How an enterprising promoter resurrected a notorious outlaw
The pack of Harley riders that roared into the Meramec Caverns parking lot on a sunny morning earlier this month had barely enough time to stretch their legs before their guide whisked them toward the ticket counter.
The group, which included five New Zealanders and more than a dozen Europeans, was following in the footsteps of countless other travelers who have been drawn to the cave’s cool subterranean confines. Lester Dill, an entrepreneur with the instincts of P.T. Barnum, opened the roadside attraction near Stanton, Mo., in 1935 with an eye towards luring passing motorists from the then-nascent Route 66.
But it was Rudy Turilli, Dill’s son-in-law, who initiated the publicity campaign that would forever link the cavern to Jesse James, Missouri’s notorious 19th century outlaw. For decades thereafter, barn roofs throughout the Midwest enticed cross-country travelers to visit the natural wonder by pitching it as Jesse James’ hideout.
The myth began to take shape in 1949, after Frank O. Hall, a journalist from Lawton, Okla., reported that the real Jesse James was still alive. According to Hall’s account, 100-year-old J. Frank Dalton claimed to be the outlaw and said that he had faked his own death in 1882 as a means to end his criminal career.
When Turilli heard the news, he arranged to have Dalton moved to a cabin on the Meramec Cavern grounds. Dalton, who was bedridden with a broken hip by this time, still managed to chew tobacco, cuss and fire a six-shooter indiscriminately on occasion. His long white hair and beard gave him the appearance of Wild Bill Hickok.
Despite contradictory evidence from DNA recovered in a celebrated 1995 exhumation of James’ grave in Kearney, Mo., Meramec Caverns remains indelibly connected to the outlaw’s exploits due in large part to Turilli’s earlier efforts. The cave promoter estimated that he traveled more than 98,000 miles and spent $35,000 investigating the Dalton case.
One of his attempts to gain exposure involved hauling Dalton to New York City, where the old man appeared on a nationally-broadcast program, “We the People.” On the air, Turilli offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove Dalton was an imposter. After returning to Missouri, Turilli had Dalton file a petition in Franklin County (Mo.) Circuit Court to legally change his name to Jesse Woodson James. In response, Jesse E. James, the outlaw’s son, who was an attorney in California, filed an opposing motion. …