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Northfield Bank Raid

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Collage of black and white photographs of Minnesota citizens and James-Younger Gang members, 1876.

Collage of Minnesota citizens and James-Younger Gang members, 1876. Top left to right: August Suborn (Oscar Sorbel), Joseph Lee Haywood, Sheriff Glispin, Bob Younger, Charlie Pitts (deceased), Jim Younger, Cole Younger , Clell Miller, and Bill Chadwell (center, deceased).

When the James–Younger gang rode into Northfield on September 7, 1876, with the intention of robbing the First National Bank, they did not expect any trouble from the local citizens. Unbeknownst to them, the townspeople would soon be nationally applauded for defending their town from some of the period’s most notorious outlaws.

The James-Younger gang was from Missouri. After a decade of local robberies, they decided to go where no one would expect to find them. The Younger brothers—Cole, Jim, and Bob—traveled to Minnesota, as did McClelland “Clell” Miller and Charlie Pitts. Though never proven, it is generally accepted that Jesse and Frank James took part in the crime that followed. The eighth man is thought to have been Bill Chadwell, whom authorities initially mistook for a Minnesotan man named Bill Stiles.

The gang rode into Northfield at 2:00 pm on September 7. Frank, Charlie, and Bob entered the First National Bank while Cole and Clell positioned themselves outside of the bank door to bar townspeople from entering during the robbery. Meanwhile, Jesse, Jim, and Bill waited in Mill Square to guard the gang’s escape route.

J. S. Allen, a forty-year-old local man, noticed the strangers. He walked towards the bank to see if he could catch a glimpse of what they were up to inside. As soon as he reached the doorway, Clell grabbed Allen, pointed his revolver at him, and told him to stay quiet. Alarmed, Allen broke free and reportedly shouted, “Get your guns, boys! They’re robbing the bank!”

Their cover blown, the gang rode up and down the streets firing their pistols at doorways and warning confused onlookers to get inside. Henry Wheeler, a medical student, grabbed a gun and ran to a third-floor window of the nearby Dampier Hotel. From there, he took careful aim and shot Clell Miller, who fell from his horse and died. On the other side of the street, Anselm Manning, the owner of a hardware store, crept around the corner and fatally shot Bill Chadwell.

Nicolaus Gustavson, a recent Swedish immigrant who could not understand the robbers’ orders to get off the street, got caught in the crossfire and was shot in the head. He died several days later.

With two gang members dead and more townspeople shooting and throwing rocks, Cole screamed at the robbers in the bank to hurry up. Inside the bank, however, things were going just as poorly as they were outside.

The robbers had burst into the bank with their pistols drawn and demanded to know which of the three employees was the cashier. The cashier was out of town, so none of them answered. Frustrated, Frank grabbed Joseph Lee Heywood, the bookkeeper, and demanded that he open the safe. Heywood replied that the lock was on a timer and could not be opened. He lied; the lock was open during business hours but the bolts remained in place so that it appeared locked.

Frank fired a shot above Heywood’s head, trying to scare him into cooperating. Noticing an opportunity to flee amid the confusion, Alonzo Bunker, the bank teller, sprinted for the back door. Charlie Pitts shot him in the shoulder but Bunker kept on running until he reached the doctor’s office.

Hearing Cole’s desperate shouts from the street, Bob and Charlie grabbed the spare change they found on the counter and headed outside. Infuriated by their failure, Frank paused long enough to turn back and shoot Heywood in the head, instantly killing him.

Just minutes after riding into Northfield, the surviving outlaws retreated from town. They left behind two dead gang members and fifteen thousand dollars still sitting in the bank. For two weeks, hundreds of volunteers combed southern Minnesota searching for them in what was then the largest manhunt in U.S. history.

On September 20, the sheriff of Watonwan County and five local volunteers found the Youngers and Charlie Pitts near Madelia. Pitts died in the confrontation and the Younger brothers were sentenced to life terms in Stillwater State Prison. Jesse and Frank James managed to escape and for the rest of their lives denied ever having been in Minnesota.

