Anniversary of the James-Younger Gang’s failed robbery of the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota
Been a while, hasn’t it. I’ve been so busy with work, I haven’t had a chance to update this blog. But as of today, that is changing.
What follows will be the first of three posts, commemorating the Anniversary of the James-Younger Gang’s very badly planned and executed robbery of a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, on September 7th, 1876. Over the next three weeks, I will be presenting the “revised” Chapter (9) from my book Western Legend — which greatly details this historical incident.
This Chapter has been revised incorporating new sources, only recently made available by the State of Minnesota, and the Northfield Historical Society.
So, without further adieu or pomp and pageantry, I give you …
Chapter 9 — Northfield
In addition to some truly inaccurate ramblings found in a multitude of period dime novels, the September, 1876 incident in Northfield, Minnesota has been depicted on film and television many, many times. Most notably in the 1940’s with The True Story of Jesse James, the 1970’s with The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, and in the 1980’s as both an action center piece in the film, The Long Riders, and an interesting episode of the ‘mysteries of the unexplained’ style television show, In Search Of. But all such depictions have been produced for the purpose of entertainment, and generally eschew the complexity of the incident, without delving into the finer details of the robbery. And while it’s true that a handful of recent cable television recreations have focused on portraying the incident with definitive accuracy (such as The History Channel’s Shootout,) limitations in such productions have illustrated the bank robbery in a manner which strays from the facts and inserts false details into the general narrative. And to make matters worse, a routine internet search reveals numerous, somewhat expected inaccuracies far too frequent to mention here.
In lieu of this, and for the purpose of attempting a relative degree of accuracy in respect to an attempted bank robbery now more than a Century old, this author has first consulted the recollections of Frank James, and for further clarification, the two most regional newspaper reports to be printed within days of the “affray.” The first of these being Northfield’s own Rice County Journal, and the second being the Winona Daily Republican, from the distant but regional town of Winona County, Minnesota. These accounts were made first- or second-hand, by journalists who were either eye-witnesses themselves, or who rushed to Northfield in the aftermath of the incident, and spoke directly with eye-witnesses directly involved. For obvious reasons, reports from these papers have been utilized, as opposed to accounts printed in other well-known, distant publications, such as The Pioneer Press and Tribune, The San Francisco Examiner, or The Chicago Tribune.
I have also utilized documents recently made available on-line by the Minnesota Historical Society. These include statements made in 1897 by Frank J. Wilcox, D.J. Whiting, John Morton, P.S. Dougherty, and W.H. Riddell. Said statements were made to the parole board when Cole Younger was lobbying for his release from prison. I have additionally consulted Cole Younger’s own personal recollection printed in The Story of Cole Younger, by Himself. But use of this information has been tempered with the understanding that Younger distorted certain facts, in an attempt to further leverage his attempt at securing parole, and also to protect Frank and Jesse James.
Finally, although supplementary conclusions have been drawn with the assistance of a handful of internet pages, these have been carefully selected. This information was helpful in taking an aggressively convoluted event and reverse-engineering it into a clearer narrative. And also helped pepper what follows with further details, colorizing an otherwise static moment in history.
* * * *
Setting the stage: two weeks before the fateful day, two of the men involved visited a local man named John Mulligan, residing approximately two and half miles west of Northfield. Both men claimed to be “prospecting for land,” and opened an impromptu negotiation with Mulligan for his homestead. After a brief argument, they apparently agreed on a price. It is not recorded whether this was a legitimate and mutual negotiation, or whether this was a negotiation conducted with the use of intimidation. Certain members of the James-Younger Gang were known for using bullying tactics to get what they wanted. And given that none of the gang would have been interested in sticking around after having robbed the local bank, this meeting is suspected to be a confrontation.
The men stated that part of their currency was in another bank in the town of Red Wing, located on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, and that the remaining amount would be raised soon. It was also later confirmed that four horses had been purchased in Red Wing on August 21st from a P. Watson, together with equipment such as blankets, rain coats, etc.
Next the men quizzed Mulligan on the subject of the nearby city of Northfield, the “general character of her people,” and whether they were a “peace-loving people.” Their rational for this line of questioning reportedly being, that they preferred to “…cast their lot with such people.”
