THE MAN WHO WOULD BE JESSE JAMES
J. FRANK DALTON, ROUTE 66 AND THE CAVE THEY BOTH MADE FAMOUS
On April 3, 1882, outlaw Jesse James was shot to death in St. Joseph, Missouri by Robert Ford, a member of Jesse’s gang. This ended the life of one of post-Civil War America’s most famous outlaws – or did it? According to a man named J. Frank Dalton, Jesse James actually faked his death in 1882 and in 1949, he was still alive and well and living at Meramec Caverns in Missouri. How did he know? Well, because Dalton claimed to be the famous outlaw!
The story of J. Frank Dalton is inextricably tied into the history of Meramec Caverns, a roadside attraction made famous by Route 66, the legendary “mother road,” which linked Chicago to Los Angeles and inspired songs, stories, countless road trips and captured the imagination of America. The story of the “man who would be Jesse James” is one of the weirdest stories ever told about Route 66.
To tell the story of J. Frank Dalton, we first have to tell the story of Meramec Caverns, which became a familiar landmark along Route 66 as it traveled west of St. Louis. Located just three miles off the highway, down a twisting road that leads from the town of Stanton to the Meramec River, the cave was commercially developed in the 1930s by Lester B. Dill, a Missouri farm boy with the cleverness of P.T. Barnum. “I have put more people underground and brought them out alive than anyone else,” Dill often boasted and no one could dispute the claim.
Lester Dill was born in 1898 and was the second of nine children. He was only six years old when his father, Thomas Benton Dill, ventured into Fisher’s Cave, across the Meramec from the family farm, for the first time. By the time he was 10, Lester, guided by a kerosene lamp, was taking tourists from St. Louis on guided cave tours. Over the years, Dill continued to explore the many caves of the Meramec Valley. Later, Dill and his wife, Mary, followed the oil boom in Oklahoma, dabbled in Florida real estate and then moved to St. Louis, where Lester worked a carpenter. In 1928, when his father was appointed the first superintendent of the new Meramec State Park, where Fisher’s Cave was located, Lester came back to the area. He signed a contract with the state and launched a cave-guiding business, complete with souvenirs and homemade food.
A few years later, when the state contract expired, and the country in the midst of the Great Depression, Lester began searching for his own cave to develop. He finally decided to lease Saltpeter Cave, which was just a few miles downstream from the park. Spaniard Hernando De Soto was said to have discovered the cave in 1542 and a couple of centuries later, it was explored by a French miner named Jacques Renault. During the 1800s, the cave was used by saltpeter miners for storage and shelter and legend had it that escaped slaves were sheltered there as they made their way to safety in the northern states. There were also stories that outlaws, including the famous Jesse James gang, found refuge in the cave and may have even left some of their ill-gotten gains hidden somewhere inside.
The legends of the cave were important to Lester but even more important was the cave’s proximity to Route 66, America’s most traveled highway. Dill knew that if he got the word out, the tourists would beat a path to his door. He renamed the new attraction Meramec Caverns and hired a local sawmill crew to construct a road to the cave. Meramec Caverns opened on Decoration Day (Memorial Day) 1933 and a total of six visitors paid 40 cents per person to follow Lester Dill through the damp passageways. It was not a great start, but Lester was not worried. He eventually bought the property and put almost every cent that he earned into improving and promoting the show cave.
For the first three years of the cave’s operation, the entire Dill family, including the children, worked day and night. They even lived in a tent at the site. The battled treacherous ice on the steep road between Route 66 and the cave entrance and in the spring, built brick dikes to hold back the river and keep it from turning the parking lot into a lake and flooding the cave entrance.
Visitors that managed to make it to the cave always left with a Meramec Caverns sign tied to their bumper. School children that were hired by Lester saw to it that a sign was attached to the bumper of each and every automobile that stopped at the cave. Later, the job became easier when adhesive was developed for the backs of the bumper signs. In 1940, while he was exploring an unknown part of the cave, Lester found some rusted guns and an old chest, which he claimed had belonged to none other than Jesse James. Immediately, the words “Jesse James’ Hideout” was added to the bumper stickers.
Besides the millions of bumper stickers attached to cars and the brochures handed out to tourists, Lester promoted the cave by posting signs, mostly painted on barns, along highways in as many as 40 states. Lester and his crew scoured the countryside, especially along Route 66, searching for just the right barns for their eye-catching signs. To entice the farmers who owned the barns, Lester handed out watches, pints of whiskey, and free passes to the cave.
