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“In 1876, you can’t call 911,” he said. “In the 19th century, most people realized that you’re on your own. If the bank is being robbed or somebody is being hurt, you’ve got to step up. And these men were very willing to do that and did not hesitate to do that.”
The beginning of the end
Two members of the gang were killed and a third was wounded before they made it out of town. The crooks split up. Jesse and Frank James eventually made it home to Missouri, but the rest of the gang was captured after a shootout near Madelia, Minn., in which another one of them was killed and Cole and Jim Younger were badly wounded.
Although the James brothers got away, Jesse James’ death and Frank James’ surrender both can be directly tied to the gang’s defeat in Northfield, argues Gardner, who will speak at the Northfield Historical Society on Thursday and sign books in the society’s tent at the re-enactments Friday and Saturday.
Jesse James needed to recruit a new gang. The Missouri governor, counting on the recruits being mercenaries, offered a reward to anyone who killed one of the James brothers. A 20-year-old gang member named Robert Ford took him up on the offer and shot Jesse in the back of the head.
“There’s no way the Youngers would have turned on him,” Gardner said. “They spent years in prison without saying a thing against the James brothers. He [Jesse] was forced to take in men who didn’t have the same qualities.”
Upon hearing the news of his brother’s death, Frank told his wife that the reward was so enticing that he no longer could trust anyone, Gardner said. He contacted the governor and surrendered.
One of the reasons Gardner wanted to write his book is that he believed that technological innovations in research would provide a better overview of events than previous historians could muster.
“I started my career years ago when you spent days in front of a microfilm reader searching and hoping that there would be an article in a newspaper you were looking at,” he said. “But today there are websites that scan thousands and thousands of pages of microfilm, and you can do a keyword search. I found a lot of newspaper articles that other historians didn’t know about.”
His greatest find — what he calls “the real gold mine” — was at the Minnesota Historical Society.
A computerized inventory of the documents of Gov. Lucius Hubbard included a request that he sent to Missouri seeking Frank James’ extradition to Minnesota. Attached to the request was a statement from Frank Wilcox, who was inside the bank during the robbery and saw James kill the bank’s bookkeeper, who had refused to open the safe.
The Missouri governor denied extradition, saying that James needed to face charges there first. By all accounts, Hubbard filed away the paperwork and forgot about it. Gardner is convinced that no one had looked at it since.
“Now we have an actual eyewitness account, signed and notarized,” he said. “What’s cool about this is that it’s not just a recollection. After Frank [James] surrendered, Frank Wilcox — and, again, this is in the affidavit and was unknown before my book — made a special trip to Independence to look at Frank and verify he was the man before he accused him.”
The robbers never managed to get into the safe. With the gang members who were standing guard outside the bank facing a barrage of bullets from Northfield’s residents, the outlaws grabbed the money in the teller’s drawer and fled.
“The got away with $26.60,” Gardner said. “That’s all they got for all that trouble and death.”
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392