Police History: How citizens helped police take down a gang

The story of two 19th century towns prove that in any community where "police are the public and the public are the police" no criminal can long endure


The essence of community policing can be found in the words of Sir Robert Peel: “Police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public, who are paid to give full-time attention to duties that are incumbent on every citizen in the interest of community welfare and existence.”

When good citizens partner with their police this team becomes a formidable force for good. Never were there citizens with more “skin in the game” than the citizens of Northfield and Madelia in 19th Century Minnesota. Those citizens stood side-by-side with their law men and defeated one of the most violent criminal gangs of the time.

The James-Younger Gang
During the Civil War the James brothers and Younger brothers had ridden with William Quantrill and “Bloody Bill Anderson” as Confederate Raiders. They were known to have committed atrocities in Lawrence, Kansas where Quantrill’s men gunned down unarmed men and boys.

On the plains outside Centralia, Missouri, Bloody Bill and his men shot down surrendering Union soldiers. Some of these soldiers were scalped, maimed, disemboweled and even worse.

For 10 years after the war, the James-Younger Gang used their considerable skills to continue their fight against the Union. Fueled by greed and their hate for the Union, they robbed banks, trains, stages and occasionally killed. All this was done with impunity. The news media of their day ginned up citizen support for this gang by dishonestly portraying them as heroic figures. 

The Pinkerton Agency — tasked with catching the gang — had little success without the help of the public.

Then Came Northfield 
On September 7, 1876 the James-Younger Gang rode nonchalantly into Northfield, Minnesota, simultaneously from two directions. The gang caught the attention of the good people of Northfield, because they were all dressed the same in western hats and linen dusters. They were all on horseback and heavily armed with multiple pistols and Winchester rifles. This was most unusual for this bustling farming community.

Many a suspicious eye followed the gang members as they set up a perimeter around the bank. A Northfield businessman named J.S. Allen followed behind as three gang members dismounted and determinedly entered the bank. Allen peeked into the front window of the bank and in today’s jargon he saw something so he said something, shouting, “Get your guns boys, they’re robbing the bank!” 

In the ultimate act of police-community partnership every law man and citizen that could find a gun shouldered it and took up a position.

With the alarm sounded, the gang outside on horseback pulled their guns and began to fire in all directions, killing one unarmed and curious Swedish immigrant named Nicholas Gustafson. 

During every other bank robbery the gang’s reckless gunfire caused citizens to quickly hide and shelter in place. In stark contrast, the citizens of Northfield rained down a galling fire upon the members of the James-Younger Gang from all directions.

The gang members inside the bank were faring no better. Teller Joseph Lee Heywood — who was a Civil War veteran — conned the criminals into believing the bank’s vault had a timed lock, which could not be opened. The vaults door was actually just closed, but unlocked. 

The gang members put a knife to Heywood’s throat, pistol whipped him, and fired a bullet into the floor next to Heywood’s head trying to convince him to open the vault. Still Heywood refused. He was determined to protect the money entrusted to him with his life.

The Retreat
A desperate Cole Younger shouted into the bank, “For God’s sake come out. They’re shooting us all to pieces!” 

A frustrated Bob Younger grabbed $26.00 from the cash drawer and exited the bank shooting. Quite brutally, either Frank or Jessie put a gun to the head of the brave teller and killed the man.

Outside the gunfight raged on. As the gang road out of town they left Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell (a.k.a. William Stiles) lying dead in the street. Most of the gang members were wounded. More would have died, except for the fact many of the Northfield residents’ shotguns were loaded with birdshot.

The Capture
The gang’s troubles did not end there. All over the state of Minnesota, citizen’s joined Sheriffs’ posses to hunt them down. This placed a constant pressure on the gang as they sometimes rode and sometimes walked across the state of Minnesota. Frank and Jesse — who were less wounded than their compatriots — abandoned their gang and cut out alone to save their skin.

Finally on Sept. 21, the remnants of the gang, minus Frank and Jesse, were spotted near Hanska’s Slough in a rural setting outside Madelia, Minnesota. Several volunteers from a citizen’s posse headed by Sheriff James Glispin formed a skirmish line and cautiously approached the slough on foot to draw the gang’s fire.

The gang opened up on the line, wounding the Sheriff, but he and his posse returned fire. After a brief period Bob Younger asked to surrender, acknowledging everyone else was down, but him. Charlie Pitts was dead and the rest were incapacitated by the accurate fire of Glispin’s posse.

Bob, Cole and Jim Younger were taken into custody and would spend the next two decades as inmates of Stillwater State Penitentiary. 

The James-Younger Gang fell victim to community policing Northfield-Madelia-style.

Community Policing
There is a very clear lesson to be learned from these events. When the community supported the James-Younger Gang and the media touted these armed killers, they were able to rob and kill at will for 10 years. However, the gang could not survive 10 minutes in the presence of either the citizens of Northfield or Madelia when they joined forces with their law enforcement partners.

This was a circumstance envisioned by “the Father of Modern Policing,” Sir Robert Peel.

In any community where such a partnership exists where “police are the public and the public are the police” no criminal can long endure

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