Fast guns and hold-ups—the story of the James and Younger boys
The Wild West frontier of the United States of America is the place of modern legends, though their origins mostly come from a comparatively short period of time following the American Civil War during the westward expansion of ‘Manifest Destiny’ to the dawn of modernism in the late 19th century. Nevertheless, the names heroes and villains from this era immediately caught the public imagination, and have remained with us thanks to numerous books, films and television series’ featuring them. Among these outlaws, there were few more notorious than the James-Younger Gang. The gang hailed from Missouri, a bloody battleground with Kansas during the civil war, wracked by the deprivations of Union Jayhawkers and Confederate Bushwackers. It was from this latter partisan group that the James-Younger outlaw alliance grew. The end of the war brought hard times for these men, and the transition to gun-slinging, criminal killers seemed inevitable. The gang’s membership changed over the years, but its notable members were, of course, brothers Cole, Jim, John and Bob Younger and the James brothers, Frank and the infamous Jesse. The gang robbed trains, stagecoaches and banks in Missouri, Kentucky, Iowa, Texas, Kansas and West Virginia between 1868 and Jesse James’s death in 1882—when he was shot in the back by Robert Ford. This is the story of these violent men and their troubled times.
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Sometime before noon on the 7th of September, four well mounted and well-armed men approached Northfield from the north. They did not at once enter the town, but remained on that side of the bridge in the suburbs for the advance of the other division of the band, which came via Dundas, a small station on the line of the railway about four miles south of Northfield. The brigands from Dundas were Cole and James Younger, Bill Chadwell and Clell Miller. On the north side were Frank and Jesse James, Charlie Pitts and Robert Younger.
About 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Cole Younger and his party appeared, then the brigands rode into town and directly to the bank, the exact position of which had been before ascertained. Jesse and Frank James and Cole Younger dismounted and entered the bank. The brigands had entered the town at a full charge, shouting at the top of their voices and firing off their pistols as they rode. The inhabitants were taken by surprise, but were not at all panic-stricken. The movement on the bank was noted, and its object at once comprehended.
The three leading brigands who had entered the bank proceeded to business at once. They sprang over the counter and confronted the surprised cashier, Mr. J. L. Haywood, with a huge knife, which they placed at his throat, and ordered him to open the safe, threatening him with instant death in case he refused. The knife had already marked his throat, but the brave cashier refused to comply with their demands. Again, with fearful threats the command was repeated. But Haywood still persisted in his refusal, when one of them, now generally believed to have been Jesse James, placed the muzzle of his pistol to Haywood’s right temple, and fired.
The cashier fell, and expired ere he had touched the floor. Besides the cashier, there were Mr. A. E. Bunker, assistant cashier, and Mr. Frank Wilcox, clerk. These were ordered to hold up their hands when the robbers first entered. Of course, under the circumstances, they could not do otherwise than to obey. After Haywood fell they turned to Mr. Bunker and ordered him to open the vault. That gentleman declared that he did not know the combination. Then they thrust a pistol into his face and made other threatening demonstrations.
Mr. Bunker, acting under an impulse to preserve his own life, fled out through the backdoor. As he ran, the robbers fired at him, the ball taking effect in his shoulder. They seem not to have paid any further attention to Mr. Wilcox, but occupied the remainder of the brief time allowed them in efforts to find the cashier’s money drawer. The nickel drawer was found, and they scattered the contents of that over the floor.
Meanwhile, an exciting scene was transpiring in the street in front of the bank building. A Mr. Wheeler, a young gentleman who occupied a second-storey room in a building opposite, happened to possess a gun. Seizing this weapon, he took deliberate aim and fired. The ball took effect, and Charlie Pitts, a notorious Texas desperado, fell from his horse, shot through the heart. The shots fired by the brigands who had remained on the street did not have the desired effect in intimidating the citizens of Northfield. In a few moments, many citizens who had seized guns and pistols, and whatever other weapons came in their way, were rushing toward the bank. Mr. Wheeler having been so successful in his first shot, fired a second time, and Bill Chadwell fell, mortally wounded, from his horse. By this time others were firing from windows, and one of the horses was struck and fell dead. Another horse which had been ridden by Charlie Pitts ran through the street. Another one of the band was struck by a bullet, but managed to keep his place.
The situation was desperate. The leaders in the bank had not succeeded in getting anything, when the events happening in the street admonished them that their only salvation was in immediate flight. They rushed out of the bank, mounted their horses, and the six living bandits galloped away. Indeed, there was need that they should. Already a band of fifty citizens, well mounted and well-armed, were nearly ready to take the road in pursuit. At the head of this party rode Wheeler, who had already proved himself to be cool and daring.
The flight of the discomfited robbers was rapid. These free riders would never mount an inferior horse. But chances for escape were very few. The robbery, or rather, bold attempt at robbery, and especially the death of Mr. Haywood, a gentleman held in the very highest esteem by the community at Northfield, had created a state of feeling in the public mind which would not allow the people to rest satisfied until the murderers were either captured or killed. In less than twenty-four hours the whole region about was notified of the occurrence at Northfield, and not less than four hundred well-armed and well mounted men were in hot pursuit of the six surviving brigands.
The excitement occasioned by the events at Northfield was at fever heat. Efforts to capture the outlaws were further stimulated by the proclamation of Governor Pillsbury offering a reward of $1,000 for the apprehension of each of the robbers, or $6,000 for the capture of the survivors of the band.
The bandits fled in a southwestern direction, toward the little hamlet of Shieldsville, situated about 20 miles on an air line, southwest from the scene of the tragedy at Northfield. The route taken by the robbers made the distance more than twenty-five miles; yet they were at Shieldsville before dark. They passed straight through the place and made no concealment of their identity. Shieldsville is a small post village, containing a population of no more than 175 souls. As they passed through the village, they shouted to the citizens who were on the streets to get into their houses, and they made such demonstrations by firing off their pistols that the people were greatly alarmed. The pursuers meanwhile were gathering about them. Sheriff Davis and posse were behind them; Sheriff Estes and posse were before them, and there were officers and armed citizens to the right and to the left of them. Their situation became extremely critical after leaving Shieldsville.