NORTHFIELD, Minn., September 7, 2012 — After more than a decade of lawlessness (1866-1876), the James-Younger Gang was stopped on September 7 in a small town on the prairie by courageous local residents.
It all began when the James-Younger Gang decided to do a foray into Minnesota and rob the bank in Northfield on September 7, 1876. The heart of the gang had been together for ten years, robbing banks and railroads. The eight bandits who rode in together that day were unable to get money here, some were killed, and others escaped and were captured later. This notorious band of outlaws never robbed a bank or a railroad again due to the determination of the citizens of Northfield and the courage of local merchants.
“Get your guns boys, they are robbing the bank!” is one of the famous quotes from the shootout that day and attributed to J.S. Allen, the last person in the bank before the robbery. The Northfield Historical Society offers tours led by highly trained high school and adult volunteers, including my daughter. The story of the famous seven-minute bank raid and the artifacts at the actual bank site have made it a popular tour.
If your Western history has faded a bit, here are some key elements of the story of the defeat of the gang. Just before 2:00 p.m. on that day, three of the outlaws went into the Northfield First National Bank. One stood outside the bank near the door as a guard. The last customer of the day left the bank and, noticing the one of the gang’s guard standing outside the bank door, grew suspicious. He is credited with shouting the warning to get the guns.
In the bank, Joseph Lee Heywood, acting cashier and Treasurer of Carleton College, risked his life four times in an attempt to discourage the outlaws. First, he misled Frank James by saying that he couldn’t open the safe. Heywood risked his life a second time by attempting to shut Charley Pitts into the vault. Next, he lied to Charley, telling him that the safe had a time lock and could not be opened at this time. Finally, he thwarted the gang by yelling, “Murder! Murder!”
The courage of Joseph Lee Heywood is apparent. And it is important to speculate why he might have risked his life four times. One likely reason is that is 1876, the money deposited into a bank was not insured, and if it were lost, it would be lost for good. As second possibility is that Heywood knew something the outlaws didn’t.
Behind the vault door was a safe that contained $15,000 of hard-earned money of the Northfield citizens. The equivalent buying power of that money today is about a quarter of a million dollars. Heywood knew the door to the safe was unlocked the whole time.
However, blood was shed that day in Northfield. Heywood had been knocked to the floor, and as he was struggling to get up, Frank James aimed his revolver at his head and killed him in cold blood. Another Northfield victim was Nicholas Gustafson, a Swedish immigrant on the street, who likely did not understand the warnings shouted in English, and took a bullet to the head.
Clel Miller, a James gang member, was killed by Henry Wheeler, a student who was at home helping out at Wheeler Drug. Bill Chadwell, a James gang member was killed by J.R. Manning, a local hardware store owner. Cole Younger was wounded in the hip, and Bob Younger had a shattered elbow.
The remaining gang members rode out of town. The largest posse in U.S. history, about 1,000 men, then searched for gang members for a week without success. Jesse and Frank James left the state and were not captured. The remaining gang members were caught in a shootout near Madelia, Minnesota two weeks after the Northfield attempted robbery. The gang were charged with the crimes and pleaded guilty to avoid execution.
Annually, on the first weekend after Labor Day, there is a live reenactment of the raid during The Defeat of Jesse James Days. (see video below) The motto is to never forget the courage and determination that it took to stop a notorious gang.
*Caught in the Storm, The SCOPE Program
*Jesse James Ate Here, John Koblas
*Confessions of the Ninth Man, John Koblas
*Robber and Hero: The Story of the Northfield Bank Raid, George Huntington
Source: Thank you to Earl Weinmann, social studies teacher, the Northfield Historical Society and Jenna Scheffert for contributing information to this story.
Please credit “Donna Rae Scheffert for Communities @WashingtonTimes.com” when linking to this story Read more from Donna Rae Scheffert at Washington Times Communities and Online Leadership Tools.
Donna Rae is an award winning writer, consultant, planner, facilitator, and coach. She holds the coveted ‘Futures’ award was named an Outstanding Faculty member at the University of Minnesota. She has co-authored five books and numerous articles.
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