When Mulligan described the town and its citizens with apparent accuracy, one of the two men declared, “Why, according to your statement of (sic) Northfield people, a very few men so inclined could capture the town, couldn’t they?”
“Of course they could,” Mulligan replied.
The men held Mulligan at bay for some time. Further questioning him about local roads and where they led, and local woods and how far they extended.
Eventually, though, the two men left and never returned.
* * * *
Within a week or so later, two men arrived in Northfield around midday; hitching their horses at posts a few feet north of an establishment known locally as Mr. Trussell’s Brick Block, or Trussell’s Corner. Moseying over, the larger of the two men sparked a conversation with Trussell, who was in process of selling a plow to a local farmer named Mr. Jones. The larger man reportedly did all the talking, questioning Trussell and his patron, Mr. Jones, for around half an hour. The larger man-made inquiries about the roads in the area, specifically the road to St. Peter. Trussell admitted that the better route was through Faribault, and so on, but due to the manner of the two men, Trussell was immediately suspicious. In fact, feelings of intimidation were described by all who entered into conversation with these men, with their manner being described as almost confrontational.
The Night of the sixth of September, four of the men attempted to gain lodging at the home of a certain Mr. Ross. Unable to accommodate them, Ross simply directed them to search for lodgings in town. Instead, the men later found accommodation with a Mr. C.C. Stetson, three miles south of town, on the road to Faribault.
On the morning of the seventh, the very day of the bank raid, an African-American man named Walter Lewis drove from the nearby town of Dundas. Arriving at Trussell’s Corner at approximately ten in the morning, he mentioned to Trussell that he had seen four men on horseback exiting the woods and coming toward town. And specifically, he remarked that they looked suspicious. This would seem conclusive proof that many around the area of Northfield were aware of these men as a potential threat, or at the very least, a curiosity. And also, that such a view had been disseminated among numerous local residents within just a few days time.
Moments after being seen by Walter Lewis, the four men rode into town, two by way of Division Street and two by way of Water Street. One hitched his horse near the bank, and waited. The other hitched his horse near Trussell’s Corner as he had the previous week, and proceeded to pace past the bank to a business known as Misses’ Whittier & Balch’s Store.
Then, he suddenly did an about-face, and hastily walked back.
For the second time, Trussell observed the strange behavior of these men, and now filled with suspicion, followed on the opposite side of the street, passing Dampier House—a hotel. But another man named Elias Hobbs—reportedly the town Marshall—assured Trussell that the men were cattle buyers, and in response, the second of the two supposed cattle buyers remarked to Trussell that he was “too suspicious.”
Sometime between eleven and noon, two men crossed the 4th Street Bridge to dine at J. G. Jeft’s Restaurant. An establishment located on the North side of the Cannon River, and in the near vicinity of the local railroad station and Ames Mill. After each of the men had finished off a plate of ham and eggs, their party left—and two other men arrived to take their place. All four were said to be dressed noticeably alike, in their long, glowing duster coats, with their pants tucked into their boots. And Mr. Jeft himself noted that their horses were, “…sleek and clean-limbed, and showing indications of good blood.”
It was sometime later, when the two n had a drink at John Tosney’s saloon on the west side of town. One had wine, the other whiskey, both drinking lightly. Meanwhile, two additional men visited the Exchange saloon on the east side of the river, with both consuming whiskey.
Ascertaining just how many of the men had actually entered town at this point, was then, and is still today, difficult. But their repeated presence speaks volumes in respect to just how conspicuous these experienced bandits had actually made themselves. In fact, conspicuous would be a rather powerful understatement, something all eight of the men may not have been conscious of.
That afternoon, the full complement of men, again, all in long prairie linen “Ulster” duster coats light beige or white in color, fine suits, and hats—huddled and squatted in a field of grass, “two or three miles” away from the 4th Street Bridge. These coats were essentially “cavalry style” stockmen coats, and were complete with a short cape. They conferred over one of two maps they’d procured weeks earlier. The first, a pocket map of larger Minnesota, and the second, a hand-drawn map of Northfield reportedly purchased from a bookstore in another town. A map which crudely evidenced the placement of major streets, a few businesses, the bridge itself, and prominently, The First National Bank of Northfield.
As later reported by both Cole Younger and Frank James, little was said. And what words were spoken, were done so quietly. The vote was merely taken. And the majority agreed to rob the bank. Then, one of the robbers removed an expensive pocket watch from his person, thumbed open the cover, and revealed the time to everyone. It was now one-fifty in the afternoon. They were ready.
