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Jesse's Quest



Rob Hardy


The name of Jesse James is instantly recognizable, even if you aren't a fan of westerns; James is one of the most familiar legends of the West. And yet, his most famous crime, committed within the James-Younger Gang, was in Minnesota, and it was a fiasco. For the details of the latter part of his late career, and most importantly the motivation for it (besides greed), there is an entertaining summary in Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West's Greatest Escape (William Morrow) by Mark Lee Gardner. It's fitting that Gardner gives us this volume; his last one was To Hell on a Fast Horse, about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The dime novels and the movies have expanded Jesse James's reputation, but a lot of the fear he inspired was well earned. Gardner says of his gang that they were the "quintessential horseback outlaws," and that "No gang of criminals was more feared, more wanted, more hated and more celebrated." Reading this exciting account shows why. 




One of the great problems in telling this story, as Gardner says in his preface, is that there was an air of deception in everything the gang did. Of course they stole and lied about it, but the lies were elaborate. They took on aliases and pretended to be respectable businessmen or ranchers before they pulled a job. When they had completed a heist, and it was obviously their work, they would write letters to the press denying involvement, offering alibis, and assuring the public that their presence far from the crime could be attested by "some of the best men in Missouri." They would maintain that if only they could be assured a fair trial and protection from mobs, they would turn themselves right in. Gang members that were caught never ratted on the ones that got away, and when those that lived wrote their memoirs or told their stories to the press, they didn't care much about accuracy. To his death at age 72, Frank James, Jesse's older brother and fellow gang member, was denying that he had ever set foot in Minnesota. 




Of course Jesse and Frank robbed in order to enrich themselves, but Gardner clarifies how they came to their line of work. The Civil War gave them the violent atmosphere and the motivation to take all they could. When Union militia soldiers were trying to find Frank who had joined a local Confederate company in 1861, they whipped the fifteen-year-old Jesse to get information, but he told them nothing. Jesse also saw them torture his step-father to get information. Missouri was officially with the Union, but at age sixteen Jesse joined the extensive network of Confederate bushwhackers or guerrillas. When the Union militia learned that Jesse's mother was feeding the bushwhackers, they forced her to burn her house down. After the war, the brothers considered bankers and cashiers members of enemy forces, and had the support of many former Confederates. When in 1875 the Pinkertons bombed their mother's home, killing their little stepbrother and blowing an arm off their mother, Frank and Jesse must just have regarded it as a continuation of the war. 




Gardner starts his story with one of the gang's successes. In 1876, the brothers, along with Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger, Charlie Pitts, Bill Chadwell, and Hobbs Kerry robbed the Missouri Pacific Railroad at the "Rocky Cut" near Otterville, Missouri. The brazen robbery netted around $10,000, and as they rode off they yelled to the baggage master, "Tell Allan Pinkerton and all his detectives to look for us in hell!" The newspapers noted how no one had been hurt in the intricately-planned raid by robbers who showed "the very supremacy of daring."  




Hobbs Kerry had been a new recruit to the gang, was careless about spending his spoils afterward, and got caught. He spilled all he knew about the gang to the lawmen, and the gang knew this. They needed to go out of Missouri to a fresh territory, so they went to Minnesota, and they settled on the First National Bank in Northfield. Gardner says that they may have also headed to Minnesota to kill an attorney who had assisted the Pinkertons in the botched bombing of their mother's house in Missouri, and who had fled to St. Paul. The revenge killing never happened, and the bank robbery was a disaster. Part of the reason was that some of the citizens of Northfield did all they could to thwart the gang. They had motivation to do so; there was no such thing as deposit insurance at the time, so that if the bank was robbed, every depositor was personally robbed in the process. Also motivated was Joseph Lee Haywood, the shy bookkeeper of the bank who was also treasurer of the new Carleton College and knew that all the school's funds were in the bank. He did what he could to stall the robbers, and was shot and killed for his effort. The robbery ended in a shootout within the bank and outside it. It netted $26.60. 




Two gang members were killed in the robbery, and others wounded. There was a huge manhunt, the largest there had been up to that time, over a thousand men; Gardner says that it was also the largest inept manhunt. There were problems of communication and lack of control, but also simply the difficulty of grandstanding by lawmen who wanted to brag about their efforts but were incompetent to make the efforts successful. The robbers were good at evasion; they waded in streams, stepped only on rocks, and doubled back on trails they could not help making. After a couple of weeks on the run, the first gang member was caught, and eventually all were brought in, except Frank and Jesse James themselves. Those that were captured fascinated the public; 4,000 people came to the jail to see them on one day. They kept their mouths closed and never even admitted that the James brothers had been in Minnesota. The brothers returned to Missouri and continued a stream of robberies without being caught. Jesse was assassinated in 1882 at his home, but Frank lived until 1915, the last decades of his life a peaceable, even respectable, citizen and holder of the family farm. 




Frank recollected about the years before, "We were outlaws the moment the South lost. Why, we had as much chance of settling down, tilling our farms, and being decent as a tallow dog chasin' an asbestos cat through hell." There are other examples of Missouri rhetorical flourishes here, as well as many citations from the press as it reported the crimes of the gang and also made them into some sort of folk heroes, a role in which they continue to stand. There is even folklore that the gang performed as some sort of Robin Hoods, taking from the wealthy (Yankees) and giving to the poor (Rebels), but this was never the case; they kept the loot themselves, but never succeeded in keeping it for long. These were certainly the bad guys, and Gardner's book shows how bad and how they got that way. It's good to have the facts behind the legends.  






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