June 26, 2017 8 min read
In the years after the Civil War, the legend of Jesse James and his outlaw gang filled newspapers and served as the inspiration for poems and songs. James helped create the legend himself, writing letters to newspapers in between his crimes, sometimes denying them, other times painting himself as a Robin Hood who gave his ill-gotten gains to the poor. (Of course, he and those who made him into some sort of folk hero ignored the fact that the stolen money often belonged to hard-working common people, and not the “one percent” of the day.)
In 1876, James, his brother Frank, and the rest of their gang ventured out of their usual area for committing crimes. They targeted the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, with politics as well as money in mind. The gang heard that Adelbert Ames, former governor of Mississippi, and his father-in-law General Benjamin Butler had just deposited $75,000 in the bank. Ames had recently moved to Northfield to take over his aging father’s flour mill. The deposit though, may have just have been a rumor, as some say it never occurred.
To the James gang, the two Northerners were justifiable targets for robbery, given their treatment of Southerners during and after the Civil War. Most of the gang had fought under William Quantrill, leader of Quantrill’s Raiders, an infamous Confederate group that carried out guerrilla warfare in Kansas and nearby states. To James and the others, Ames was a carpetbagger who represented the Radical Reconstruction carried out by vengeful Republicans. Butler, in the mind of Cole Younger, was especially deserving of being robbed, after his harsh treatment of the citizens of New Orleans during the war. Younger later wrote, “We felt little compunction, under the circumstances, about raiding him or his.”
How much politics motivated all the James-Younger gang’s crimes has stirred some historical debate. T.J. Stiles writes in his biography of Jesse James that the outlaw’s reign of robbery and terror and was part of a calculated effort to restore Confederate power in the defeated South. Other historians downplay politics and see a thug who, like many thugs before and since, let greed and a thirst for public attention fuel his deeds. Minnesota may have been targeted in 1876 because the heat from law enforcement was too intense for them back at their home base of Missouri. And as in many criminal tales, the Northfield heist might have been the mythical “last big score”; Cole Younger said the proceeds would let the gang “start life anew in Cuba, South America, or Australia.”
The Northfield Raid in particular plays a significant part in the James’ saga, since it marked the end of the gang—though not the end of Jesse’s crimes. And in an odd twist, there is no direct evidence that the James brothers even took part! In his accounts of the crime, Cole Younger never mentions either by name, and the brothers never admitted they were there. But the detailed historical retellings of the crime place the James brothers in Minnesota in the days leading up to the crime, and few doubt their role in the Northfield Raid.
Not According to Plan
The gang began arriving in Minneapolis around August 23, 1876. Some checked into the Nicollet Hotel under assumed names, and there are reports of Jesse visiting a local bordello. Two others stayed at the Merchant’s Hotel in St. Paul. Over the next days, the gang hatched its plan, counting on the knowledge of their one Minnesotan, Bill Chadwell, to help them navigate their routes. Within a few days, the eight-member gang split into two groups and began heading out to scout the area around Northfield. Talking to a local farmer just outside the targeted town, one of the gang commented, “Why, according to your statement of the Northfield people, a very few men so inclined could capture the town.” The farmer agreed, perhaps giving the hardened robbers an even greater sense of confidence than usual.
By September 6, Cole Younger’s group was in Millersburg, 11 miles west of Northfield, while the rest of the gang was at Cannon City. The next day, they rendezvoused in Northfield. The plan was to send three men into the bank first—most likely the James brothers and Charlie Pitts, with Younger and Clell Miller to follow. The other three would stay at a nearby bridge. The men outside the bank were to keep the streets clear and scare off any would-be heroes while the others carried out the robbery.
From the start, however, the plan went awry. The three men assigned to go inside went in too early, before Cole and Miller reached the bank door to stand guard. When they did reach their position, local hardware store owner J. S. Allen was about to go inside. After Miller ordered him to turn around, Allen took off, shouting, “Get your guns, boys, they’re robbing the bank.” The townspeople would heed the call.
Meanwhile, inside the bank, things were also deviating from the plan. The robbers had entered with their usual bravado, shouting their intention to rob the bank and warning everyone inside, “If you hallo we will blow your God-damned brains out.” When learning the head cashier wasn’t there to open the safe, the gang turned to assistant cashier Joseph Heywood. But as Heywood explained, the safe was on a time lock and he couldn’t open it. Seeing that the door to the vault was open, one of the bandits entered it. Heywood quickly shut the door, trapping him inside—and unleashing the fury of the remaining two robbers.