In addition to earlier forenoon visits made to local saloons, the men had also perused local hardware stores, gauging the town’s potential weapons ordinance. Afterward, they had generally roamed around for a couple of hours, killing nothing more than time. And they had been further observed by Mr. George E. Bates, who later remarked, “Four nobler-looking fellows I never saw, but there was a reckless, bold swagger about them that seemed to indicate that they would be rough and dangerous fellows to handle.”
Having regrouped here, the men now deliberated whether or not to “make a go” for the bank. And their reasons for choosing this town, and this bank, remain debatable even today. Through interviews and scuttlebutt, various surviving members of the gang later cited two motives. The first being a deep-rooted hatred retraced to two prominent generals of the Union Army: Benjamin Butler and Adelbert Ames—and their connections to the bank. Ames—as in Ames Mill—had actually owned stock in the bank, and the fact that he’d recently relocated to Northfield was reprinted in several regional newspapers. As for Butler—hatred in his direction went deep. He also held political views the men violently opposed. And according to Cole Younger, his party believed both men had money in bank at Northfield. It was eventually revealed that Ames did have money in the bank, Butler did not.
The second motive centers on hearsay that gang member William Chadwell had prior knowledge of Northfield as a result of having been a previous resident. And though that alone could have been the decisive factor in the town being chosen as a target of opportunity, it’s also possible that Chadwell’s prior knowledge came from him only having served as a scout for the gang’s recent activity in the area.
Regardless of the catalyst—this was their decisive moment.
The men had allegedly attempted another bank robbery in the regional town of Mankato, only to abort. And it’s probable that by now, all were running low on currency, and in need of further finances. Each had money squirreled away someplace for sure, but getting at it was another matter.
It has additionally been suggested that the principal loot from their many successful heists was in actuality being diverted to a covert Southern cause; a group still bitter over the Emancipation Proclamation, Appomattox, and the outcome of the War in general. This reveals the possibility that these men were not merely thieves, but terrorists as well.
* * * *
Frank sat in the saloon in Nacogdoches, contemplating a chosen point-of-view for his tale. He took a long breath, and blew it out, puffing his cheeks.
After a beat, he finally nodded and addressed the room. “Now keep in mind,” He said, “We were experienced at this, and nothing like what I’m about to tell you, had ever happened to us before. So, if I had been there, here’s the truth behind the umm … the legend, if you will.”
He looked down at the four boys, and started with, “There were eight of us.”
* * * *
Eight men mounted eight horses and fell into formation in three separate detachments. The first comprised of three men, then two, then three again. After spacing these detachments apart by roughly forty yards, the first five men nonchalantly rode forward to where they could see much of Mill Square beneath them. A horseshoe-shaped blending of two dirt streets, Division and 4th; also known as Bridge Square due to its approximation to the 4th Street Bridge.
The initial detachment included the first of the two James Brothers—both were reportedly favoring a mustache, and were difficult to tell apart—Samuel George Wells (alias Charlie Pitts,) and Robert (Bob) Ewing Younger. The three rode on, passing Ames Mill, crossing over the 4th Street Bridge, and riding down into the Square.
Splitting up rather quickly, these three horsemen were seen taking alternate routs toward a mutual destination. While two took the long way around, eventually arriving at the bank via the opposite end of Division, the third simply followed 4th directly across the Square. And when all three arrived, they tied their horses to hitching posts in front of the bank, and strolled several yards alongside the large Scriver Building to the corner of Lee & Hitchcock Dry Goods Store. One sat atop a dry-goods box stacked there, while the others leaned against the banister of a staircase that ran up the side of the building diagonally. This large, prominent building faced Division to the South, and along with other businesses, housed the bank.
Catching sight of the three men, a few local citizens took second and even third glances at them. Their appearance was remarked as, “marvelous”.
J.S. Allen and Sons — Allen remarked, “Who are these men; I don’t like the looks of them.” Allen then crossed the street, returning to Lee and Hitchcock’s, while
The aforementioned George E. Bates, and another man, C.O. Waldo, a “commercial traveler” from Council Bluffs, were standing in the doorway of Bates’ Store located across the street when the men rode in. Bates and Waldo had a brief, trivial discussion regarding the appearance of the men, whom town scuttlebutt had labeled cattle buyers. And even took note of their fine horses. Mr. Bates and Mr. Waldo made nothing more of it, and withdrew to the far end of Mr. Bates’ establishment to look over sample trusses. (Structural frameworks designed to hold up a roof or building corner.)
