Did Jesse James hide in Ontario?

I love legends, myths and folklore. Somewhat surprisingly, for such a young nation, Canada has a host of wonderful stories, dating back to the days of our earliest settlers – some are based on fact, others are fanciful, and still others are completely outlandish. Yet such tales are a part of our historical fabric.

Canadians don’t make a big deal of their legends. We just enjoy them. However, in the U.S., legends are dressed up in glitzy neon lights and fortunes are made from charging often hefty admissions.

A case in point is the notorious Jesse James, the famed (or infamous) American outlaw. For many, James was a hero, a Robin Hood who helped the poor and robbed rich bankers and railroad barons. To others, he was nothing more than a savage killer, a vicious thief.

After his death at the age of 35, James was immortalized in song and story, with more than a dozen books written about him and the James-Younger Gang. Hollywood got into the act with several movies, the most famous being Jesse James starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda. Today, James’ haunts and the scenes of his exploits are well-publicized tourist attractions, catering to thousands of visitors each yr.

James was shot in the head, killed by fellow-gang member Bob Ford, in April 1882. The story made headlines around the world, including Princeton, Ont., a small Oxford County village 50 km southwest of Kitchener. Villagers saw the pictures of James and recognized him as a former local resident, a Mr. Richardson. To this day, over a century later, stories persist around Princeton that Jesse James lived there while on the run from U.S. authorities.

According to folklore, in the early 1880s a handsome stranger named Richardson arrived in Princeton and moved into the local hotel. He made friends, bought a horse and buggy and courted a beautiful young lady. He often went squirrel shooting with men of the village, who later recounted how amazed they were with Richardson’s deadeye marksmanship.

Soon an engagement with the young lady was announced and Richardson said he planned to buy a farm on Governor’s Road, now Highway 2. He made a down payment on the farm and a wedding was set for early spring.

Then, as suddenly as he appeared, Richardson vanished, leaving behind a broken heart and dumbfounded friends. He left no forwarding address and no one knew where he was from – or where he’d gone. The mysterious Richardson faded from memory until news of the death of Jesse James hit town in 1882. And the legends have been floating around Princeton ever since.

“The story has passed from generation to generation,” Princeton historian Anna Williamson says. “I think it’s a myth but there’s always the possibility it did happen – and practically speaking, it would have been a good place for him to hide out.”

Although a skeptic, Williamson was intrigued by the legend. When she edited the 1967 History of Princeton, she included one of the many stories of Jesse James’ life in the town as Mr. Richardson.

However, Princeton has not cashed in on the legend. No neon lights. No Jesse James Theme Park. No signs proclaiming “Jesse James Slept Here.” Princeton, thankfully, remains a quiet Ontario village, without the hokum.