She brings out the photo. A sepia image of a man from 1864 stares back.
James “Jim Crow” Chiles, in his early 30s, hat at a jaunty angle, bears a resemblance to actor Johnny Depp.
“See how handsome he was?” sighs Joanne Chiles Eakin, her fingers caressing the image. “I’ve always said he could park his boots under my bed anytime.”
And the 76-year-old chuckles at her wickedness — especially because Chiles was kin, and murderous kin at that. Still, she says, “He was the one who started it all for me.”
Eakin has dug out hundreds of tales about her 30 to 40 relatives who lived in Jackson County in the 1800s. Many fought in the Civil War. But it was this black sheep of a cousin who, in 1958, ignited her lifelong love affair with the era.
Because of Jim Crow, she ventured into archives and libraries to pore over musty newspaper clippings piecing together his life, his personality, his story.
Such as, why the nickname? “He was the most agile dancer of the Jim Crow polka than anyone in Jackson County.”
Eakin found a copy of the sheet music a few years back.
During this romance, she put together 46 books from Civil War records and genealogies, another dozen as a co-author.
Jim Crow got her invites for coffee and conversation with his nephew, Harry Truman.
In a sense, Jim Crow also introduced her to a well-known Hollywood producer, who called her up one day, asking for her expertise for his movie, “Ride With the Devil.”
“Ang Lee and I talked,” is all Eakin will say of her work on the sets. “I made sure he knew you couldn’t be neutral and live in Jackson County. The war affected everybody.”
One of the main characters in the film, a dashing young guerrilla from a good family, is Jack Bull Chiles.
“Jack Bull is Jim Crow,” confides Eakin, who also has chatted with author Daniel Woodrell, who altered several names in his book, “Woe to Live On.”
In the real-life drama, Chiles did some riding with William Quantrill, but ended up with Gen. Joe Shelby, she said. Her direct ancestor, Henry Clay Chiles, a western freighter, was not a combatant in the war.
On a wall of Eakin’s home is a rendering of an aerial view of the City of Independence in 1861, the year the war began. She peers at the tiny drawings of buildings. She shows where slaves were sold, where men waged war in the streets and where in 1873, Jim Crow breathed his last.
“It was a bullet in his back, right in the Independence Square,” Eakin said. “That cowardly Peacock shot him in the back while Peacock’s son held his arms down.”
That’s her version. There are others. She shakes her head.
“The really sad part is what happened to Jim Crow’s son.”
But this is not the time or place to tell that story, she says. That will come later.
Here, it should be noted: Chiles was not a model citizen, having killed a lawyer in the Noland Hotel in 1859 for remarking on his poor table manners. He was acquitted, perhaps due in part to his family’s standing or money.
After the war, he owned a livery stable in Independence, where he had a reputation as a horseman. In Kansas City, he ran a gambling house and saloon, “Headquarters,” where he fed his image as a bad man.
“One-man reign of terror,” David McCullough wrote in his Truman biography.
Eakin knows McCullough, too. “I knew he was going to slander Jim Crow. He had a hatred of him. Why else do you think I’d refuse to let him have that picture that he wanted so desperately?”
But even a colleague of Jim Crow who called him kind and considerate noted how he was “subject to violent fits of anger, and when angry, a very dangerous man.”
McCullough and others said Jim Crow had a penchant for whipping or shooting black men, including one in 1869. But Eakin notes that the family slaves chose to stay with the Chiles after the war. They’re there in the 1870 census.
Eakin combs microfilm from the National Archives on her own reader and then pours the old stories into her bi-monthly, “The Blue & Grey Chronicle.” Her collections from the past are her gift to the future.
A former president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Heart of America Genealogical Society, she belongs to a dozen history groups. She worries that no one else in her family cares much about the Civil War era and their ancestors’ stories.
The bedrooms of her ranch house are filled with boxes of notes, papers and books. An entire wall with a fireplace was built with bricks from the property of a home burned under General Order No. 11.
Another story she tells is about her grandmother, another “ever so great” relative, a term she uses to skip around counting up all the “greats.”
Surprised one afternoon by a group of Yankees on horseback, she says, “they demanded her to fix them dinner, so she did. But when the men were done, one officer leaned way back in his chair and said with a grin on his face and all mean-like, ‘I just shot your son in yonder woods.’?”
But she knew it wasn’t true, Eakin goes on. The son was in Texas. “Later on, she learned it was her nephew, though. Those Yankees were mean.
“…And after the war, you couldn’t just move back. You had to prove you owned the property. But how could you prove that when the Yankees burned everything down?”
Which leads Eakin into another tale about another relative, John P. Webb, of Oak Grove. Webb was rich from the California gold rush, she says, but returned to Jackson County after the war. On the Independence courthouse steps, as the properties of his friends were sold, he bought them up.
“He gave them their land back,” she says, “even if the owner couldn’t pay him. I’m very proud of him.”
For at least 30 years, she guesses, Eakin planted rebel flags on Oak Grove and Lone Jack graves of ancestors on Decoration Day.
“It was Decoration Day years before the government decided to change it to Memorial Day,” she explains, disgusted.
She always ends up at Woodlawn in Independence, her last stop the Chiles family marker.
Which is where she is now, under the shade of a century-old tree. “Now, I’ll tell you what happened,” she begins:
The Saturday night before Jim Crow died, his daughter’s pony and several of his thoroughbreds were poisoned. He went into town to see if he could find out who did it.
Elijah, 12, went after him and saw Deputy Marshall James Peacock shoot his father as another man held Jim Crow’s arms tight.
Why did they fight? Some say Chiles was drunk and slapped Peacock. Others say Peacock had a grudge against Chiles because he got away with the 1869 killing of a black man. McCullough described Peacock as having the grit to duel.
Eakin refers to an old newspaper obituary for her telling of the story. In the melee, Elijah, half blind but brave, caught a bullet, too. The boy was carried to a nearby hotel, where he lingered for two days — and apologized to kin for not saving his father, Jim Crow Chiles. She sighs once more.
“When I first read that it made me cry….So sad.”