not been played for 100 years! My sister, Evelyn Hall, made the CD recording (with Matt Audette on guitar) in Phoenix.

“The repairs were made at Wilbur’s home in Scottsdale, Ariz. in the winter of 1997. I photographed both sides of the instrument, stringless, from above in Wilbur’s car port where the lighting seemed as near to ideal as we could find.”

Belle Starr’s Daughter Pearl Starr? – Or Not?

auction catablogueFed-Ex arrived today with my complimentary copies of the catalog for Wilbur Zink’s upcoming auction of his James-Younger Collection, conducted by Heritage Auctions. I was curious to see if Wilbur Zink’s image of Belle Starr is included.

The catalog is a collector’s item of its own.

Leafing through the catalog, one image popped out to immediately rivet my attention. It was Wilbur’s tintype of a young lady purported to be the daughter of Myra Maebelle Shirley, aka Belle Starr.

This image, identified as Pearl Starr, has generated quite of bit of controversy over the years. My book, Jesse James Soul Liberty, Vol. I displays the best-known image of Belle Starr. On an opposite page are pictures of other Shirley family members, primarily that of Emma Wren Shirley, who married Everett Elbert “Elo” James. Emma is pictured with her parents. The image of her father Paul Porter Shirley offers a third Shirley family image, by which to compare the picture claimed to be Pearl Shirley.

What do you think? Are those the eyes, lips, forehead, and ears of a Shirley?

Belle Starr and her Shirley family


Wilbur Zink’s FRANK JAMES COLLECTION Goes Up for Auction

Frank James wrote to his wife Annie, “Burn these letters.” Now Frank’s letters are going to auction.

I learned about Frank’s letters from Wilbur Zink personally. They were my partial impetus for writing Vol. IV of Jesse James Soul Liberty, Frank James in Atonement & Retirement. On June 22, 2013, Frank’s letters will beat my book about Frank to market by three years, as Wilbur Zink’s collection of letters, photos, artifacts, and memorabilia related to Frank James, his family, and the James-Younger Gang, go on the auction block.

Photos of Cole Younger

Often I’ve been put in the position of challenging auction houses and their exaggerated or outright misrepresentations. At an auction of a gun, advertised to have belonged to Jesse James, I feared my life was in danger as Jesse’s great-grandson, Judge James R. Ross, marched up to the podium, snatched the microphone from the auctioneer, and read the Judge’s statement of Denial of Authenticity. Jim was shouted down, booed, and threatened. I didn’t know if we’d get out alive, especially since we now had to sit in the front row until the auction ended, to see if the auctioneer would re-introduce the item he withdrew.

Henry Washington Younger and spouse

This auction is far different.

We know the artifacts are bone-fide.

We know their provenance is genuine.

And we’re working with a reputable auction house that has engaged the support of the James family, and myself in particular. Other authentic authorities also have been consulted.

While today’s economic climate remains troubled, and the expected institutional bidder may, or may not, appear due to budget constraints, these artifacts may go for bargain prices. They are certainly realistically priced enough to start the bidding.

For anyone wishing to own a piece of the history of Frank & Jesse James, this opportunity may prove the most affordable bargains of all…then again, the James family always have been known for confounding expectations.

LINK to Heritage Auction & entire collection

ABOUT Wilbur Zink

CLICK photos for larger images

artifacts from the Wilbur Zink collection

International Visitor Interest in Jesse James

Charles Broomfield was showing me statistics of international visitors to James Farm & Museum in Kearney MO. Charlie sits on the Parks & Rec Board that oversees James Farm & Museum. I thought I’d offer him some comparison data for his performance review. Here are the international stats for visitors to the James family’s web site & blog, Stray Leaves and Leaves of Gas, for the first 8 days of June, 2013.

Important Auction Coming Soon

FLASH ALERT !!! …An important auction of Frank James’ artifacts is coming to market.

I’ve spent today reviewing some of the collection with the auction house representative. There’s still more to review, and some that probably will be held back perhaps for another time.

This is a bonafide collection from a well-respected collector. Visit HERE for a clue.

Given today’s economic climate, and the fact that nothing like this has hit the market in a long time, this auction should prove very interesting. Watch here for details, coming very soon.

Death Follows Birth…again

It’s heartbreaking for me to report this death. My darkest side might term this a curse, or better, a re-occurrence of history.