Heywood soon felt cold steel on his neck, the blade of a knife one of the robbers wielded. “Open that door or we’ll cut you from ear to ear,” the bandit said. Heywood, a seasoned Civil War vet himself, broke free, but soon absorbed the blow of a revolver crashing against his head. The robbers continued to demand money, and one fired his gun. In the ongoing confusion, bank teller Alonzo Bunker tried to make a break for the door, and was shot in the shoulder for his attempted escape. Wounded, he managed to get outside, where more mayhem was unfolding.
The Gang Takes Flight
At almost the same the first bullet was fired inside the bank, Cole Younger set off a warning shot, to alert the gang members back at the bridge that the robbery was going wrong. Jim Younger and his cohorts at the bridge quickly reached the bank, firing their guns and telling the townspeople to go back inside their homes. But the people of Northfield were not about to let anyone, even the Cole-Younger gang, disrupt life in their town without a fight. Resident Elias Stacy had arrived on the scene with a shotgun, and its blast caught Clell Miller in the face. Manning, the hardware store owner, killed one of the robbers’ horses. A second shot from his gun hit Cole Younger in the thigh; a third proved fatal to Bill Chadwell, piercing his heart. Meanwhile, a bullet from medical student Henry Wheeler’s gun finished off Miller, while another wounded Bob Younger.
The men inside the bank finally came out, but not before one of them killed assistant cashier Heywood. T. J. Stiles speculates it was Jesse James who pulled the trigger, while Cole Younger later claimed it was Charlie Pitts. No one knows for sure. Whoever killed him, a newspaper reported that Heywood was left “with his brain and blood oozing slowly from his right temple.” Outside, along with the two dead robbers was Nicholas Gustavson, a bystander who was hit in the shootout and would soon die from his wound.
As Northfield residents surveyed the scene around the bank, the six remaining gang members began their flight. They had no time to destroy the local telegraph office, so news of the attempted robbery and their escape spread quickly. So did the offer of a reward from Minnesota governor John S. Pillsbury—$1,000 for each man, dead or alive.
At first the gang managed to outrun the news of their crime, passing through Dundas and Millersburg unchallenged. Outside Shieldsville, though, they exchanged shots with local residents who realized who they were. As the gang moved on, they reached unfamiliar territory. As Cole Younger wrote, “When we got into the big woods and among the lakes we were practically lost.” They moved slowly at times, stopping to treat Bob Younger’s shattered elbow, and abandoning their horses since the posse would be looking for men on horseback. They trudged on through the rain, at one point encountering a man named Dunning. Some of the gang wanted to kill him. Instead they let him go after making him promise not to tell authorities the gang’s whereabouts. Dunning agreed, but then almost immediately broke his promise when he reached Mankato.
Still eluding capture after a week on the run, the gang decided to split up. Cole Younger, in his account, says Howard and Woods left the other four. T. J. Stiles says it was Frank and Jesse James who separated from the gang, stealing horses and beginning their getaway to the Dakota Territory. They sometimes went by the aliases of Howard and Woodson. Along the way, both men were wounded by buckshot, but they managed to escape capture.
Trial and Prison
In jail in Madelia, the Youngers had a string of visitors: reporters, Christian women seeking to save their souls, people bearing gifts of food and cigars. At one point, Cole Younger blamed his life of crime on his military service, and explained the Northfield robbery as revenge on the state for gambling losses the gang had suffered in St. Paul.
The trio was moved to the jail at Faribault, and in November 1876, the Younger brothers were formally indicted on four counts: the murders of Heywood and Gustavson, the assault on Bunker, and the robbery itself. Cole Younger maintained that he and his brothers had killed no one. Their lawyers said that as accessories to the crimes, they could face the death penalty, unless they pled guilty. The Youngers took their lawyers’ advice and each was sentenced to life at Stillwater State Prison.
Bob Younger served almost 13 years at Stillwater, dying there in 1889. His brothers, both before and after his death, held a variety of jobs. For a time, Cole was the prison librarian, and for about a decade was the head nurse at the hospital. Cole reported that the doctors he met were “staunch partisans…in the efforts of our friends to secure our pardons.”The efforts of others inside and outside the prison won Jim and Cole Younger their release in 1901. Soon after his release, Cole Younger told a reporter he had “reached the limit of my capacity for taking punishment.” But unlike Jesse James, at least he had survived his punishment. Jesse had been shot dead in 1882. Frank meanwhile, teamed up with his old partner Cole for a legitimate pursuit. In 1903 they launched a show called the “The Great Cole Younger and Frank James Historical Wild West.”
Michael Burgan studied history at the University of Connecticut before embarking on his career of writing about history, current events, geography, science, and more for children. He worked at Weekly Reader for six years before becoming a freelance author. He is a member of Biographers International Organization and edits its monthly newsletter, The Biographer's Craft. A produced playwright, he is also a member of the Dramatists Guild.