June 8, 1996
We have an addendum to one of last weeks columns which dealt with Rick Kukuk's inquiry about the possibility, of the outlaw Jesse James having visited in this area, and about public hangings in the courthouse park back in the early days.
Wheeler Cobb is among those who are skeptical that the real Jesse James ever visited Perry; in spite of old-timers' tales to the contrary. Jesse, the outlaw celebrated as a 19th century Robin Hood of the Ozarks, was shot and killed by two members of his own band, Robert and Charles Ford, in a sensational murder case on April 3, 1882, in the James home at St. Joseph, Mo. The official version of the story says that Robert and Charles wanted to claim the $10,000 reward money offered by Gov. Crittenden of Missouri for the capture of Jesse, dead or alive. They collected the money.
In the years since then, reports have surfaced periodically that Jesse survived the shooting and subsequently made several appearances in the Perry area and elsewhere. Rick Kukuk, who now lives in, Moore after growing up here, remembers hearing his great-grandfather, Scott Wakeman, say that Jesse made occasional trips to Perry. Rick wonders if his great-grandpa was just pulling his leg.
If the outlaw actually came to Perry, it would have been after the Cherokee Outlet land run in 1893, eleven years after his reported death, since that's when Perry was born. The other day I came across an article in a 1936 Perry Daily Journal stating that a man claiming to be Jesse was paying this area a visit at that time, but even then, 60 years ago, there was no authentication of the man's identity. The real Jesse would have been 89 years old in 1936, if he had survived the attempt on his life in 1882.
Wheeler, who operates the Perry Sales & Service John Deere business here, lives in Blackwell but commutes to this city daily. He has had a lifelong interest in the lore and history of this area. He says his research convinces him that Jesse James' death truly did occur in 1882 and that stories contradicting that fact are pure fiction. I remember Mr. Wakeman very well, and I can believe that his sense of humor may have led him to tell his great-grandson such a story.
Jesse James was born Sept. 5, 1847, in Clay county, Mo. In the early months of the Civil War the family was partisan to the Southern cause, and as a result suffered greatly at the hands of the Union forces. By way of retaliation, Jesse turned informer and later, when only 15 years of age, joined the guerilla forces of W C. Quantrill. After the war, he surrendered but was shot and severely wounded. The following year he was declared an outlaw and in 1867 he became the leader of "the James band" of bank and train robbers. The gang attained a wide repute for crimes of the most daring and cold-blooded type, but he was a folk hero to many. These facts are found in the Encyclopedia Brittanica.
Charles (Pretty Boy) Floyd, a more contemporary bad-man, did visit Perry on at least one occasion. Sam Schwieger, managing editor of The Perry Daily Journal in the 1930s, was driving home from Oklahoma City one day when he saw a woman's car pulled over with a flat tire. Sam gallantly stopped to change tires for her. A few days later, a man showed up at The Journal office to thank Sam for his help. The man was the storied Pretty Boy Floyd, in person, and the distressed woman was his wife, Ruby. Glenn Yahn remembers this incident and verified it over the weekend with a phone call to his friend, Sam, who now lives in Arkansas. Mr. Schwieger, by the way, recently turned 90.
I'm also indebted to Glenn Yahn for clarification of the legend, about the name of a hanging victim from years ago in the courthouse park. I related last week that at times in the past, local young men were taken to the park at night by their elders and told to summon the victim of a public execution. They were told to ask him what crime he had committed. Glenn says the name of the hanging victim was "Mr. Armstrong," not "Mr. Alexander," as I had it. Glenn remembers that because he was one of those youngsters who tried unsucessfully to get an answer from the poor man. Like all others before and since his attempt, he heard nothing, absolutely nothing, in reply.
Wheeler Cobb also has been fascinated by the stories concerning John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's assassin, whose mummified body supposedly turned up in Enid many years ago. In the 1930s, that spellbinding tale caught the fancy of Lincoln historians in many parts of the country. Mr. Cobb says there is evidence to verify the authenticity of the body in Enid, and he believes the story is true.
An article by Henry Bass in the 1968 Summer edition of Oklahoma Today tells more about the Enid-Booth connection. In part the piece says: "Boston Corbett, the eccentric Irishman who allegedly shot John Wilkes Booth, passed his last known days in Enid before vanishing into total obscurity. David George, who committed suicide in Enid, confessed on his deathbed that he actually was John Wilkes Booth, starting a controversy which continues unabated to this day.
Separate photos accompanying the article show Mr. George and Mr. Booth around the time of Lincoln's assassination, and there does appear to be a marked resemblance. Wheeler's own study satisfies him sufficiently to conclude that "Mr. George" really was the man who murdered President Lincoln.
How fascinating it is to be living in an era and in a part, of the country where the history of our early days is still at least partially available to us through people who experienced it. We're uniquely fortunate in that way. Such stories prove that history is not just an assemblage of dry dates about people and things from antiquity. It can come alive if we are interested enough to search for it. We are so close to it that our minds can almost conjure up the smell, the feel and even the taste of it. Thanks to all who contribute to our understanding and our knowledge of the past.