Yesterday Ann Yager Hamlin and her husband Alex McCrosky lost their newborn daughter, Alexandra Stith McCrosky, following childbirth.

funeral directors

A funeral director by profession, Anne assisted me in the exhumation of Jesse James’ twin children, who also died following childbirth. Anne executed many of the arrangements required by the Humphreys County Court in Waverly, Tennessee while coordinating them with her former school classmate Steve Spann, who represented the Humphreys Court.

Anne is a descendant of the Samuels family belonging to Dr. Reuben Samuels, who married Zerelda Elizabeth Cole-James after Rev. Robert Sallee James died.

I know the sympathies of all of us go out to Anne and Alex. Life will renew, and we’ll all wait for a happier day.

Anne’s photo here is from the slide show of the Exhumation of Gould & Montgomery James

“This is true. I saw him”

TO REPLY, OR NOT TO REPLY ??? This letter request for my book Jesse James Soul Liberty arrived in the mail today. The writer claims to be a member of The Friends of James Farm, and claims to have met Jesse James because Jesse James did not die. Oh yeah…the writer further states that Jesse James was a blond. The writer states, “This is true. I saw him.”

I like selling books and enjoy doing so, but this takes the fun out of it. What if anything can be gained by selling factual information to an individual so clearly out of touch with reality? I feel like I’d be stealing from the ill or infirm.

Jesse james fan letter

Gunslingers Target Jesse James Author Eric F. James

Yesterday Castle Pictures invited me to take part in their upcoming docudrama Gunslingers: Icons of the Old West, to be broadcast by the Military Channel. One episode will be devoted to Jesse James.

Castle Pictures screenshot

In the preview video for the program, Johnny Boggs, past president of the Western Writers Association and friend to the James, appears. Earlier this week I knew Bob Boze Bell, the publisher of True West magazine taped another segment for the series. I passed on the project.

A production assistant informed me, “The goal of this series is to tell these stories in a thrilling, visceral, personal way, as no documentary series before it has. If we succeed, viewers will relate to each character on a more emotional level than they might have when they first heard about them growing up, and come away with a renewed appreciation both for the protagonist and the time and place where his legend was born.”

I replied, stating, “Since my focus is the James family, and not the partisan or criminal exploits of the James brothers, I am probably not one you’d want for your project.” What I neglected to say was I’d quickly grasp the opportunity to appear in programming that presented a factual historical viewpoint that was intellectually stimulating as well as informative and enlightening about Jesse James, his family, and his community.

Instead, I directed the producer to my book, Jesse James Soul Liberty, adding, “My quintet is intended to define the unknown character of Jesse James, that no historian or media has yet grasped or reported in 150 years. My books show the genetic character, personality, and behaviors, showed in his family from the American Revolution to present day. It may illuminate the many misconceptions of what history to date commonly has defined as Jesse James. “

I further added, “As successive volumes of my history roll out over the next four years, I expect the family of Frank & Jesse James will acquire a whole new meaning for America and the history of its development as a nation.” We already know painfully and all too well what the emotional promotion of gunslinging has done for America.

Time Vault Opened in Oklahoma

The discovery of historical artifacts always is thrilling. My exhumation of the twin children of Jesse James was clearly more poignant than the authentication we conducted of the Zee James Collection. The trunk and its collection was packed after Jesse’s assassination that his wife and mother. They sent it to his mother’s family in Stamping Ground, Kentucky for safesafe keeping. The collection became a lost treasure itself as 130 years of history passed until the trunk and its contents were rediscovered.

As I periodically return to the original family documents, memoirs, and writings that I draw upon for writing the five volumes of Jesse James Soul Liberty, the tie between my readers with the family of Jesse James, I know, will be authentic and true, and as much a discovery as if they stumbled upon the material artifacts of history themselves.

Because of this, I can relish and enjoy the discovery of others.

This week I learned of a 100-year-old time vault that the First English Lutheran Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, just opened. From 1913 to 2013 the vault laid air tight and water tight beneath the church floor. When finally opened this year in April, the dead long gone again were able to speak. And because of new gramophone technology in the era past, they are heard decades past their time. See the mark at 1:06.00 for the unveiling of the vault and its contents.

Many of us pray to the dead. But fewer of us speak, or sing, or leave gifts for those yet to come. Shouldn’t we be doing a lot more of that?

