Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend


"Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."

Dante Alighieri

The year 1876, while known as the celebration of America's glorious first centennial, was a nightmare for Western folklore. That shining star, that long-haired hero of the Civil War, that fearless Indian fighter named George Armstrong Custer went to his death at the Little Big Horn River; the Indians won. James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, that lightning draw and sharp-witted lawman who cleaned many a cow town of its villains, was shot in the head at a Deadwood, South Dakota card table; the villains won. And Jesse James, who had garnered the hearts of many across the frontier with his romantically daring snubs at sanctimonious do-gooders, was ingloriously turned out from Northfield, Minnesota, the seat of his pants smoking; the sanctimonious do-gooders won.

Scholars refer to the bloodletting at Northfield as the last battle of the Civil War, though it took place eleven years after its conclusion. It wasn't on a lark that Jesse selected the far-off town of Northfield as his next (what he thought would be) major robbery. Its First National Bank was regarded as one of the landmark banks in the Midwest; its vaults reportedly held more than $200,000 at any given time. But, more importantly to Jesse at this point Jesse yearned to make the North regret what its detectives did to his mother and step-brother was that its two principal stockholders, Benjamin Butler and W.A. Ames, were a pair known for their mistreatment of the South. Butler, a Northern general during the war, had taken over the city of New Orleans and ruled it with hateful fury. Ames was a notorious carpetbagger who made millions by taking advantage of ruined Southerners at the war's end.

Trestle bridge into Northfield
Trestle bridge into Northfield

"In August, 1876, the James-Younger band began its way north, moving slowly and with great confidence," historian Jay Robert Nash declares. "They had never experienced any serious setbacks and their members had remained unharmed in ten years of robbery. The bandits were all mounted on the finest horses available and looked prosperous. All wore new suits, shiny black boots, and long linen dusters like those worn by cattle buyers. They carried new carbines and heavy Colt pistols on their hips. Jesse wore two more Colts in shoulder holsters."

The gang reached Northfield on September 6. The current gang consisted of Jesse and Frank; Cole, Bob and Jim Younger; and gun-toters Charley Pitts, Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell, the later who was a native Minnesotan and familiar with Northfield.

Or so he claimed. Had Chadwell really known it well, he would have warned his friends not to joke about the little-town hicks they were about to put on a show for; the seed farmers; the sanctimonious Yankee do-gooders. Had Chadwell understood the temperament of its people, he would have foreseen a tough fight in the making.

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