The 1876 Northfield MN Bank Robbery

The Public Museum in Oshkosh MN has a Colt Navy pistol on display that belonged to the outlaw Cole Younger—a partner of the more famous Jesse James. By some reports, this particular pistol may have been involved in the attempted 1876 bank robbery by the Jesse James Gang in Northfield MN.

Cole Younger pistol, on display at the Oshkosh Public Museum

In the summer of 1876, the James-Younger Gang was headed by Jesse James and Cole Younger. Both men had been pro-Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War, and had terrorized Union sympathizers in Missouri. After the war, the former guerrillas carried on as plain ole bank robbers, justifying their actions with letters to newspaper editors claiming that they were avenging the defeated South.

In July, the gang stopped the Missouri Pacific Railroad train near Otterville MO and broke open the two safes onboard, giving them a haul of $15,000–an immense sum in those days. However, one of the gang members, named Hobbs Kerry, was arrested a few days later, and confessed all. With the local law now aware of where they were, James and Younger decided to move to a new territory, and the gang boarded a train for Minnesota. Since they had never been there before (though one of the gang, Bill Chadwell, was from the area) they figured nobody would look for them there.

Not long after arriving, though, they decided upon another bank robbery, and the one they targeted was the First National Bank in Northfield MN, just outside of Minneapolis. According to one version of the tale, Younger had heard that two former Union Army Generals, including the notoriously corrupt Benjamin Butler, lived in Northfield and had a lot of money in that bank.

The robbery happened on September 7, 1876. It did not go well.

As planned, two members of the gang, one of them being Cole Younger, took a position near the bank to act as lookouts, while three others, including Jesse James and Bob Younger, went inside. (Some accounts, however, put Jesse as one of the third group of three robbers who waited down the street to cover the escape, and have his brother Frank James inside the bank instead.)

The three robbers drew their pistols, and James declared, “We’re robbing this bank. Don’t any of you holler. We’ve got forty men outside.” The bank tellers stalled for time by telling the robbers that they couldn’t open the safe because it was on a timer (which was not really true), and that led to some discussion among the robbers about what to do now.

Meanwhile, two local men happened to be passing by the bank when they saw the lookouts outside and became suspicious. One of them walked up to the bank window and saw armed men inside. When one of the lookouts grabbed him, the man broke away and ran down the street yelling “Get your guns, boys! They’re robbing the bank!”

As it happened, there was a hardware store near the bank that sold guns, and when the alarm went up, customers grabbed a pistol or rifle and headed outside. Within minutes there were perhaps a dozen armed citizens on the streets of Northfield. One person was on a sidewalk armed with a repeating Remington: another, a college student home for vacation, was on a second-floor balcony with an old percussion-cap rifle.

The two lookouts now drew their guns and begun firing wildly, hoping to both warn the robbers inside the bank and to scare away the locals who were gathering at the scene. This brought the three gang members who were to cover their retreat, which included another Younger brother named Jim, who all now rode up the street in front of the bank and also began firing. But instead of running away, as the gang expected, the locals continued shooting back, with everything from old Civil War muskets to hunting shotguns. One of the gang was hit in the face with a load of birdshot; another was fatally shot in the chest. Younger, meanwhile, rode his horse to the open bank door and shouted for the other robbers to get out. And at this point one of the bank tellers made a break for it and was shot in the shoulder by one of the robbers as he ran out the back door. Cole Younger once again rode up to the open door and shouted, “For God’s sake, get out! They’re shooting us to pieces out here!”

In rage and frustration, James now shot one of the bank tellers in the head, then the robbers abandoned the money and made their way outside. In the wild exchange of gunfire that followed, another gang member was killed and Bob Younger was hit in the elbow. Several of the robbers, including James, managed to ride off on horseback. Cole Younger, however, who had already been wounded, stayed behind to help his brother Bob, and was hit again in the shoulder. Somehow Younger managed to get Bob up on his horse, and they both rode out of town. The firefight had lasted seven minutes.

Within the hour, however, word of the robbery had spread, and armed civilians soon guarded every road and bridge out of town. Using the evasion skills that he had learned with Quantrill’s Raiders, Younger bluffed his way past several of them by telling the posse that he was a deputy who was taking a wounded prisoner to the jail.

When the reunited robbers reached the town of Mankato, they kidnapped a local farmer boy in the field, forcing him to guide their way through town. After that, a dispute broke out between Cole Younger and Jesse James over whether to kill the boy or not (to prevent him from alerting the Sheriff). Younger talked them into letting the boy go–and he went straight to the Sheriff.

The gang then broke apart, with Jesse and Frank James going in one direction and the Younger brothers another. Jesse and Frank got away and escaped to the Dakota Territory before making their way to Nashville TN. The Younger party, however, was ambushed by a posse two weeks after the robbery along a farm road and, after another gunfight in which another outlaw was killed, surrendered.

In the running firefight at the First National Bank, a civilian bystander on the street had been killed, and one of the bank tellers was dead and another wounded. Two gang members were killed and the six others were all wounded (and one of those was later killed by a posse).

For their part in the robbery, all three Younger brothers pleaded guilty and were sentenced to life in prison. Cole Younger served 25 years before being granted a pardon.

The Oshkosh Public Museum’s pistol has the initials “CY” carved into the handle, in a style that matches that known for other objects that were marked by Younger. The holster that accompanied it was engraved “From Quantrill to Younger” (the holster was, sadly, destroyed in a fire at the museum in the 1990s). The family story given by the gun’s donor was that it had been taken from a man arrested in Oshkosh in 1876 for vagrancy, who was not recognized at the time but was Cole Younger, hiding out after the Northfield shootout.

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