A dentist named D.J. Whiting, was at this moment inside his office, up the steel staircase of Scriver Building. He happened to look out the window and spotted the three men at the bottom of the stairs. And one of them was using his finger on a dry-goods box to illustrate a plan for the others to follow. Mr. Whiting was suspicious, but shrugged it off and returned his attention to his afternoon work.
* * * *
Elsewhere, the second detachment, including Thomas Coleman “Cole” Younger and William McLelland “Clell” Miller, was now stationed a few feet behind the Bridge. Cole turned his head, and nodded at the men of the last detachment, several yards back. The nod was reciprocated by one of the three men.
Years later, Younger credited this “third man” as “Woods.” Research has revealed that both Jesse and Frank appear to have used the aliases, “Woodson,” and “Howard” on numerous occasions, and even appear to have traded them routinely, so as to confuse specific identity, in case said aliases were discovered.
Cole snapped his pocket watch shut; nodded to Clell.
And with that, the two galloped across the bridge into town.
But something wasn’t right. Crossing Bridge Square, Cole noted that the area at the corner of Scriver Building, and Division Street beyond, was rather crowded.
“Surely the boys will not go into the bank with so many people about; I wonder why they did not ride on through town.” He commented to Clell.
Younger later stated that the initial three men couldn’t see any saddled horses visible, and assumed this would be to their advantage. That was the factor that convinced the initial three to go ahead with the robbery, even though the streets were far too crowded to ever get away with it.
On the sidewalk in front of Lee & Hitchcock’s, J.S. Allen was again looking over the first three men habitating around the dry goods boxes just beyond the corner, when he suddenly heard horses. He turned to see the second detachment of men crossing the square, headed toward the bank. Allen quietly remarked to another, “I think they are here to rob the bank.”
The first three men took note of the second detachment approaching, instantly slid from the dry goods boxes, and began walking toward the bank.
Cole and Clell slowed their horses, approaching Division Street.
Clell commented simply, “They are going in.”
“If they do the alarm will be given as sure as there’s a Hell, so you had better take that pipe out of your mouth.” Cole instructed.
Clell dumped the tobacco from his pipe.
Now J.S. Allen, in apron, walked a few steps to the very spot where the first three men had been seconds earlier. From that vantage point, Allen watched as the first detachment of men entered through the wide open folding doors of the bank—and then watched as those doors were suspiciously left open.
It took a beat for it to sink in. But once it had, Allen slowly moved past the corner of the dry goods store, and began walking toward the bank. He looked around the street and saw a few others looking toward the bank as well. His breathing quickened, and incrementally, his pace quickened.
From his second floor window of Scriver Building, D.J. Whiting grew more suspicious when he saw Cole and Clell ride around the corner of Scriver Building onto Division—with Cole looking back over his shoulder, across the square. Cole was catching a glance of the last detachment of three men—the Second James Brother, James Hardin Younger, and William Chadwell—cross over and take position at the foot of the Bridge.
Whiting now watched as Cole and Clell parked their horses directly in front of the bank.
The voice of a citizen was distantly heard, shouting, “It’s a St. Albans Raid!” But due to the sound of street traffic, few heard this muffled plea.
Meanwhile, inside the First National Bank, Charlie Pitts, Bob Younger, and the first James Brother pulled their heavy pistols and rushed the bank counter. The first man immediately hurtled directly through a narrow two-foot teller’s window, flanked by a thirty-inch-high glazed rail. While the other two men jumped upon the counter and squatted, preparing to pounce. Their heavy boots left lasting scuff-marks on the counter, which remain visible today. Each man quickly extended an arm and placed the barrel of his pistol close to the head of one of three— Joseph Lee Heywood, seated upon a cashier’s seat at the far right end of the counter, Alonzo E. Bunker, and Frank J. Wilcox, both seated at the adjoining counter to the left.
“Throw up your hands, for we intend to rob the bank, and if you holler we will blow your God Damned brains out!” barked Charlie Pitts.
