Whose Side Are You On?
Being named Jesse James is a stigma bad enough. Having your line of the James family branded as “the bastard bunch” is worse. Among the James, redemption is hard-won. Branding bastards begs the question, “Whose side are you on?”
This is Jesse James, born in 1901, died in 1980. His name comes from his third cousin, America’s historic folklore icon Jesse Woodson James. Jesse believed, “being Jesse James was a pain in the neck.” He thought that no one should be named Jesse James ever again. Jesse received weird telephone calls, especially when he lived in Chattanooga. He carried a gun to protect himself.
Much of what is known about Jesse James comes from Jesse’s grandson, the literary publisher Charles Michael James. According to Mike, Jesse was just an average fellow. He loved hunting with a bow and arrow. He rode motorcycles and raced go-karts. Once he raced down the Mississippi River in a houseboat.
In a Chattanooga roundhouse, Jesse was a foreman in a repair shop of the Southern Railway. He chose his employer deliberately. The James family largely remained supporters of the Southern Cause. Jesse’s line of the James, however, elected to side with the Union. The Southern Railway that Jesse worked for was formed by northern interests to reconstruct southern railroad lines decimated by the Civil War. For Jesse, his employment with the Southern Railway represented a form of family reconciliation.
If Jesse’s notorious name was not stigma enough, he and his family line bore a more embittering millstone. The heavy burden disjointed Jesse and his James family as much as the nefarious Jesse James did with the entire James family, or as the James family generally did by choosing their sides in the Civil War. The question has always been present, “Whose side are you on?”
Responding to the question, the James family at large divorced Jesse and his James family line completely. The family church founded by his James family expelled them, too. In fact, the entire community of Pulaski County, Kentucky where Jesse was born, ostracized Jesse and his family. Jesse’s line became known as “the bastard bunch.”
Bigamy Branded The Bastard Bunch
The root of the malevolence directed against Jesse and his family stems from Jesse’s great-grandparents.
When Rev. Joseph Martin James and Permelia Estepp were married, their marriage was bigamous. Brother Joe married his second wife Rhoda May lawfully. For fourteen years Joe and Rhoda remained married. They were the parents of eight children. Joe also had nine other children by his first lawful marriage with Martha Betsy “Patsy” McAlister. Patsy died giving birth to Joe’s ninth child. While Joe was married to Rhoda May, though, Joe married for a third time. This third time, Joe married Permelia Estepp in adjacent Laurel County. There, Joe thought, his wedding to Permelia was hidden from view. Rev. Joe’s third marriage was unlawful and bigamous.
Steeped in the rampant alcoholism that drove him to bigamy, Brother Joe produced three additional children with Permelia Estepp. The children were named Lucy, John Thomas, and Joseph Martin James Jr., quickly nicknamed Joel.
In between each year that Joe spent with Permelia, Joe returned to live again with Rhoda for a year at a time. In those interval years, Rhoda tried to get Joe sober in their new stone house. In each interval year Joe spent with Rhoda, Joe impregnated Rhoda with an annual child, adding three more children to Rhoda’s brood.
Whose Side Are You On?
Joe’s aberrant lifestyle was too visible and distressing for his church and community to ignore. The Flat Lick Baptist Church sided with the Lord, not with the man of God. They defrocked Pastor Joe. They cited that Pastor Joseph Martin James was “talented, but erratic.”
The James family at large made a cruel choice, too. The James family with its in-law families and their community were not in the least forgiving of the bigamous marriage of Joe and Permelia. More so, they disapproved of the couple’s issue. After Joe was stripped of his church, everyone in Pulaski County branded all descendants of Rev. Joseph Martin James and Permelia Estepp as “the bastard bunch,” as if they were responsible for the ignominy brought down upon their community.
Ostracized and banished, Jesse James’ line of descendants from Joe and Permelia was forced to forge whatever redemption it could, wherever it could, for the most part elsewhere.
Tragedy Stalks Joe & Permelia’s Bastards
In Pulaski County, the eldest child of Rev. Joe and Permelia Estepp, John Thomas James drew scant attention as he rose from obscurity to become a county judge. The community blindly tolerated the bastard judge, because his two younger bastard siblings, Lucy and Joel James, were gone from Pulaski County. Lucy and Joel left Kentucky and moved to Missouri.
The opportunity for Lucy and Joel to depart arose when the father of Alexander M. Barclay moved to Kansas territory in 1867. Alexander married Lucy James and took her to Missouri with the Barclay family. Brother Joel James went with his sister Lucy.
Many among the James family at large thought Alexander M. Barclay generally made bad choices. Barclay made a bad choice when he married the bastard, Lucy. The James family estimated that Barclay also made a wrong choice when he enlisted at age 15 in the Union’s First Kentucky Cavalry. For the next 31 months, Alexander served the duration of the war. But then, at Buffington Station in Ohio, Confederate John Hunt Morgan was captured. David Hunt James and his brother Richard Skinner James who served under Morgan also were captured. The James cousins were sent to Camp Douglas, the Unions’s POW camp in Chicago. Richard died there. David did not return until the war ended. The James family did not forget that Alexander M. Barclay was part of the Union Army and that Barclay was present to capture their James cousins.
Unlike the other James who served the Confederacy in the Civil War, Judge John Thomas James made his choice to serve the Union also, in Company B of the 12th Kentucky Volunteers. A year after the war’s end, he married Patience Jenkins. They had nine children. Several married. Progressively, the Judge’s children exiled themselves from Kentucky, too, moving to Illinois and Tennessee.