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Bailey, James A., and Margaret B. Bailey. “A Review of the 1876 Nicolaus Gustafson Murder.” Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 65, no. 2 (April 2014): 77–94.

Gardner, Mark Lee. Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape. New York: William Morrow, 2013.

Hubner, Brian. “Jesse James and the ‘Great Winnipeg Manitoba Raid’ of 1876?” Manitoba History 52 (June 2006): 31–32.

Kildahl, Erling E., ed. “‘The Northfield Bank Raid: Excerpt from a Manuscript by Harold B. Kildahl, Sr.” Journal of the West 28, no. 3 (July 1989): 67–72.

Koblas, John J. Faithful Unto Death: The James–Younger Raid on the First National Bank, September 7, 1876, Northfield, Minnesota. Northfield, MN: Northfield Historical Society Press, 2001.

——— . The Jesse James Northfield Raid: Confessions of the Ninth Man. St. Cloud, MN: North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc., 1999.

——— . Minnesota Grit: The Men Who Defeated the James-Younger Gang. St. Cloud, MN: North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc., 2005.

“Northfield’s Sensation.” Minneapolis Tribune, September 8, 1876. http://newspapers2.mnhs.org/jsp/viewer.jsp?doc_id=mnhi0005%2F1DFC5B57%2F76090801

“The Northfield Robbers.” Stillwater Messenger, September 15, 1876.
http://newspapers.mnhs.org/web/mhsnews/web/imu.php?request=multimedia&irn=10252119&format=pdf&kind=supplementary

Younger, Cole. The Story of Cole Younger: Being an Autobiography of the Missouri Guerrilla Captain and Outlaw, His Capture and Personal Life, and the Only Authentic Account of the Northfield Raid Ever Published. Chicago: Press of the Henneberry Company, 1903.

Zalusky, Joseph W. "Where Oh Where Were the James Boys When the Northfield Bank Was Robbed?" Hennepin County History 22, no. 4 (Spring 1963): 20–22.

Related Video

Related Images

Collage of black and white photographs of Minnesota citizens and James-Younger Gang members, 1876.
Collage of black and white photographs of Minnesota citizens and James-Younger Gang members, 1876.
Black and white photographs of Jesse (left) and Frank James (right), c.1863.
Black and white photographs of Jesse (left) and Frank James (right), c.1863.
Black and white photographs of dead and captured Northfield Raid gang members, produced by Sumner Studio, 1876.
Black and white photographs of dead and captured Northfield Raid gang members, produced by Sumner Studio, 1876.
Black and white photograph of Division Street, Northfield 1870. The First National Bank is the first door to the left of the staircase. Photographed by Sumner’s Gallery.
Black and white photograph of Division Street, Northfield 1870. The First National Bank is the first door to the left of the staircase. Photographed by Sumner’s Gallery.
Black and white photograph of Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell (misidentified by authorities as Bill Stiles) both deceased, September 7, 1876.
Black and white photograph of Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell (misidentified by authorities as Bill Stiles) both deceased, September 7, 1876.
Black and white photograph of Charlie Pitts (deceased), a robber in the Northfield raid, 1876. Pitts was shot dead outside Madelia on September 21, 1876. Photographed by Sumner’s Studio.
Black and white photograph of Charlie Pitts (deceased), a robber in the Northfield raid, 1876. Pitts was shot dead outside Madelia on September 21, 1876. Photographed by Sumner’s Studio.
Black and white photograph of Cole Younger after being captured, September 1876. Younger’s face is swollen from a bullet wound he received during the shoot out outside Madelia. Photographed by Jacoby’s Art Gallery.
Black and white photograph of Cole Younger after being captured, September 1876. Younger’s face is swollen from a bullet wound he received during the shoot out outside Madelia. Photographed by Jacoby’s Art Gallery.
Black and white photograph of Bob Younger after being captured outside Madelia, September 1876.  Photographed by Jacoby’s Art Gallery.
Black and white photograph of Bob Younger after being captured outside Madelia, September 1876.  Photographed by Jacoby’s Art Gallery.
Black and white photograph of Jim Younger after being captured, September 1876. His face and shirt are bloody from a bullet wound in his jaw he received during the shoot out outside Madelia.  Photographed by Jacoby’s Art Gallery.
Black and white photograph of Jim Younger after being captured, September 1876. His face and shirt are bloody from a bullet wound in his jaw he received during the shoot out outside Madelia.  Photographed by Jacoby’s Art Gallery.
Black and white photograph of the six officials and volunteers, known as the “Madelia Seven,” who captured the Younger brothers outside Madelia on September 21, 1876.
Black and white photograph of the six officials and volunteers, known as the “Madelia Seven,” who captured the Younger brothers outside Madelia on September 21, 1876.
Black and white photograph of Bridge Square, Northfield, 1876.
Black and white photograph of Bridge Square, Northfield, 1876.
Black and white photograph of the monument marking where the Younger brothers were captured, c.1930.
Black and white photograph of the monument marking where the Younger brothers were captured, c.1930.
Black and white photograph of Downtown Northfield during Jesse James Days, 1948. Photographed by Bill Seaman.
Black and white photograph of Downtown Northfield during Jesse James Days, 1948. Photographed by Bill Seaman.
Color image of a linen duster worn by a James-Younger Gang member during the Northfield Bank Raid on September 7, 1876.
Color image of a linen duster worn by a James-Younger Gang member during the Northfield Bank Raid on September 7, 1876.