“Which of you is the cashier?” The James brother demanded.
Heywood was defiant, and said, with almost disinterest, “He’s not in.”
Instantly, the two men upon the counter jumped down and got close enough that the bankers could smell the alcohol on their breath.
Out on the noisy street, Cole dismounted and made out like he was tying his saddle girth, watching traffic in the eighty-foot-wide thoroughfare. Meanwhile Clell, sporting a white linen handkerchief around his neck, a new shirt with gold sleeve-buttons, a matching gold ring, and a John Hancock felt hat, began re-packing his pipe, now completely unconcerned. No one on the street seemed at first to sense that anything was amiss.
Cole’s head swiveled around and he quickly perceived that the bank’s folding doors were still open. It was only a matter of time before someone on the street overheard what was going on inside. So he instructed Clell to get off his horse and close the doors.
Clell finished lighting his pipe, dismounted, and walked up and took a step inside the bank to notify the men they had left the door open. He closed the door, and then leaned against a hitching post.
Cole mounted his horse, and rode further down the street and back, hoping to quell any suspicion.
W.H. Riddell, who owned a store almost directly opposite the bank, had a customer come up to him, “before any kind of an alarm had been given,” and report that something suspicious was going on over at the bank. Riddell, guardedly exited his establishment into the wide expanse of Division Street, looking over the men parked in front of the bank, and watching J.S. Allen as he approached the bank on the sidewalk.
On the same side of the street as Riddell, and on the porch of Wheeler & Blackman’s drugstore, twenty-two year old Dr. Henry M. Wheeler was seated in his father’s rocking chair, talking to a couple of friends. As his gaze fell upon the street, they locked on Cole and Clell. For the second time, Cole dismounted. Now both men were standing near their horses, suspiciously ranging the street around them.
Without saying a word, Wheeler stood and stepped into the street—and soon spotted J.S. Allen moving closer to the bank, evaluating the bank with profound interest.
Inside the bank, there was only chaos.
The three robbers were repeatedly accosting the three bank employees with, “You are the cashier,” each time provoking a denial out of Heywood, Bunker, and Wilcox.
Back outside, Wheeler continued moving slowly across the street, glaring at Cole. Cole instantly turned his back to him, so Wheeler focused on Clell. Anyone could see that Clell Miller needed a shave. But many initially missed that in spite of Miller’s finer clothes, he was wearing two different types of boot—one of finer leather, the other a cheap brand. Wheeler was starting to put it all together now. Clell spotted Wheeler staring at him, and spun around. Wheeler continued walking. He wanted to see inside that bank.
Instinctively, Cole re-mounted his horse.
J.S. Allen arrived at the bank’s folding doors, and reached out to open them—and Clell Miller’s gloved hand reached out and closed them again, softly. Instantly, Clell grabbed Allen by his collar, pulling him close. Allen’s gaze was filled with Clell’s blue eyes. Then it was filled with the muzzle of the bandit’s .44 caliber pistol. The men were hidden by the two horses.
“What’s happening here?” Allen demanded.
“Don’t you holler,” Clell said in heavy whisper past his pipe, “If you do, I’ll blow your damned head off.”
Allen caught his breath and backed off quickly, and ran around the corner of the Scriver Building, shouting, “Get your guns, boys, they’re robbin’ the bank!”
Behind them W.H. Riddell shouted, “Robbers at the bank!”
And Wheeler shouted, “Robbers in the bank!”
Many citizens in the street were reportedly confused. They were expecting a circus in town, and at first assumed this was part of the promotion for that venue.
In the bank, Bob Younger ordered Bunker and Wilcox on their knees and demanded the location of the cash drawer. “Where is the money outside the safe?”
Wilcox pointed, and Bunker showed Bob to a box on the counter. Bob Younger opened the drawer, finding only a roll of nickels; which he promptly removed and dropped with a clunk to the floor.
Cole came galloping back down the street, drew his pistol, and shouted at Riddell, “Get in there, you God-damn Son-of-a-bitch!” Then charged Wheeler, shouting “Get off the street! Get out of here, dingus!”
Cole reportedly then fired a volley of shots over the heads of both men.
Riddell retreated to his store, while Wheeler ran to the Dampier Hotel, screaming, “ROBBERY! ROBBERY!”
TO BE CONTINUED …