When Jesse James met Northfield’s citizens

Site of the robbery (Wikipedia)

September 7 1876 was a very bad day for the Jesse James gang. I’m not sure they really had many good days; that lifestyle was never as glamorous as some films and popular culture have suggested. But if they did have such days, September 7 1876 in Northfield Minnesota wasn’t one. They were caught in a shootout while robbing a bank and lost badly. To armed citizens not the cops.

It wasn’t even much of a bank, apparently. No offense to Northfield but it wasn’t a booming metropolis and the First National Bank of Northfield had a better name than it did a balance sheet. Now possibly the gang, whose origins were as Confederate guerrillas in Missouri during the Civil War, had a grievance against a major bank shareholder, former Union general Adelbert Ames. And they wrongly thought he had recently put a big pile of cash into the bank. So it was a badly planned caper. But it got worse fast.

The gang were evidently somewhat the worse for likker when they headed for the bank early in the afternoon after lunching on fried eggs and bad hooch. Once there, three went in and murdered a clerk who refused to open the safe while five stood guard including Jesse James himself. Well, maybe stood guard isn’t the right word.

They swaggered around firing guns to scare people. And it didn’t work. Instead the locals realized a robbery was going on and some of them grabbed guns including from local hardware stores, took up good positions, and opened fire on the criminals to deadly effect. Two of the gang were killed outright and all the others wounded including those inside the bank who ran out into the battle with a few bags of nickels for their wicked pains.

The surviving gang fled. But the citizens of Minnesota pursued them and caught three and killed one. Only Frank and Jesse James got away, but without their gang. And after three peaceful years in Tennessee Jesse returned to a life of crime, dragged Frank in (apparently he was happy just farming), and on April 3, 1882, got himself shot in the back of the head while unarmed and adjusting a picture by an lowlife acquaintance named Robert Ford in return for a public reward. (Ford himself was gunned down a decade later in a makeshift saloon. Unsurprisingly.)

As for Frank James, he turned himself in in 1882, tired of a life of crime and constant running from the law. He somehow got himself acquitted by two different juries over two different offences, avoided ever being tried in Northfield, and lived until 1915, partly doing odd jobs, partly on his fame or infamy including in a Wild West show, before improbably dying peacefully at age 72.

Obviously he’d have been far better off just farming, as he eventually realized. But that’s not the main point here. The main point is that this arguably most infamous of all the Wild West criminal outfits was brought down not by the law but by armed citizens. And not some particularly ornery group of black-clad gun-fighting “citizens” with ominous nicknames like “Kid Shelleen” but just a bunch of regular folks including Swedish farmers. One innocent civilian was killed in the fight, but by a member of the James gang (apparently Cole Younger) not by one of the, well, vigilante is too strong a word. They were just regular people willing and able to defend decency and order against these vicious boozy thugs.

By the way, Northfield hosts annual “Defeat of Jesse James Days” in September. As arguably should we all.

It happened todayJohn Robson