During World War II, when gas rationing hit, Lester went down Route 66 to Fort Leonard Wood, a large basic training camp, and convinced the army to convoy troops to the cave for maneuvers. Hundreds of soldiers camped in the river bottom and marched into the cave in full battle dress. Every night, Lester through dances for the soldiers in the cave and gave special rates to anyone in uniform.
Francena, one of Lester and Mary’s daughters, married one of the soldiers – Rudy Turilli, a handsome Italian from New York. After the war ended, Rudy became the general manager of the cave and handled most of the promotion and publicity. It was Turilli who discovered a man named J. Frank Dalton in 1949 who raised eyebrows by declaring that he was actually Jesse James – but more about that soon.
In the early 1950s, during a time when Americans were preoccupied by the Cold War, Meramec Caverns became known as the “safest bomb shelter in the world” when Lester and Rudy offered the cave to the government as a haven from atomic blasts. He created a passage in the cave to be used as a shelter and stocked it with rations and thousands of gallons of water. Visitors paid to visit this part of the cave and as an ominous incentive to return, were given tiny cards with the admission tickets – cards that promised them a spot in the fallout shelter if the “Big One” ever hit.
Lester and Rudy never missed an opportunity to promote the caverns and celebrities from Kate Smith and Pearl Bailey to Lassie toured the “world’s only five-story cave.” In 1960, Lester dubbed a small nook in the cave the “Honeymoon Room” and managed to get it featured on the Art Linkletter Show. For the show, they dressed a honeymoon couple in leopard skins, confined them to the room and promised them a free trip to the Bahamas if they could find a hidden key within 10 days. Each time a tour passed, the caveman couple were required to act out a skit. The humiliation – and the publicity – lasted the full 10 days since Lester and Rudy didn’t actually hide the key until day 10.
Toasted on network television shows and in the press as “America’s Number One Cave Man”, Lester Dill died in 1980. Despite the passing of the man who put Meramec Caverns on the map, the cave remains in family hands and continues to draw big crowds every summer. The cave was an icon on Route 66 and remains a permanent attraction after all of these years.
But it was the cave’s connection to Jesse James that drew the most visitor’s over the years – especially when Jesse James himself was alleged to take up residence there.
There is no question that Jesse James was one of the most famous outlaws in history. Born and raised in Missouri, Jesse rode with Quantrill’s Raiders during the Civil War and unable to surrender after the war ended, he, his brother and their gang of cousins and friends wreaked havoc with banks and trains all over the Midwest. He remains an intriguing man, portrayed as both a cold-blooded killer by Pinkerton detectives and a “Robin Hood” rebel by friends and neighbors; he became a legend over the years. It’s little wonder that the grave itself had trouble keeping Jesse James in it. History states that Jesse was shot to death by Robert Ford on April 3, 1882 – shot in the back while straightening a picture on the wall. But the official account of Jesse’s death was just too mundane for his admirers to accept. In 1902, Jesse’s body was actually exhumed and reburied to make sure it was safe. Less than five decades later, nearly a dozen old men came out of the woodwork, each of them calling the corpse a counterfeit and each claiming to be the authentic Jesse James.
One by one, most of their stories were shot full of holes but one of them managed to capture the attention of Rudy Turilli, the son-in-law of Meramec Caverns owner Lester Dill. Rudy had been fascinated by the legend of Jesse James for more than 20 years. When all of the old men came forward claiming to be Jesse, he discredited all of them – except for J. Frank Dalton.
By 1948, Rudy was heir apparent to the caverns and followed his father-in-law in proving that he knew how to promote the cave. He and another fellow participated in a stunt that made world news. The two men climbed the Empire State Building and threatened to jump off unless everyone in the world went to Meramec Caverns! The authorities eventually talked them down. Rudy and his friend spent nine days in jail but the story made newspapers all over the country.
When Dalton’s claim on the Jesse James name was first reported in Lawton, Oklahoma, Rudy and Lester assumed that he was another fraud. However, neither one of them was content with just ignoring the story. Meramec Caverns had a huge investment in Jesse James. They had been promoting the cave as Jesse James’ hideout for a number of years and the discovery of a strongbox that had been taken during a James train robbery turned up in an uncharted section of the cave seemed to offer proof of the story. If Jesse was still alive, Rudy and Lester were determined to find him.
Rudy traveled to Oklahoma to meet Dalton and became intrigued by what he found. The bedridden old man who claimed to be Jesse James was winning over the skeptics. The press was starting to put its confidence into print and no interviewer seemed able to poke a hole in his story. Most interesting of all, the self-proclaimed outlaw had a reason why he’d kept silent for so long. Dalton claimed that Robert Ford had actually shot Charles Bigelow, another James gang member, in 1882. Bigelow’s brains were blown out and he was buried under Jesse’s name so that the real outlaw (i.e. Dalton) could live in peace. Missouri Governor Crittenden had been in on the ruse. Dalton and the rest of the gang had made a pact to disclose their true identities only after they reached the age of 100.