Selling Off History

Last week, I replied to a question put to historical archivists about Chicago’s Field Museum selling off its rare book collections. I responded, using the recent experience of the Jesse James family:

Zee James Collection trunk
James Family Trunk from the Zee James Collection – Put Up For Auction

Many think archives and institutions are forever. The fact is, they are subject to failure as anything else. This sad realization hit home in recent years for the family of America’s iconic outlaws, Frank & Jesse James. Their experience prompts the question, is there any reliable custodian for history’s meaningful remainders?

Over the years, the James family had made donations of their property, homes, artifacts and relics. The family placed their trust in Clay County, Missouri, and its governing commissioners. As the economic climate fluctuated like the weather across decades, the enthusiasm of the politicians and their governing body for preserving the James family’s donation grew stormy. Donations that the family made became lost, never to be retrieved.

Claybrook – Former Home of Jesse James’ Daughter

When the historic home of Jesse James’ daughter burned down, an investigation proved the county was responsible and negligent, the county took the insurance money and ran. Instead of restoring the burned hulk, or replicating it, the county announced it intended to use the land for an animal shelter.

What lessons has the James family learned? History is best preserved by those best able to respect and maintain it. Reliance upon government or political bodies is tenuous. Time itself is preservation’s enemy. Money for permanent preservation will always be a factor. If, at all possible, it is best to self-insulate by self-insurance or underwriting. A particular endowment also may not last or endure forever, but it’s the foundation that gives history improved prospects for survival.

Tyrannosaurus Rex
“Sue” the Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Field Museum in Chicago


Book Review – Jesse James Soul Liberty, Vol. I

In its book review of Jesse James Soul Liberty, appearing in the James-Younger Gang Journal, March 2013, reviewer Nancy Samuelson offers considerable praise for the book. Below is her review in its entirety, or DOWNLOAD THE REVIEW.

James-Younger Gang Journal mastheadBook Review: Jesse James Soul Liberty Vol. 1: Behind the Family Wall of Stigma & Silence, By Eric F. James (Cashel Cadence House 2012) 411 pp. hard cover, $36.95

Most longtime outlaw-lawman aficionados have probably read a number of books about Jesse and Frank James. Those books probably included Background of a Bandit by Joan M. Beamis and William E. Pullen and Jesse and Frank James: The Family History by Phillip W. Steele. Chances are you think you know a lot about the family of America’s most famous bandits. However, if you think this– think again– you have seen only the tip of the iceberg. Jesse James fanatics are going to be delighted with all the new material and serious historians are going to wonder how they have missed so much for so long.

The author points out that there is a paradox for the family of Jesse James. America celebrates the outlaws yet has stigmatized the outlaw’s family. This has led to a wall of silence within the family. The author goes on to say that the James family lived lives that are ordinary and the abundance of their accomplishments is more than enough to mitigate any stigma. In fact, the achievements of this James family are very impressive. Members of this family have built churches, schools, businesses and communities. They have achieved high professional standards and they have frequently taken a stand for religious, social and personal tolerance.

Book cover Jesse James Soul LibertyEarly members of the James Family in America left Virginia to avoid religious persecution. In Kentucky they founded churches and helped build communities. Members of the family moved on to Missouri, California, Texas and a number of other states.

Drury Woodson James went to California. He was active in local civic activities and in California politics. Among his descendants were Joan Beamis who battled deaf- ness and helped improve education for the deaf. She also researched family history and compiled extensive family archives. Another descendant of Drury Woodson James was Rev. James Burns Malley. He graduated from Dartmouth, served in the U. S. Navy then graduated from Harvard Law School. Later he became a Jesuit Priest and worked among the poor in Brazil for six years.

Thomas Martin James settled in the Kansas City, Missouri area and he became a very wealthy business- man. He assisted in founding some churches in the area. His descendants continued to contribute to the educational and business life of the Kansas City community. Vassie James was named for Vassar College. Her mother graduated from the first class of that school. Vassie also attended Vassar. She went on to found two schools in Kansas City. She also managed extensive financial holdings and was an early supporter of what became Planned Parenthood. Her second husband served as the President of the University of Missouri.

Another descendant of Thomas Martin James was Daniel Lewis James Jr. He graduated from Yale University, helped organize labor unions in Oklahoma then went to California and became a well-known writer. He worked with Charlie Chaplin on the script of The Great Dictator. He wrote the plays Bloomer Girl and Winter Soldiers. Bloomer Girl played on Broadway for eighteen months. Daniel Lewis James ran afoul of the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He was blacklisted and suffered a severe professional set back as a result of this.

