DescriptionThe Most Thoroughly Documented Jesse James Gun Ever to Appear at Auction: Colt Single Action .45 Caliber Revolver, Identified by Three Generations of the James Family as Jesse's Gun. "Outlaw guns" are immediately objects of suspicion because so many fakes or examples with undocumented histories appear on the market. Only rarely does a gun with this sort of full and most interesting provenance come up for sale.
This gun, serial number 70579, is the subject of a letter of authentication by recognized Colt authority R. L. Wilson (shown in full on our website). It first surfaced in the early 1920s as part of a display of guns and other objects belonging to his father, put together by Jesse James, Jr. The gun offered here is clearly recognizable in the upper left-hand corner of a famous and much published photograph of the display, pictured by Wilson in his important reference book The Peacemakers (p. 171). The photo was first published in a rare 1936 volume, The Crittenden Memoirs, by H.H. Crittenden, son of the Missouri governor who conspired with Bob Ford to have Jesse James killed (p. 192). The photo was inscribed in the margin below: "May 4th, 1923 to H.H. Crittenden. This is an authentic picture with my compliments Jesse James, Jr." In an ironic twist of fate, the son of Jesse James and the son of the governor who arranged his assassination actually had become friends! As Crittenden tells it, his brother Tom Crittenden had opened a real estate office in Kansas City and advertised for an office boy. Apparently unaware of the connection, young Jesse Jr. applied for the job. Tom Crittenden of course knew immediately who the boy was, but nonetheless offered him the job if his mother and grandmother (Zee James and Zerelda Samuel) gave their okay. The boy returned the next day with the family's permission and was given the job (pp. 332-333). From that point forward there was peace between the families. A rare signed copy (1 of 100) of Crittenden's memoirs accompanies this lot.
H. H. Crittenden's 541 page volume contains only a handful of photographs, and the importance of his decision to include the gun display cannot be over-emphasized for purposes of authenticating the Colt offered here. Had he had any reservations about the representation of these items as having belonged to Jesse James, Crittenden certainly would not have published the photo.
As if the original photo did not provide sufficient provenance, subsequent events further reinforce the gun's legitimacy. In approximately 1924, this weapon and the Merwin & Hulbert revolver passed into the possession of a Missouri doctor named Lowery. One account claims that the guns were given to him in payment for medical services. The James family would later assert that they were merely loaned or entrusted to Dr. Lowery.
Surviving documents indicate that the guns passed legitimately to Dr. Lowery. A 1935 report by R. E. Donnellan, Captain of Investigations for the Excelsior Springs, Missouri, police department, states that the guns were voluntarily turned over to Lowery by James under the supervision of Sheriff Elgin, who became involved when Jesse Jr. was unable to pay a substantial medical bill owed to Lowery. The guns were to be security for the payment of the bill. But according to Capt. Donnellan, "the bill was never paid, and Dr. Lowery retained possession of the guns."
In 1932, Stella James, wife of Jesse, Jr., then living in California, traveled all the way to Missouri to try to talk Dr. Lowery, then very ill and living in a sanatorium, into returning the guns to the family. But she was unsuccessful, and on April 27 of that year filed suit against Dr. Lowery in Missouri. However, the doctor died and the guns disappeared, and Stella gave up her efforts. The pair would resurface in 1935 in the possession of U.S. Senator Harry B. Hawes of Missouri. No paperwork seems to have survived documenting how he came to own the guns. Perhaps fearing further claims by the James family, he would only assert that he had bought them lawfully, and that he had never known Dr. Lowery. Accordingly, a March 1935 notarized affidavit by Excelsior Springs chief of police William J. Payne assumes tremendous importance. Payne confirms that the guns possessed by Hawes (one of which is the Colt revolver offered in this auction) were indeed the same two guns taken from Jesse James, Jr. and which Stella James later sought to reclaim. According to the affidavit, Payne was with Sheriff Elgin at the time, and could confirm the identity of the guns as having been carried by the outlaw Jesse James and as the ones confiscated from Jesse, Jr. by the Sheriff.
As is laid out in an incomplete 1940 exchange of letters between Senator Hawes' representative and an agent for Henry Ford, the James family had not quite given up on recovering the two guns. Ford had probably become aware of their existence after they were exhibited as part of the Missouri State Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair (see documentation on our web site). At any rate, he was very desirous of obtaining the guns for display at the fantastic museum of American history he was assembling in Dearborn, Michigan.