Rudy, still skeptical, examined Dalton with a magnifying glass and was stunned to discover damage done to the old man’s body agreed with reports or injuries sustained by Jesse James – from a mutilated tip on the left hand index finger, to evidence of severe burns on both feet, a dropping right eyelid, and bullet scars along the left shoulder, hairline and abdomen. If Dalton wasn’t Jesse James, he’d groomed himself from head to toe, leaving out nothing, to make himself appear that he was. Rudy began making arrangements to bring Dalton to Stanton. He was planning a birthday celebration for the man that he believed was the legendary outlaw.
During the planning, Dalton told Rudy to try and track down some of the other living members of the gang and Rudy found John Tramell, a cook. Rudy told the man that Jesse James wanted him to come to Meramec Caverns for his 102nd birthday party, but Tramell swore that he didn’t know the man. When Rudy went back to Dalton for an explanation, he was told that since he didn’t know a secret password, Tramell wouldn’t talk with him. When asked why he didn’t offer the password originally, Dalton said that he wanted to make sure that Rudy could be trusted. Dalton gave him the password and this time, when he returned to Tramell, the old man agreed to come to the party.
Dalton was given a cabin on the Meramec Caverns property where he could live. He drank heavily and gained an abiding hatred for reporters. He was friendly with everyone else, but grew to despise reporters, who bothered him day and night. Dalton asked for a six-shooter and would actually shoot holes in the ceiling of his cabin to scare the reporters away. Rudy and Lester became concerned that he might actually kill someone, so they started taking the powder out of the bullets and replacing the lead. This plan didn’t work well because Dalton picked up the bullets and knew they were light, so he demanded a full load.
While Dalton was busy fending off reporters, Rudy was working hard to secure Dalton’s legitimacy. Over the years, his faith in Dalton led to him appearing on What’s My Line? and The Tonight Show. Rudy appeared in newspaper after newspapers and in men’s magazines, where he offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove Dalton was a fraud. The story brought so much publicity to Meramec Caverns that Rudy created his own tribute to Dalton in the form of the Jesse James Wax Museum in Stanton.
Today, the museum still stands along Route 66 in Stanton. Inside, life-sized figures of Dalton, Rudy Turilli, Cole Younger and others greet visitors. Firearms that purportedly belonged to the James gang can be found in glass cases and antiques like Frank James’ bathtub and a barber chair in which Jesse received his last trim are on display. There are autopsy photographs and a computer-enhanced projection that turns a 34 year-old Jesse James into an elderly J. Frank Dalton, plus a study in 12-inch ears that allegedly proves that the lobes of Dalton and Jesse James were a perfect match.
Before Dalton’s death, Rudy and Lester petitioned the Franklin County Circuit Court to change Dalton’s name back to Jesse James. With hat in hand, Dalton was carried into the courthouse on a stretcher. Judge Ransom A. Breur dismissed the whole thing as the publicity stunt that it probably was. He said: “There is no evidence here to show that this gentleman, if he was ever Jesse James, has ever changed his name. If his name has never been changed from Jesse James, he is still Jesse James in name, and there is nothing for this court to pass on. If he isn’t what he professes to be, then he is trying to perpetrate a fraud upon this court.”
What that, Lester and Rudy returned to Meramec Caverns and J. Frank Dalton remained a mysterious and grumpy old man for the remainder of his life. He died on August 16, 1951 during a visit to Granbury, Texas. If he really was Jesse James, he was 103 years, 11 months and 10 days old.
But was Rudy Turilli’s belief that J. Frank Dalton was Jesse James actually correct?
In 1995, Professor James E. Starrs (a law professor, not a forensic scientist) from George Washington University exhumed the body of Jesse James that was buried in Kearney, Missouri – only one of two gravesites of James. Based on DNA comparisons with living members of the James family, it was ruled that the body in the grave was actually that of Jesse James. Not surprisingly, though, there was a lot of controversy about the findings, the quality of the evidence and why distant relatives were used for the tests when Jesse’s mother, Zerelda, was buried nearby. Supporters of the J. Frank Dalton claims scoffed at the findings and swore to produce their own tests of Dalton’s remains.
At this time, the death of Jesse James and the truth behind the tales of J. Frank Dalton remain a mystery...
From Weird Highway: Missouri - Route 66 History, Hauntings, Legends & Lore by Troy Taylor