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Bones not James gang's gunslinger, research finds

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

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

For decades, the Northfield Historical Society thought that it held the bones of the desperado in its basement.

Genetic testing results from the skeleton confirm earlier DNA findings showing the bones bear no relation to Pitts' descendants.

"It's not Charlie," said forensic scientist Thomas Reynolds of Fairfax Identity Laboratories in Richmond, Va. He presented his findings last week at the 22nd International Symposium on Human Identification.

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

"Jesse James and his gang weren't nice people. They killed, robbed and committed depredations during the Civil War," Reynolds said. "They were colorful, but they were criminals."

And so the James gang met misfortune on Sept. 7, 1876, while attempting to rob the First National Bank of Northfield.

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 gang, "Life and Adventures of Frank and Jesse James." "The ball took effect, and Charlie Pitts, a notorious Texas desperado, fell from his horse, shot through the heart."

As for the James gang, "we think Charlie Pitts' skeleton is still out there," said criminal sociologist James Bailey of the University of North Carolina — Wilmington, part of a scientific team that has been on the trail of the gang for the past three years.

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