However, Ford was distressed upon learning of assertions by Jo Frances James (Jesse's grand-daughter) that the guns were still the lawful property of the family. It was she who made the claim that the guns had only been loaned to Dr. Lowery "to put on display at some sort of celebration they were having in the town" (Excelsior Springs). Jo Frances had apparently tried without success to persuade Senator Hawes to return the guns voluntarily (she claimed he failed to respond to her letters).
Apparently Ford had become aware of the earlier controversy over title to the guns, and had begun an investigation of his own, which involved contacting the James family for their side of the story. Jo Frances James wrote to his secretary, "Mr. Ford is far better able to contact the Senator than we are and may be able to prevail upon him to relinquish the guns. If legal proceedings are necessary, you undoubtedly have your own legal department which could handle the matter at much less expense than we could. If Mr. Ford wishes to help us secure the revolvers, we will give him one and we will take the other."
Senator Hawes reassured Ford that the claims by the family had no validity, and a letter from his secretary suggests that Ford was satisfied with the explanation. However, perhaps in a desire to avoid a messy controversy, Ford seems to have dropped his pursuit of the two revolvers.
The attempt over nearly a decade by the James family to recover these guns is of tremendous importance in confirming their authenticity. It is unimaginable that a family that was not terribly well-off would have spent money on lawyers and a cross-country trip by Stella James (no small undertaking in 1932), or continued their quest through various channels for years, unless the family was certain that these two guns had indeed belonged to their notorious ancestor!
An interesting side-light concerning the guns from the period of ownership by Senator Hawes involves a delightful 1938 press photo titled "Senatorial Stick-up," which shows John Nance Garner playfully pointing the two revolvers at Harry Truman! At the time, Garner was FDR's vice president, and Truman was the other senator from Missouri. The caption for the photo misidentified the owner as Truman, probably just a misunderstanding. Hawes, another Missouri representative to the Senate, was of course the actual owner.
We have no paperwork from the transfer, but sometime after 1940 ownership of the two guns passed to another Missouri political figure, Congressman Frank W. Boykin. Several 1975 letters document an exchange between Richard A. Boykin, Sr., son of the late Congressman, and William Mitchell. The final selling price is undocumented, but in one of the letters Boykin sets the price for the pair at $100,000 - an enormous sum for 1975. In his letter of August 21, 1975, Boykin states that the two guns he is offering are the thoroughly-documented pair formerly owned by Senator Hawes. His September 23 letter to Mitchell is particularly important, as it cites the Colt's serial number, 70579. This is the first mention of the serial number in any of the documents provided to us. It is not at all surprising that the number does not appear in earlier paperwork, because it was rarely the custom in those days to specify the serial numbers of guns being referenced. However, the Boykin letter establishes the fact that the gun which passed from Jesse James, Jr. to Dr. Lowery to Senator Hawes to his father Congressman Frank Boykin to William Mitchell is indeed the example offered for sale here.
Another important piece of documentation is a 1994 letter from Judge James Ross to Richard Boykin, Sr., regarding the two guns he had previously owned. Judge Ross was Jesse James' great-grandson, and was very active in maintaining the accuracy of information relating to the James gang. Ross assured Boykin that "[he is] not, in behalf of the family, attempting, as did my grandmother and mother, to have the guns returned to the family." He did, however, assure Boykin that these guns were authentic Jesse James relics. Judge Ross represented the third generation of the James family to confirm this Colt as Jesse's gun: (1) Jesse, Jr. and his wife Stella, (2) Jesse's granddaughter Jo Frances James, and (3) Judge Ross. He was writing merely to try to keep track of the whereabouts of the two guns so that "hopefully, at some date [they may] reposit in a museum for all to see as they are definitely a part of Americana."
At the time R. L. Wilson published The Peacemakers in 1992 he was unaware of the whereabouts of this gun. However, in his inscription in a copy of the book which is included with this lot, Wilson states that he certainly would have published it had it been available to him at the time.
Mr. Chip DeMann, director of the Northfield, Minnesota Historical Society, has long sought to have this gun exhibited there and advises that he would be more than happy to display it on loan from its new owner. Mr. James Griffin, Director of the new Sam and Elizabeth Colt Industrial and Frontier Heritage Center, has also expressed interest in having this gun on loan, stating that he would be very happy to have it as a featured exhibit during the grand opening of this important new museum, where it would be shown in the iconic "Blue Dome" East Armory in the original Colt factory complex.
