Welcome to Throwback Thursday, friends! Today, Retro Bus Tours, Inc. is proud to present the “Several Things You Thought You Knew but Really Didn’t About the Old West” tour. Please ignore the Retro Bus and step quickly across the parking lot to the Retro Stagecoach.
Our first stop: 1880. One of our stagecoach stewardesses is passing around a photo of William Bonney. Perhaps you know him better as Billy the Kid. This 2×3 inch ferrotype photo was taken in late 1879 or early 1880 by an unknown portrait photographer. You’ll notice that the Kid is holding an 1873 Winchester rifle with its butt resting on the floor. For years, this was the only photograph known to exists of the Kid. The image depicts him wearing his Colt revolver on his left side, which led historians to believe the Kid was left-handed. However, they failed to take into account that the ferrotype photo process produced reversed images. There’s another reason we know the picture was a mirror image and that Billy the Kid was really a righty: The photo also shows his Winchester Model 1873 lever-action rifle. The weapon appears to feature a left-sided loading gate, but in 1873, Winchester only made rifles that load on the right. (By the way, in June 2011, the original ferrotype photo plate was bought at an auction for $2.3 million by businessman William Koch!)
Next stop: 1882. After a short life (34 years) filled with lots of crime, Jesse James, his outlaw gang practically completely annihilated, trusted only brothers Charley and Robert Ford. Although Charley had been on previous raids with Jesse, Bob Ford was an eager new recruit. For protection, James asked the Ford brothers to move in with him and his family. By that time, Bob Ford had conducted clandestine negotiations with the Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden, laying out a plan to bring in the famous outlaw. On April 3, 1882, after eating breakfast, the Fords and Jameses went into the living room before traveling to Platte City for a robbery. From the newspaper, Jesse had just learned that gang member Dick Liddil had confessed to participating in Wood Hite’s murder. He was suspicious that the Fords had not told him about it. Bob Ford later said he believed that Jesse realized he and his brother were there to betray him. Instead of confronting them, Jesse walked across the living room and laid his revolvers on a settee. As he turned around, he stopped to inspect a dusty picture above the mantle. He grabbed a chair and stood up on the chair to clean it. As he was balancing on the chair, his back to the room, Bob Ford drew his weapon, and shot the unarmed Jesse James in the back of the head.
Of course, none of this is news, but the next part is: After his bank robbing days were over, Jesse James lived a quiet life in Kearney, Missouri, but his old friends—and enemies—never forgot him. After his murder, he was buried in the front yard of his farm to thwart grave robbers. As the years passed and his enemies died off, his family had him reinterred in a Kearney cemetery. So, who’s lying in the grave in Granbury, Texas which is purportedly Jesse James? In 1948, a man named J. Frank Dalton came forward at age 101, claiming he was the “real” Jesse James. While a court of law allowed him to legally adopt the outlaw’s name, no one knows why Dalton made this claim or if he even had any link to the real Jesse James. It’s speculated that there is a small chance he was actually the youngest member of the Dalton Gang that Jesse rode with in the Northfield, Minnesota bank robbery. It wasn’t until years later that both graves were exhumed and the remains’ mitochondrial DNA was tested, proving that the real Jesse James is indeed buried in Kearney, Missouri.
Next stop: 1941. Feral camels are spotted roaming the plains of Texas. What?! It’s true. The U.S. Camel Corps was established in 1856 at Camp Verde, Texas. The military reasoned that arid southwest climate was similar to the deserts of Egypt, so the Army imported 66 camels from the Middle East. Though the humped beasts spat, regurgitated, and defied orders, this military experiment was considered to be a success. After the Civil War broke out, exploration of the Southwest frontier was truncated when the Confederates captured Camp Verde. After the Civil War, most of the camels were sold (many to Ringling Brothers’ Circus), while others escaped into the wild. The last reported sighting of a feral camel in Texas took place in 1941. Presumably, no lingering descendants of the Camel Corps are still alive today.
Last stop: 1976. Wait. Back the stagecoach up a bit to 1911. Dimwitted bandit Elmer McCurdy mistakenly robbed a passenger train that he thought contained thousands of dollars. However, the disappointed desperado made off with only 46 bucks, and before he even had time to spend it, he was shot and killed by some lawmen. Because nobody claimed McCurdy’s corpse (probably because they didn’t want to admit they related to such a moron), his body was embalmed with an arsenic preparation and sold by the undertaker to a traveling carnival. The carnival exhibited his corpse as a sideshow curiosity, and when it didn’t bring the same pizzazz as it once had, for the next 60 years, it was bought and sold by various haunted houses and wax museums for use as a prop or attraction. The corpse finally wound up in a Long Beach, California, amusement park funhouse. (Obviously, he was much more of a success dead than alive.) In 1976, the television show “The Six Million Dollar Man” was filming at the funhouse when the prop’s finger (or arm, depending on the account) broke off! The witnesses realized that it was real human tissue inside, and the corpse was sent to the Los Angeles coroner’s office for study. There, it was discovered that the prop was actually Elmer McCurdy. He was finally laid to rest in the famous Boot Hill cemetery in Dodge City, Kansas, 66 years after his death.
We hope you’ve enjoyed today’s
Wild Wacky West Throwback, and as always, Retro Bus Tours, Inc. thanks you for your patronage. See you next week!
#Throwback Thursday #TBT