Sunday, September 07, 2008

September 7, 1876: The defeat of Jesse James in Northfield, Minnesota

On my way home from the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, I made a diversion to Northfield, Minnesota. In 2008 it's best known at the home of St. Olaf and Carleton colleges, but on this day in 1876, it was where the James-Younger gang, which of course included notorious outlaw Jesse James, attempted to rob the First National Bank of Northfield.

The gang's base was in Missouri, but it's believed they chose Northfield not only to escape scrutiny in their home state, but also to rob a "Yankee bank." Union general Adelbert Ames owned stock in the First National Bank.

A lot went wrong that day for the criminals. A stubborn bank employee, Joseph Lee Heywood, told the robbers, falsely, that the safe had a time-delay lock. The stalling maneuver kept the gang in town longer than they had anticipated, and eventually civilians ascertained what was going on. "Get your guns, boys! They're robbing the bank!" someone yelled. The impromptu posse drove the robbers out of town; of the eight gang members, only Jesse and his brother Frank escaped without getting killed or wounded. Two gang members were shot in the street in front of the bank, and two Northfield men were shot dead, Heywood and Nicolaus Gustavson.

The surviving members of the James-Younger gang, denied access to the bank's safe, left Northfield with only a pittance for the efforts.

A carnival, part of Northfield's Defeat of Jesse James Days, was taking place downtown when I visited Friday afternoon.

And if you're anywhere near Northfield today, then "Get your keys, boys and girls" and head over there. The parade starts at 2:00pm.

While in the Northfield Historical Society Museum, which is housed in the old bank building, I overheard an elderly man talking about the protests--scroll down two posts--in St. Paul. I explained who I was, gave him my card, and told him that I covered the previous night's civil disturbance. He identified himself as the retired president of Northfield's Community Resource Bank, and he explained to me that he revived the festival after others in town ended it--because they believed that Northfield was honoring a criminal. He changed the event's name to The Defeat of Jesse James, and turned the focus away from James and onto the heroes who fought back. That's the old bank on the left, a slightly newer one is on the right.

In his own small way, that man is a hero too.

UPDATE September 8: Minneapolis singer and guitarist Brian Mac let me know in the comments section that he just composed a song, a good one, about the day Northfield was "a killing field." Click here to listen.


BrianMac said...

Very nice story. I have to tell you I have had an event over the last 2 weeks about the James-Younger gangs attempt and the heroics of the town of Northfield back on Sept 7th 1876.
I woke up on August 28th with the most vivid picture of this bank robbery, I have seen the movie "The Long Riders" many years ago. But on this morning and mind you without even knowing the date of this historic event. I was filled with an overwhelming sence of urgency to write it down.
Being a Country Song writer, I started this song, detailed as per what I saw in my dream.
It took me until Sept 3rd to complete the song. And I then did a search of the event.
To my utter amazement this was the annivarsary week to that very event.
Living in Minnesota, a transplant form California. And have never been to Northfield. The hair stood up on the back of my neck.
How it was possible to be overcome with this detail I can't explain.

I have recorded a scratch track of this song and posted it to my Myspace page. I will later Master record it along with the other songs. But this one stands out to me as guided in some way.

I found your report this morning while searching for a Picture to temporaily label the song.

I will go to Northfield very soon. I feel I have to now.

Brian "Mac"

You can lisen to the song here.

Marathon Pundit said...

That is so awesome. I saw "The Long Riders" in when it came out 100 or so years ago. Good film, if a tad slow paced, but it's of course best remembered because brothers played brothers in the film--The Youngers, Fords, and the James men.

Anonymous said...

Rent "The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid" with Robert Duvall and Cloff Robertson. 1972 Psyco Jesse and cold Cole Younger.. Good movie and great scene stealing by Duvall .