While the value of this revolver clearly derives from its stature as a Jesse James relic rather than its intrinsic nature, we nonetheless feel an accurate description of its condition is in order. Overall, the gun is very good. Approximately 40% of the original factory nickel plating remains, with the balance a brownish gray patina, showing wear, nicks, and scattered light pitting which probably resulted from inadequate cleaning after black powder bullets were fired. Front sight purposely filed to a low profile after leaving the factory, possibly for ease in removing quickly from its holster. Action operating, trigger and hammer notches imperfect. Markings clear, matching serial numbers. Grips of a mellow color, with the expected oil stains and small cracks from use. Repair to right panel at front of butt. The ejector housing and rod are replacements. The gun as shown in the 1923 display is missing the housing. While the wear and patination on the housing now part of the gun are similar to the gun's barrel, under careful examination it is clear that the two parts do not match, and that this housing was taken from another single action and used as a replacement on the James gun. When the hammer is cocked, it will engage both the safety notch and also function on half cock. When pulled back for full cock, the trigger does not engage that notch but instead engages the half cock notch.
In an effort to elicit more information about this James gun we spoke with longtime owner William Mitchell. Mitchell recalls a 1970s conversation with Richard Boykin in which he related that the James guns were often taken to the family hunting preserve in northern Alabama, where family members and guests holstered the guns and took them out to use for target practice! Improper use and handling undoubtedly contributed to the wear on the nickel plating.
We have posted a number of supporting documents referenced in our description on the Heritage website. Unfortunately original copies of many have been lost (some may have accompanied the Merwin & Hulbert revolver when the guns were separated, as there could be only one set of original documents). We apologize for the poor quality of some of the photocopies, but at least they are legible enough to convey the significant information.
Setting a realistic estimate for a gun as unique and important as this one has proven a real challenge, and in the end we have opted for just a minimum starting bid. Clearly it is one of the most important firearms ever to appear at auction. There is no shortage of comparables in the mid-to-high six figure range. In 2003, the Smith & Wesson revolver that reportedly killed Jesse James fetched $490,000 at auction. In a 2012 sale, Bob Dalton's single action auctioned for $322,000 (and, with all due respect, Bob Dalton was no Jesse James). That same year two handguns belonging to Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow sold for a combined total of $504,000. Heritage sold an exceptional Colt Patterson for $977,500, as well as a Gustave Young-engraved third model Colt dragoon for $805,000. In that same sale a civilian model Colt Walker brought $690,000. Considering the remarkable history and documentation of the Jesse James Colt offered here, we feel that we have set a very realistic jumping off point for serious bidding.
This lot is being sold subject to following additional information of provenance:
(1) In a 1939 speech to the Missouri Society, United States Senator Harry Hawes of Missouri confirmed that he owned two Jesse James guns, one of which was a Colt revolver and the other a Smith and Wesson.
(2) In a 1954 letter to his daughter, Congressman Frank Boykin advised that he had obtained two Jesse James guns from the widow of Senator Hawes.
(3) In 1976 Richard Boykin, the son of the late Congressman, offered the two guns his father had obtained from Mrs. Hawes to William Mitchell. One was the Colt serial number 70579 offered herein, the other a Merwyn & Hulbert. Mitchell purchased only the Colt.
(4) In 1995, a West Coast auction firm offered two guns as "A Historic Pair of Frontier Revolvers Once Owned by Jesse James". One of these was the Merwyn and Hulbert offered by Richard Boykin in 1976, the other was a Colt single action, similar to the one presented here. The offering was accompanied by copies of documents, many of which are the same documents which accompany the gun being auctioned today.
(5) In a Nov. 22, 2013 conversation with Richard Boykin, Heritage was able to confirm that the gun offered today was the same one sold to Mitchell in 1976 (i.e. Colt serial number 70579), and to the best of his knowledge and belief it had belonged to Jesse James, and descended through the chain of ownership outlined in our lot description.
PLEASE NOTE: AT THE REQUEST OF THE CONSIGNOR, IF THIS LOT DOES NOT OPEN FOR BIDDING DURING THE AUCTION, IT WILL NOT BE AVAILABLE FOR LATER PURCHASE OR OFFERS.
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