Turning Point

On September 7, 1876, the notorious James–Younger gang rides into Northfield and tries to rob the First National Bank but is thwarted by the townspeople.

Chronology

July 7, 1876

Authorities try to track down the James–Younger Gang after the outlaws hold up a train near Otterville, Missouri, and steal seventeen thousand dollars.

Late August 1876

Kitty Traverse recognizes Jesse James when he visits her Minneapolis brothel. She tells the police that outlaws are in town but fails to mention it is the infamous James–Younger Gang.

Septem-ber 4, 1876

Part of the gang (Jesse and Frank James, Jim Younger, and Clell Miller) ride into Mankato to rob the First National Bank. A laborer from Missouri recognizes Jesse and warns the banks the James boys are in town. Wary of a trap, the four men leave Mankato.

Septem-ber 7, noon

The robbers eat lunch at D. E. Jeft’s Railroad Restaurant on the outskirts of Northfield.

Septem-ber 7, 2:00 p.m.

The James-Younger gang rides into downtown Northfield and tries to rob the First National Bank. Two robbers and two citizens are killed in the chaos of the robbery.

Septem-ber 7, 2:07 p.m.

The gang retreats on the road to Dundas, a neighboring village. They take a wagon driver’s horse, saying they need it to chase after the outlaws who just robbed Northfield.

Septem-ber 8

Henry Wheeler and other medical students exhume Clell Miller and Bob Chadwell’s bodies. They send them to the University of Michigan to be used as medical cadavers.

Septem-ber 13

The gang kidnaps Thomas Dunning and forces him to guide them through the woods around Mankato. They let him go, and Dunning rushes to inform the authorities.

Septem-ber 14

Detectives follow the gang’s tracks to a campsite, but their loud and clumsy approach through the woods alerts the outlaws, who manage to flee moments before being discovered.

Septem-ber 14 and 15

Jesse and Frank James separate from the rest of the gang and manage to escape past Minnesota authorities.

Septem-ber 21

After receiving a tip from a teenage boy, local volunteers find and surround the Younger brothers and Charlie Pitts near Madelia. Pitts dies in the confrontation, but the brothers, badly wounded, surrender.

November 20

The Younger brothers plead guilty to robbery and murder and are sentenced to life in Stillwater Prison. They refuse to give the names of the other robbers who were with them in Northfield.

Septem-ber 1948

Northfield hosts the Defeat of Jesse James Days for the first time. It is an annual celebration and reenactment of the raid held every year on the weekend after Labor Day.