St. Joseph, Mo. About a month before he was shot to death, Jesse James apparently was thinking about giving in to his wife's demands and getting out of the crime business.
On March 2, 1882, James mailed a letter from his St. Joseph home to a Nebraska man asking about some farm land that was for sale. Just 32 days later, on April 3, Bob Ford shot the outlaw to death at James' home.
Nearly 124 years later, that letter has been put up for auction by a New Hampshire firm specializing in autographed items. R&R Enterprises Auctions says the letter is the last one written by James, and it carries "the Holy Grail of Western autographs."
Only 12 letters from the outlaw are known to exist, said Mike Nelson, senior catalog writer for the company. Because of that scarcity, the minimum bid for the letter is $20,000. The bidding will end Dec. 14.
Nelson said the company relies on several experts, both in-house and outside, to verify the letter's authenticity.
The letter, written on both sides of a 5-by-8 inch sheet of paper, is signed "Tho. Howard," the name James used as an alias as he hid from authorities. Below the name, he includes his address, 1318 Lafayette St. in St. Joseph, and the date.
The letter, sent to J.D. Calhoun, inquires about 160 acres of land advertised for sale in Nebraska's Franklin County. James asks about the lowest acceptable cash price and a full description of the land.
"I will not buy a farm unless the land is No. 1," James wrote.
Gary Chilcote, director of the Patee House Museum and the Jesse James Home in St. Joseph, said copies of the letter have been around for years but he never knew who had the original. Nelson would say only that the owner was a private consignor.
Chilcote said historians generally believe that Zerelda James, the outlaw's wife and first cousin, was pushing her husband to give up crime. The letter indicates that Jesse James was at least thinking about it.
"At the same time, he was out riding around the area casing banks to rob," Chilcote said, adding that James was planning to rob a bank in Platte City on April 4 but was killed the day before.
Nelson shouldn't expect a bid from Chilcote.
"I'd love to have it," said the museum director, adding that considering the minimum cost, "I won't be bidding."