On This Day

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Associated Press
Jesse James

On This Day: Jesse James’ Gang Attacked During Bank Heist

September 07, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Sept. 7, 1876, the James-Younger Gang are surrounded by an angry mob and nearly killed in Northfield, Minn. The incident signaled the beginning of the end for the gang.

The Northfield Bank Heist

In August 1876, the James-Younger Gang, a post-Civil War band of Confederate malcontents that included Jesse James, headed for Northfield, Minn., with more than bank robbery on their mind.

“Northfield, Minnesota, was the new home of Mississippi’s former Republican governor and former Union general Adelbert Ames, and he was a major depositor at its First National Bank,” writes PBS.

Driven by potential financial gain and the chance to cut into a Union general, the gang attempted a daylight heist of the bank on Sept. 7. They began with a diversion.

“Five of the men galloped through the center of town, hollering and shooting their pistols in the air,” says History.com. “As the townspeople ran for cover, three other men wearing wide-brimmed hats and long dusters took advantage of the distraction to walk unnoticed into the First National Bank.”

One member of the gang found the cashier and ordered the bank safe to be opened. But when the cashier recognized James’ face, he stalled, saying that the safe has a time lock. He then made a dash for the back door and managed to sound an alarm, though he was shot in the process.

Realizing what was happening, the townsfolk of Northfield surrounded the bank and proceeded to shoot down the James-Younger Gang. In a seven-minute gun battle, Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell were killed. Frank James, Jesse’s brother, took a bullet in the leg, and Jim, Cole and Bob Younger were also wounded.

Jesse James, after shooting the recalcitrant cashier dead, escaped unscathed. He and five of his wounded compadres fled the town, and authorities organized a massive manhunt.

The End of the James-Younger Gang

By Sept. 14, the gang, wounded and disoriented, had traveled less than 50 miles. They decided to split up; the James brothers began riding toward South Dakota, while Cole, Jim and Bob Younger and Charlie Pitts went their own way.

On Sept. 21, the Youngers were spotted near Madelia, Minn., and attacked by a posse. In the ensuing shootout, Pitts was killed, while all three Youngers suffered gunshot wounds. The three were arrested and found guilty of murder, receiving sentences of 25 years in prison.

The James brothers escaped to Nashville, Tenn., where Jesse began organizing a new gang. He soon returned to robbing banks and trains in Missouri.

Missouri Gov. Thomas Crittenden, who made a campaign promise to stop James, reached out to Bob Ford, the brother of a member of James’ gang, and offered him a reward and pardon for capturing James.

On April 3, 1882, Bob and Charlie Ford had breakfast with James at a house in St. Joseph, Mo. As James went to dust off some pictures on the wall, the Ford brothers drew their guns.

“Hearing the click of a weapon being cocked, [James] started to turn his head, and then the report of Bob’s six-shooter reverberated through the house,” writes Ted P. Yeatman in Wild West magazine. “Charlie didn’t even bother to fire but lowered his gun as the man fell to the floor, with a bullet in his skull.”

Background: The James-Younger Gang

The James-Younger Gang “had its origins in a group of Confederate bushwhackers who fought in the bitter partisan conflict that wracked the divided state of Missouri during the American Civil War,” according to Civil War Web site Thomas’ Legion.

The gang comprised the Younger brothers (Cole, Jim, John and Bob), the James brothers (Frank and Jesse), Clell Miller, Arthur McCoy, Charlie Pitts, John Jarrette and Bill Chadwell. They operated out of Missouri.

Active from 1866 to 1876, their crimes ranged from bank robberies to stagecoach and train holdups. More than mere bandits, the James-Younger Gang fashioned themselves as warriors of Southern discontent in post-Civil War America.

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