Sandy Mills knew she was left a prized family heirloom. She didn’t realize she also inherited a role in a detective story.
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The heirloom is a one-of-a-kind tintype of two notorious characters from the Wild West: Jesse James and his killer Robert Ford. It’s the only photograph of the two men together -- at least that’s what Mills’ grandmother always told her.
“I believed it, but it didn’t seem like anybody else really did,” she said. “She used to say my ancestors would give James and his gang horses, food and shelter,” Mills recalls.
Mills’ story is featured in the latest episode of the Fox Business Network program, Strange Inheritance with Jamie Colby. It airs Monday, April 17 at 9 pm ET.
Mills – like James, a native of Missouri -- says her tintype was handed down through the generations of her family.
“It’s just passed on through all the ladies, and then my grandma passed it to me,” says Mills, whose grandmother died in 2006.
When Mills decided to sell it a few years later, Texas auctioneer Robb Burley knew it would attract collectors.
“You don’t see Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Kennedy together, that’s how creepy that would be,” says Burley.
The problem for Mills was that some Jesse James aficionados dismissed her picture as a hoax.
Then in 2015, Mills read a news story about a forensic artist named Lois Gibson who authenticated a photo of Billy the Kid. Mills scanned her tintype and emailed it to Gibson, who works for the Houston Police Department.
“I was just going to look at it, tell her it’s not Jesse James and get rid of her,” said Gibson.
But Gibson spotted key similarities between Mills’ tintype and other pictures of James. She focused on James’ philtrum -- the vertical groove between the nose and the top lip.
“I noticed they dented in a certain way,” says Gibson. “Then the top of the lip itself. The shape is like pointy roof peaks. That’s the same as all the known pictures of James.”
Using a computer program, she then overlaid the final shot of James -- dead in his coffin -- atop Mills’ tintype. Bingo.
“I’ll be willing to testify in a court of law,” says Gibson. “It just darn well is Jesse James.”
She also concluded the other figure in the tintype is indeed Robert Ford.
The skeptics didn’t relent, however. If it was James and Ford, Mills should be able to more convincingly explain how her forebears ended up with it.
That’s when author Freda Cruse Hardison stepped up. Her book Frank and Jesse James: Friends and Family used genealogical research to tell the story of the gang responsible for more than 20 robberies and at least 17 murders.
“The name that popped out to me was Pauline Roundtree,” say Hardison.
Mills knew Roundtree was her great-great-great grandmother. Hardison’s database revealed Roundtree was also related to the James family through a previous marriage.
Auctioneer Burley put the tintype up for auction in January 2017. It sold for $35,000.
The buyer, a Texas collector named Terry Verburgt, believes he got a steal.
“I don’t think it will ever be sold that cheap again."
Sandy Mills says she has no regrets about selling her strange inheritance.
“It’s sold and we did good, and it’s out there now. I want it to be in history books.“