The outlaws met their match on September 7 in 1876. They fell not to federal marshals but to the townspeople of Northfield, Minnesota.
“Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” Thus spoke Alexander Graham Bell on March 10, 1876, in the world’s first successful telephone message. Twenty-two-year-old Thomas Augustus Watson thereby became history’s first recipient of a phone call, though he was no further away than an adjacent room. Telemarketers would inevitably follow.
Six months later, on today’s very date—September 7 in 1876—telephonic communication in remote Northfield, Minnesota was still years in the future. Nonetheless, local townspeople by word of mouth put an effective end to a notorious crime spree. “Get your guns, boys, they’re robbing the bank!” shouted Northfield resident J. S. Allen.
The bank robbers on that day were among the most feared and famous outlaws of the day, the James-Younger Gang. Members included Jesse James and his brother Frank, the Younger brothers (Cole, John, Bob, and Jim), plus occasional cohorts such as Clell Miller, Charlie Pitts and Bill Chadwell. Most hailed from Missouri but over an entire decade, they robbed and killed in multiple states from Texas to Kentucky to Iowa and finally, Minnesota.
Not wanting to hold up the First National Bank of Northfield on empty stomachs, the Gang sat down for fried eggs and whisky at a restaurant at about noon. Tanked up and ready to go shortly before 2:00 pm, they headed over to the bank. Having noticed the outlaws (alert residents later testified that the thugs reeked of alcohol), the stage was set for a violent confrontation.
Gunshots rang out and a Swedish immigrant selling vegetables fell dead. Inside the bank, teller James Heywood refused to cooperate by forking over the cash and was shot dead on the spot. As townspeople opened fire, the Gang attempted to escape with a few bags of nickels. Two of the thugs were killed, and every one of the remaining six (including Jesse James himself) was wounded.
What’s the difference, asks an old joke, between a successful bank robber and one who ends up in prison? One’s a pro, and one’s a con. In the end, the James-Younger Gang were definitely in the latter category.
Well-armed and public-spirited Northfield citizens formed a posse and pursued the crooks. All but brothers Frank and Jesse James were either killed or caught and sentenced to long prison terms. To this very day, Northfield hosts an annual “Defeat of Jesse James Days” celebration in September to commemorate the town’s break-up of the James-Younger Gang.
In his riveting book, Chasing Frank and Jesse James: The Bungled Northfield Bank Robbery and the Long Manhunt, Wayne Fanebust assesses this colorful episode:
[I]t was a huge mistake for the James–Younger gang to venture forth into Minnesota, looking for fat bank to rob. It was extremely arrogant of the Missouri outlaws to think that the hard-working farm and businesspeople of the northern prairie would simply run away once the shooting started. And when the shooting started at Northfield, Minnesota, the townspeople offered stiff and brave resistance, exchanging gunfire with gunfire. When the shooting stopped, two outlaws lay dead in the street, and the rest were shot up and sent riding for their lives. Two citizens of Northfield were killed in a shocking crime that set in motion one of the greatest and most exciting manhunts in American history.
When the James Brothers resumed their crime spree (mostly train robberies) a few years later, Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden privatized their apprehension by offering a huge reward.
On April 3, 1882, an aspiring Gang member named Bob Ford fired the fatal shot that killed Jesse James in St. Joseph, Missouri. The story is dramatized in the 2007 Brad Pitt/Casey Affleck film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Jesse’s brother Frank surrendered shortly thereafter.
A fifteen-year theft and murder saga had come to an abrupt end, underscoring the wisdom of the adage, “A gun in hand is better than a cop on the phone.”
When the cops do their job and do it well, I’m the first to offer thanks. But we should always be just as grateful for a well-armed, vigilant, and responsible citizenry.
Lawrence W. Reed is FEE’s President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow, and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty, having served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is author of the 2020 book, Was Jesus a Socialist? as well as Real Heroes: Incredible True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction and Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism. Follow on LinkedIn and Like his public figure page on Facebook. His website is www.lawrencewreed.com.
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