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Exhuming Jesse James for DNA

written by: Rafael•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 8/30/2009

Jesse James was still a wanted man many years after news of his death. Rumors were that he faked it. DNA testing was used to identify an exhumed body to see if it was Jesse James and silence the rumors. Find out how DNA extraction is used to prove (or disprove) the identity of a person.

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    Jesse James, the Legend

    Jesse James is one of America’s most legendary and famous outlaws. He and his gang perpetrated spectacular bank robberies and are claimed to have murdered a number of bank employees and bystanders. They roamed the country for many years, robbing trains, stagecoaches, banks and building their reputation.

    On April 3, 1882, the news of Jesse James's assassination was a national sensation. According to the New York Times, James had been shot and killed by one of his gang’s members, Robert Ford in St. Joseph Missouri.

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    Rumors of James's Survival

    Despite the positive body identification (of James's two previous bullet wounds and a partially missing middle finger) rumors surfaced about a plot to allow James to escape from justice by faking his assassination and by burying someone else's body.

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    Exhuming Jesse James Body for DNA Extraction and Testing

    The alleged James’s body, buried in Kearney, Missouri, was exhumed (under court order) in 1995 for DNA extraction. Simultaneously, blood samples from two maternal descendants of James's sister Susan were obtained for identification purposes (the maternal descendants were a great-grandson and a great-great-grandson of Susan). Drs. Starrs, Stone and Stoneking, published their findings about Jesse James DNA testing in the Journal of Forensic Sciences in 2001.

    However, the remains were poorly preserved and sufficient DNA was not available. However, according to Stone et al (2001) enough DNA was obtained from two of four teeth and two hair samples recovered in 1978 from the original burial site on James farm. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) was obtained from these sample as mtDNA is the genetic system of choice in very old and damaged samples (as in a body that has been buried for quite some time) because it is possible to obtain an mtDNA profile even from a single cell. It is more robust and better protected within a cell than nuclear DNA.

    The study showed that all samples from the teeth and bones had the same DNA sequence in a region known as HV1, which means that all samples came from the same body. Also, the DNA mutations in the HV1 region were identical to those in the maternal descendants of Jesse James's sister Susan. These findings coupled with the fact that the particular DNA pattern of the alleged James's body was not found in a mtDNA database (to assess the probability that an unrelated individual would have the same sequence) indicated that indeed the body was that of Jesse James.

    Is this DNA testing 100% conclusive? Stone and coworkers (2001) answer “NO" because there is always the possibility (although they remark “remote") that the exhumed body is from a different maternal relative of Susan's descendants, or from an unrelated individual with the same mitochondrial DNA sequence. However, the mtDNA tests results presented in the paper are in agreement with other scientific findings of the exhumed body.

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    Stone AC, Starrs JE, Stoneking, M. 2001. Mitochondrial DNA analysis of the presumptive remains of Jesse James. Journal of Forensic Science.46(1):173–176.