There is considerable material in this book about Jesse Edward James, the son of Jesse James, and his family. There is also a chapter devoted to Judge James R. Ross. Many of us in the outlaw-lawmen community were acquainted with Judge Ross. However, few of us have known about his stand for civil rights for gays. Judge Ross made the ruling that Disneyland was violating the civil rights of a gay couple when they were expelled from the park for dancing together.

There are a few tidbits of new information in the book about Frank James. There is some mention of the Dalton gang. One member of the James family settled in Coffeyville, Kansas and his son was in one of the banks when the Daltons attempted their dual bank robbery. There is a family story or two about Belle Starr. There is Burton Allen James the Indian Agent and Missouri legislator. There is also John James of Alvarado, Texas who ran a school for Choctaw Indians and numerous other interesting members of the extended James family.

In addition to the individual stories of a number of the James family the book is liberally illustrated with family photos, pictures of family homes and buildings, copies of book jackets, playbills, and items from family art collections. There is an appendix that contains a detailed genealogy chart. There are extensive notes and a bibliography. The book is very well written, has an outstanding dust jacket and is
very pleasing in overall presentation.

There are a few editorial glitches such as the mix up of a couple of names and confusion of relationships between some of the family members. These are very minor and do not detract from the overall content of the book.

In summary, this is one of the best books I have read in a long time. I did not want to put the book down. It reads a lot like the family sagas written by Howard Fast and John Jakes. However, this is all fact, not fiction. If you have any interest in the James gang and their history this book is a “must read”. And do not skip the notes; there is a wealth of material to be found in the notes and the bibliography is a gold mine. Four more volumes of James family history are to follow this book. I eagerly anticipate all of them.

~ Nancy B. Samuelson

Attention Jesse James Kinfolk…Send me your ears

How can you tell a blood relative of Jesse James? Just look at the ears.

Every few weeks I receive photographic images that are claimed to be of Jesse James, or Frank James, or of the two together. More often, they are pictures of some who claim to be a relative of the James. It’s easy to dismiss almost every image promptly. But sometimes, when the physical resemblance appears close, the first thing I look at are the ears.

Zee Mimms James
Zee Mimms, wife of Jesse Woodson James

This image of Jesse James’ wife Zee is one of my most favorite James family pictures because it shows very clearly the physical ear definition that commonly appears among many in the Jesse James family.

Zee Mimms-James is not only Jesse’s wife, but she also is his first cousin. They both share the same grandparents, those being John M. James & Mary “Polly” Poor.

The giveaway in the ear formation of the James is the flattened part of the ear’s perimeter, and the deep peninsula canal located inside the ear at the bottom.

Zee Mimms James
Young Zee Mimms

Evident in this image of a young Zee Mimms is the same ear formation, which will last a lifetime. This architecture rarely appears in both ears, but only in one.

This singular ear pattern would have been familiar to Jesse James. While no image of Jesse shows he possessed the same ear form, it is easy from viewing photographic images of his children that he possessed the formation, too. His children Jesse Edwards James Jr. and Mary Susan James definitely did.

Jesse Edwards James Jr.
Jesse Edwards James Jr.
Mary Susan James
Mary Susan James

Among the Jesse James family, this ear formation appears to be genetic. Generations of the James display the same ear structure through time to present day.

Robert Franklin James
Robert Franklin James

Frank James, son, Robert Franklin James had one. So did Jesse’s cousin Susan Prudence James-Smith.

Prudence James Smith
Susan Prudence James-Smith

Living members of the Jesse James family display the same ear formation today, even among family who do not descend from Jesse James.

Finally, this is J. Mark Beamis. Mark is the son of Joan Malley-Beamis, author of Background of a Bandit, the first genealogy assembled by a James family member. Furthermore, Mark is a second great-grandson of Drury Woodson James, Frank and Jesse’s uncle; and he is a third great-grandson of John M. James and Mary “Polly” Poor.

J. Mark Beamis
J. Mark Beamis

Recently, when these images were presented to living descendants among the James family, some dashed to a mirror to check their ears. What they saw in the mirror was their James family genetic heritage, fully and irrefutably displayed.

To other James family members, only now becoming aware of this genetic characteristic, I’ll ask you to SEND ME YOUR EARS.