The following is taken from the Ancestry Magazine:
By Jana Lloyd
Betty Duke is certain that her great-great-grandfather James L. Courtney was actually Jesse James. Now facial recognition technology and other modern genealogical techniques are helping her marshal the evidence to make her case.
Betty Duke is in the middle of a genealogical war. The battle? To prove that her great-grandfather, known by friends and family as James L. Courtney, was actually Jesse James.
On the other side are purported James descendants, James enthusiasts, and even members of Betty’s own family. But that doesn’t stop Betty from asserting her claim that Courtney was, in fact, James. She’s dedicated 13 years of serious research to proving her case—and written two books about it, including 2008’s The Truth About Jesse James.
Betty’s story started when, as a youngster in Texas, she heard tale after tale from family members about how her great-grandfather was Jesse James. “I heard so many treasure stories when I was growing up,” she said, “that I really literally thought, just being a little kid, that if you needed money, all you had to do was go out in the yard and dig some up.”
As she got older, Betty dismissed the stories as tall tales—that is, until she turned 47 in 1995. She says she had what “I can only describe as a driven feeling to find out … something to do with my heritage.” She knew she had Native American blood and thought perhaps she should find out more about that. “So that kind of led me to [Jesse James],” she says, “because he had married a woman who had Indian blood, so then that made me recall all the old family stories and I found a lot of old family pictures and diaries and a lot of information on him. He was the hot topic. … And then, next thing I know, I’m consumed with him.”
The first thing that made Betty believe that maybe these old tales were true was an old family photo she found of her great-grandfather Courtney’s mother. The woman in the photo was missing her right arm; James’s mother was also known to have lost her right arm during a dynamite explosion in her home. The dynamite was planted there by Pinkerton detectives who were attempting to wound or kill James. In addition, Courtney’s mother was wearing a dress identical to one worn by the woman known as James’s mother in a photograph historically recognized as being of her.
Not content with her own conclusions, however, Betty decided to take the photograph, plus others of her great-grandfather and other family members, to Identix, a company that specializes in facial recognition, as well as the Texas Department of Public Safety. Both said the woman in the photographs was the same person, but that wasn’t all: According to their facial identification software, photographs of Betty’s great-grandfather matched the most historically recognized photograph of Jesse James.
If that weren’t enough, other evidence kept piling up. For instance, Betty found that her great-grandfather “accidentally” signed his diary “J. James” on several occasions. The first or last names of all the members of the James Gang showed up in his diary at some point as well. Several entries seemed to make cryptic reference to heists in which James had participated.
And when Betty interviewed neighbors in Texas who had known her great-grandfather personally, they all talked about how much money he had. They said it was stored in five-gallon buckets in his house, and they also recalled seeing numerous gold bars stacked up in his farmhouse. Besides that, the family had inherited many treasure maps from him, which, according to family legend, pointed the way to the cash he’d gotten from robbing banks. Betty’s own grandmother was said to have found $3,800 where “X” had marked the spot on one of the maps.
With all this evidence, why do so many people resist Betty’s claim? One big reason is that DNA tests performed in 1995 by George Washington University law professor James E. Starrs assert that James is buried in Kearney, Missouri. According to the history books, James was killed by Bob Ford, a member of his gang, in Kearney on 3 April 1882.
But Betty’s research says that Starrs obtained his DNA results by using teeth and hair from the James farm in Kearney, not from remains in the exhumed Kearney grave. Statements from several others involved in the Kearney exhumation seem to corroborate her findings. The items tested, Betty believes, belong to someone in the James family, maybe even Jesse himself; however, they don’t prove who is buried in the Kearney grave, since those remains were too decomposed to be tested.
Betty is currently trying to conduct her own DNA analysis: she has gathered mitochondrial DNA results from 90-year-old Sue Laura Hale, granddaughter of James’s sister, Susan James Parmer, and is attempting to get an exhumation order for her great-grandfather Courtney to see whether their mtDNA matches or rules out a family relationship.
In spite of her evidence, Betty is still booed and harassed by most of the Jesse James community—she’s become an outlaw in her own right. “I’m not trying to cause war,” Betty says, “but I have been through one since I came forward with my family story.” Even many members of her own family have turned on her, saying they never heard stories about their grandfather being James and that Betty made up the family story.
For her part, Betty says she isn’t sure why they won’t own up to the family legend. Maybe they’re ashamed of James—or maybe they just want to keep the James money in the family.
Still Betty persists. “I just want to know the truth,” she says. “It’s important to know who you really are.”
Jana Lloyd is the editor of the Ancestry Monthly Update.