Left alone in Kentucky, tragic destiny erased whatever atonement or redemption Judge James might have achieved for the Bastard Bunch in his 79 years. Among the judge’s siblings, Joel disappeared and Lucy died abruptly from unknown causes. When crank-starting his car in Somerset in 1923, Judge John Thomas James was run over by his own vehicle and dragged down the street to his death.
“Mrs. Alexander Barclay dropped dead at her home, five miles southeast of Adrian, Thursday evening, March 25, 1915. She had been in her usual health and was doing her evening work when death came without a moments warning. The husband left the house to do some chores at the barn. He was gone but a few minutes. When he returned he found Mrs. Barclay lying on the floor dead.”Adrian Journal, April 1, 1915, Page 1 column 3
Lynchings Summon Bastard Nobility
The outsider status of the Bastard Bunch gave John Perry James a hard-headed belligerence that was spiteful of consequences.
Judge John Thomas James did what he could to restore legitimacy and justice to his bastard line of the James family. He maintained a distance from the notoriety of their criminal cousins Frank and Jesse James, too, as did the James generally. His eldest son John Perry James was not of a like mind, however. John Perry James and wife Lydia Crowe spitefully gave Jesse James his regrettable name.
A story about the antagonism of John Perry James that transformed into admirable nobility surfaced during the late 1940s to early 1950s. The crushing disrepute that dishonored the Bastard Bunch kept his story of singular bravery hidden more than half a century.
Raymond James uncovered the story about Jesse’s father. Raymond, also of the Bastard Bunch, went by the intractable nickname of Big Burr. He learned that John Perry James was the only person to cut down and retrieve the bodies of the brothers James Harvey and Josiah Gilliland. A mob hanged the brothers in 1891 without trial for the assassination of Pulaski County Sheriff John H. McHargue.
In all of Pulaski County, not one other person would cut down the dead bodies of the Gilliland brothers. The boys generally were unrecognizable ninth cousins of John Perry James. Regardless, he considered the boys kinfolk. Only the sympathetic humanity of John Perry James of the Bastard Bunch responded to the necessity for removing the gruesome spectacle.
Raymond stated this story was not learned from any of the James family. Instead, Raymond heard the story from Joe Lewis who worked at the quarry in Somerset. Raymond suspected Joe Lewis may have been part of the mob that did the lynching. Lewis seemed to indicate that some of the mob may have been vigilantes in the Ku Klux Klan. To the present day, the Klan still targets Somerset, Kentucky for recruitment.
After taking down the bodies of the Gilliland boys, John Perry James removed them to Dabney where he lived. The brothers were interred in the family cemetery of their father Galen Gilliland. The Gilliland home was not too far from Rev. Joe’s stone house in Shopville. The controversy over what prompted the questionable lynchings continues unresolved to the present day.
Married to a Misbegotten
Jesse James married Mary Margaret Crockett. Like the Bastard Bunch, she, too, was born illegitimately.
Bessie, as she was called, was born to Todd and Anna Crockett. The family secret of Bessie’s birth was long held. The Crockett family finally revealed the truth late in the 20th century, after Bessie died.
Everyone knew Bessie had a bad temper. Mike James recalls she was openly mean to her brother and sister. The cause of her distemper finally was diagnosed when Bessie suffered a stroke. Bessie suffered from a brain tumor.
Not surprisingly, Jesse’s marriage with Bessie was volatile at times. While Jesse worked in Chattanooga, Bessie remained in Somerset, left to the care of Joe Hill until Bessie died.
Later, Jesse married Alma Mounce, the daughter of James Washington Mounce and Lona “Icey” Farmer. When Jesse married Alma, a third cousin of outlaw Jesse Woodson James married a third cousin of Sheriff Wyatt Earp.
Sometime after World War II, Jesse owned a gas station. When he moved to Warren, Ohio, Jesse advanced into the newspaper business. He became a typeset and Linotype operator. This occupation set the origin for the future literary career of Jesse’s grandson Mike James.
Mike states that Jesse was “totally Baptist” like many of the James family since the American Revolution. However, when Jesse experienced his first heart attack, he was discovered in a whore house. When Jesse woke up in a hospital, he furtively escaped. Like his great grandfather, the Baptist preacher Rev. Joseph Martin James, the embarrassment did not go unnoticed.
Bastard Bootlegging – Siding with The Bigamist
Two children were born to Jesse and Bessie Crockett James. For one of them, the genetic undertow of the “talented, but erratic” Rev. Joe proved all too compelling and powerful.
The youngest, Charles Robert James, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Charlie’s ship was out to sea. He was safe. Later in the war, a kamikaze attacked his ship. Charlie was not saved. He sustained a serious shrapnel injury that affected his kidneys permanently. Due to his injuries, Charlie received a disability pension from the government.
Returning home from war, Charlie worked as a welder in the roundhouse of the Southern Railway with his father Jesse. In his off-hours, Charlie took to making moonshine, just like his second great-grandfather. At Shopville, the “talented, but erratic” Rev. Joe operated a still in the knobs behind his storehouse on Flat Lick Creek. Rev. Joe also sold the spirits he made to some of the same congregants to whom he preached. Charles Robert James embraced his great-grandfather’s practice. Charlie’s behavior turned erratic, too. For amusement, Charlie would go into a Chattanooga hotel and set off a flash bomb. He thought that was great fun.
Sadly, the malfunction of Charlie’s kidneys overtook whatever redemptive credit his military service might have earned him. When Charlie attended his mother Bessie’s funeral, he showed up drunk. Drinking himself to death became Charlie’s occupation – as if doing so would wash away his bastard line stigma. Charles Robert James lived only to age 42.