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Time Passages: Citizens fought back against James-Younger Gang

If there ever was a story about frontier citizens in Minnesota who took justice into their own hands and were successful fighting back against the notorious James-Younger outlaw gang it had to have occurred during the month of September 1876 in the communities of Northfield and Madelia.

The James-Younger Gang had its origins dating to the Civil War, with several members fighting in that conflict and Missouri-Kansas cross-border engagements.  The gang consisted mainly of a violent group of brothers, Jesse and Frank James and Cole, Bob, Jim and John Younger.

There were others in the gang that fluctuated from robbery to robbery during their most active period of crime from 1868-1876.  They regularly rode around Missouri, Kentucky, Iowa, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas and West Virginia robbing banks, stagecoaches and trains.  The gang dissolved in 1876 after the capture of the Younger brothers near Madelia two weeks after the ill-fated attempt to rob the First National Bank in Northfield.

After robbing a train in Missouri, the gang made a decision to go out of their usual territory and head north to Minnesota for the first time and hit the First National Bank in Northfield.

Cole and Bob Younger’s intense dislike of anyone who was connected with the Union during the war prompted them to target Northfield, as they believed rumors that Union General Adelbert Ames, who also served as the former Civil War Reconstruction governor of Mississippi and the son of the owner of the Ames Mill in Northfield, had deposited $50,000 in the bank.

The gang rode the train to St. Paul and Minneapolis in early September 1876 and split into two groups, one going to Mankato and the other to Red Wing to buy horses.  They agreed to meet south of Northfield along the Cannon River near Dundas on the morning of Sept. 7.

At about 2 p.m., the gang attempted to rob the bank, but the resistance that they got from ordinary citizens was unexpected.  Three of the outlaws, Frank James, Bob Younger and Charlie Pitts, entered the bank.  Meanwhile, Jesse James, Bill Stiles, Clell Miller and Cole and Jim Younger remained outside standing guard.

Things started to go wrong inside the bank when cashier Joseph L. Heywood refused to open the safe, falsly claiming that it was secured by a time lock.  Heywood was shot and killed, and assistant cashier Alonzo Bunker was wounded in the shoulder as he ran out the back door of the bank.

Outside the bank, local citizens realized a robbery was in progress, and several took up arms from local hardware stores.  While the five bandits outside the bank started firing shots in the air to clear the streets for their escape, Northfield’s civilians shot back from behind cover.

During the deadly gun battle, Miller and Stiles were killed, and civilian Nicholas Gustafson also died in the crossfire.  During the street melee, nearly all of the gang members suffered gunshot wounds but managed to mount horses and make a run for it, having only taken several bags of nickels from the bank.

After the failed bank robbery, the gang headed out of town on the Dundas Road, and a massive manhunt followed.  After being chased by several posses for nearly two weeks, the gang agreed to split up on the western outskirts of Mankato, with the James brothers eventually escaping back to Missouri.

The Youngers and Pitts weren’t as lucky, as they continued to move west until they were finally cornered in a swamp called Hanska Slough, just north and west of Madelia on Sept. 21.  In the gunfight that followed, Pitts was killed, and the Younger brothers received additional wounds before being taken prisoner.

Two days later the three Younger brothers were taken to the Rice County Jail in Faribault.  They were indicted by a grand jury for bank robbery and first-degree murder.  They all pled guilty on Nov. 20, 1876, to avoid being hanged and were sentenced to life terms in the state penitentiary at Stillwater. When Cole was asked about the robbery he coldly responded, “We tried a desperate game and lost.  But we are rough men used to rough ways, and we will abide by the consequences.”

Bob Younger died in prison at age 36 on Sept. 15, 1889, from tuberculosis.  After much legal debate, Cole and Jim Younger were paroled after serving 25 years in 1901 on the condition they remain in Minnesota.

Jim couldn’t cope with the release and shot himself to death at age 54 in a St. Paul hotel room on Oct. 19, 1902.  Cole received a pardon in 1903 on the condition that he leave Minnesota and never return. He went back to Missouri and lectured and toured the south before joining a Wild West theme show with old partner Frank James.  Cole also wrote a memoir which admitted to only one crime committed at Northfield.

Jesse James was shot and killed by a member of his newly formed gang on April 3, 1882.  Frank James never returned to a life of crime and wasn’t extradited back to Minnesota and died at age 72 in 1915.  A year later Cole Younger died at age 72 on March 16, 1916, thus bringing an end to the brutally violent James-Younger Gang.

The Youngers remained loyal to the Jameses when they were in prison and never informed on them.  They ended up being model prisoners, with Cole starting the longest running prison newspaper in the United States during his stay at Stillwater.

Beginning in 1908, Hollywood began portraying the James-Younger Gang in movies.  In all, 11 films were featured about the gang, including the last one in 2007, The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford.

In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, there are most likely just as many celebrations as nearly every community has some sort of observance or historical event to recognize and claim as their own.

It’s unique then that two Minnesota towns like Northfield and Madelia observe events tied to the same gang of outlaws who were taken down by ordinary brave residents, something the famous

Pinkerton National Detective Agency was unable to do in two years of chasing the murderous group.

Since 1948, every first weekend in September Northfield hosts “Defeat of Jesse James Days.”  Since 1997, Madelia celebrates its role in the legendary raid on the second weekend of September with the “Younger Brothers Capture.”

In both towns, actors dressed in period clothing portray the gang members and townspeople/posses to recreate the shootout on the actual streets and locations where it happened.

A sign posted at the capture location near Madelia lists the names of the seven heroic men who brought the Youngers to justice.  They include James Glispin, W.W. Murphy, C.A. Pomeroy, George Bradford, S.J. Severson, B.M. Rice and T.L. Yought.

To this day, they are known as “Madelia’s Magnificent Seven.”

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