Police history: A timeless lesson from the defeat of the James-Younger gang

The media of their day ginned up citizen support for this gang by falsely portraying them as Robin Hood-like heroes


Can a criminal gang succeed when a community refuses to tolerate its criminality? The citizens of Northfield, Minnesota, faced this question on September 7, 1876, when the James-Younger gang threatened their safety and Northfield answered with a resounding, “No!”

Who Was the James-Younger Gang?

The James-Younger gang centered around Jesse James and brother Frank, and the Younger brothers, Cole, Jim, John and Bob. 

On September 7, 1876, the James-Younger Gang attempted to rob the Northfield bank, killing  teller Joseph Lee Heywood who valiantly defended the vault. (Photo/Dan Marcou)
On September 7, 1876, the James-Younger Gang attempted to rob the Northfield bank, killing teller Joseph Lee Heywood who valiantly defended the vault. (Photo/Dan Marcou)

During the Civil War, the James and Younger brothers rode with Quantrill and “Bloody Bill Anderson” as confederate guerillas. They were known to have committed atrocities in Lawrence, Kansas, where Quantrill’s men gunned down unarmed men and boys, as well as outside Centralia, Missouri, where Bloody Bill and his men shot down, then butchered, surrendering Union soldiers.

The James and the Youngers formed a criminal gang after the war that allowed them to apply their considerable guerilla war tactics to rob banks, trains and stagecoaches, and commit murder. All this was done with impunity, partially because the media of their day ginned up citizen support for this gang by falsely portraying them as Robin Hood-like heroes.

Then Came Northfield

On September 7, 1876, the James-Younger Gang rode nonchalantly into Northfield, Minnesota, which was considerably out of their home territory. They entered from two directions simultaneously, intent on robbing Northfield's bank.

The good people of Northfield were alerted, because all were dressed in western hats and linen dusters, riding horseback with western saddles, while packing multiple pistols and Winchester rifles. This was out of place in this bustling farming community, where residents traveled by buckboards and carriages armed only with hunting shotguns and rifles.

Many a suspicious eye followed the gang as they set up a mounted perimeter around the bank with military precision. One businessman, J. S. Allen. followed behind three gang members as they dismounted and entered the bank like men on a mission. Allen peeked into the front window of the bank and upon seeing what was transpiring inside shouted, “Get your guns, boys. They’re robbing the bank!”

Every lawman and many a citizen who heard the alarm shouldered their weapons and moved into a position to protect their community. The gang, outside on horseback, drew their guns and began firing in all directions, gunning down an unarmed Swedish immigrant named Nicholas Gustafson.

During other bank robberies the gang’s reckless gunfire inspired citizens to flee. In stark contrast, the citizens of Northfield held their ground and rained down a galling fire upon the gang from all directions.

Meanwhile the gang members inside the bank met their match in teller, Joseph Lee Heywood. This Civil War veteran conned the criminals into believing the bank’s vault had a timed lock that could not be opened. In reality, all the criminals needed to do was give the door a tug and they would have been in business, since it was closed, but unlocked.

Instead a gang member put a knife to Heywood’s throat, cutting him, after which he pistol-whipped Heywood, knocking him down. When Heywood still refused to cooperate, the bandit fired a bullet into floor next to Heywood’s head, but Heywood still refused to open the vault.

The Retreat

A desperate Cole Younger shouted into the bank, “For God’s sake come out! They’re shooting us all to pieces!” Frustrated, Bob Younger snatched $26 from the cash drawer and exited the bank, shooting as he came out. Before following, either Frank or Jessie put a gun to the head of the brave teller and fired, killing the man instantly.

Outside the gun battle continued to rage as the gang rode out of town. They left behind two gang members, Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell (A.K.A. William Stiles), shot dead by the citizens of Northfield. The rest of the gang members fled, badly bloodied in the fight. More of the gang would have died except for the fact that many of the Northfield citizens’ shotguns were loaded with birdshot for hunting season rather than slugs.

The Capture

The gang’s troubles continued as they were pressured throughout Minnesota by citizens who joined their local sheriffs to hunt them down. The normally hard-riding gang made their way across the state slowed to a snail’s pace by their wounds. Frank and Jesse, who were less wounded, abandoned their compatriots and cut out alone to save their own skin.

On September 21,, the remnants of the gang were spotted by 16-year-old Asel (Oscar) Sorbel, a farm boy who jumped on his plow horse and rode 13 miles to report the sighting to Sheriff James Glispin.

Glispin mobilized a posse, which located the remnants of the gang outside Madelia near a place called Hanska’s Slough. When the gang spotted the posse, they took cover in a thicket within the slough.

The Civil War veterans in the posse reverted to a tactic they had used often in the war. Several volunteers joined Sheriff Glispin in a skirmish line, which advanced on foot toward the thicket.

Suddenly the gang opened fire, wounding the sheriff. Instantly the entire posse poured a withering fire into the thicket. After a short time, Bob Younger pleaded for the posse to cease fire after every member of the gang was shot down. All were wounded except for Charlie Pitts who died in that slough. Bob, Cole and Jim Younger would survive to spend the next two decades incarcerated at Stillwater State Penitentiary.

The James-Younger gang took cover in a thicket within Hanska’s Slough, pictured here. (Photo/Dan Marcou)
The James-Younger gang took cover in a thicket within Hanska’s Slough, pictured here. (Photo/Dan Marcou)

a Lesson for Today

There is a very clear lesson to be learned from these historical events. When the community supported the James-Younger Gang and the media harangued law enforcement touting these armed killers as folk heroes, the gang thrived for 10 years. However, when the gang met communities where the citizenry universally stood with law enforcement against criminality the gang could not survive 10 minutes.

In September 1876, the citizens and law enforcement officers of Northfield and Madelia, Minnesota, created a template for defeating the scourge of violent criminal gangs when they said with their deeds rather than just words, “If we stand together, who can stand against us!”

Reference

Marcou D. Law Dogs: Great Cops in American History. Thunder Bay Press, 2015.

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