DNA study: Bones not those of James gang gunslinger

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The Jesse James gang gunslinger Charlie Pitts was a bad man, and his evil ways caught up to him when he was gunned down during a bungled bank robbery.

But his bones apparently got clean away, according to new research presented here at a forensics symposium.

"Jesse James and his gang weren't nice people, they killed, robbed, and committed depredations during the Civil War," says forensic scientist Thomas Reynolds of Fairfax Identity Laboratories in Richmond, Va. "They were colorful, but they were criminals."

And so the gang met its downfall on Sept. 7, 1876, attempting to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minn. They killed a cashier, rousing the townsfolk, including a man living across the street from the bank. That man grabbed his gun, "took deliberate aim and fired," according to an 1880s account of the gange, Life and Adventures of Frank and Jesse James. "Charlie Pitts, a notorious Texas desperado, fell from his horse, shot through the heart."

For decades, the Northfield Historical Society thought it held the bones of the desperado in its basement. Results from genetic testing of the skeleton, which Reynolds presented here last week at the 22nd International Symposium on Human Identification, confirm earlier DNA findings showing the bones bore no relation to Pitts' descendants. "It's not Charlie," Reynolds says.

In fact, based on samples from the scalp, thigh bone and a molar, "It's not anybody," he says. "Most likely it is a composite skeleton from three different people's bones used in a medical school as a teaching aid."

That's how it goes in the world of forensic genetics testing, on display at the symposium. There, researchers such as Boise State University's Greg Hampikian of the Idaho Innocence Project summarized the statistics from about 250 inmates exonerated by DNA results over the past three years and the recent freeing of Seattle's Amanda Knox in Italy, which the group worked on.

("For some people, we are also the 'Guilty Project'," Hampikian said, estimating that about a third of the convicts for whom the project conducts DNA tests, are confirmed as, indeed, guilty.)

Another researcher, Mark Jobling of the United Kingdom's University of Leicester, reported a surprisingly high proportion of Englishmen with ancestry tied to the Vikings — history's original outlaws — in samples of about 5,000 men's Y-chromosomes. That's the one that men inherit from their fathers.

As for the James gang, "We think Charlie Pitts skeleton is still out there," says criminal sociologist James Bailey of the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, part of a scientific team that's been on the trail of the gang for the last three years.

Even dead, Charlie Pitts caused trouble for folks in Minnesota, old newspaper accounts show. After Pitts' shooting, and display of his corpse in the state capitol in St. Paul, a doctor named Henry Hoyt inherited the bones from the state surgeon general. While traveling to California, Hoyt decided to preserve them in a waterproof box at the bottom of St. Paul's Lake Como (which Pitts still reputedly haunts). "An ice fisherman pulled the box out of the lake," which led locals to think a killer was on the loose and "started a turn-of-the-century search for a serial murderer," Reynolds says.

Hoyt hurried home from the West Coast to clear up the confusion and historians lost track of the remains. That is, until Bailey spotted a Northfield "Jesse James Day" newspaper report of the bones being holed up in the basement of the Northfield Historical Society , sparking his team's interest in conducting DNA tests.

"We're getting the gang back together," Bailey says. The team has work underway on another skeleton reputedly from a separate member of the gang. They hope to present the results in February at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Atlanta. "It's another one of the bank robbers," Bailey says.

This time, he hints, it looks like they've got their man.