By Massad Ayoob
You, a citizen, hear gunfire and learn a bank is being robbed and innocent people are in danger. Police haven’t yet arrived on-scene … and you have a gun at hand.
A danger ignored is a danger unleashed. Rifles are better than handguns for gunfights. Defensive firearms must be easily accessible and ready to go. And, yes, determined armed citizens absolutely can beat murderous criminals at their own game.
The “Great Northfield, Minn., Bank Robbery” of 1876 ranks among the most spectacular of armed citizens’ triumphs against violent criminals in the history of the US. On Thursday, September 7 of that year, eight men rode into Northfield, wearing calf-length duster coats to conceal the heavy handguns in their belt holsters — while mounted on fine thoroughbreds. By contrast, most Northfield residents used horse-drawn wagons and buggies for transportation, and dusters weren’t common local garb. Long after, one researcher would comment it was rather like a band of Hell’s Angels roaring into a quiet town on choppers, wearing their colors and expecting to go unnoticed.
It turned out they were noticed by townsfolk, but largely ignored. They had filtered in days before. As early as the previous Saturday, a townsman had recognized one of them as the notorious bank robber and killer, Jesse James. He tried to warn others. No one, apparently, took him seriously.
Shortly after 2:00 p.m., the robbery went down. Three men entered the First National Bank. Historians may debate this, but the general consensus is the three men were: Jesse’s brother Frank James, his cousin Bob Younger and Charlie Pitts. Cole Younger and Clell Miller followed this initial entry team, according to Carl Breihan, the historian and former police commissioner who wrote The Escapades of Frank and Jesse James. Other researchers believe they stood guard outside the bank’s front door. Waiting farther away as “outriders” — perimeter guards of the primary robbery team — were Bill Chadwell, Jim Younger and possibly Jesse James, though some believe he was with the gang’s “entry team.”
What happened next would take place on two battlefronts — inside the bank and on the streets outside it.
Inside The Bank
As the entry team burst into the bank, nickel-plated revolvers drawn, some of the employees initially thought it was a joke. The bandit later identified as Frank James clarified the situation for them by yelling, “Throw up your hands, for we intend to rob this bank, and if you holler we will blow your God-damned brains out!”
The employees stalled for time. When James insisted the cashier identify himself, acting cashier Joseph Heywood blurted, “He’s not in.” The robbers took time to give the bank employees a cursory pat down for weapons, and only found a jackknife in the pocket of assistant bookkeeper Frank Wilcox, which they ignored.
Frank James held his revolver inches from Heywood’s face and demanded he give them access to the money, but Heywood replied coolly there was a time lock on the safe he couldn’t open. This was a bluff: The safe door was unlocked and only a handle-turn away from being opened. It was at about this point the inside robbery team heard a commotion on the street outside, and then gunfire.
This predictably aggravated the mood of the criminals inside. Charlie Pitts drew a knife, put it to Heywood’s neck, and threatened to slash his throat if he didn’t get them the cash immediately. The cashier managed to break away from him and run toward the door, shouting “Murder! Murder! Murder!” Frank James furiously pistol-whipped Heywood to the floor.
Another bank employee thought about taking action. In his excellent book on the Northfield incident, Shot All to Hell, Mark Lee Gardner writes, “During the commotion with Heywood, (bank teller Alonzo) Bunker slowly edged over toward a shelf below the teller’s window — his eyes on a loaded .32-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver he could see there. But Younger saw the teller’s movement and also spotted the revolver. The outlaw snatched the pistol from the shelf. ‘You needn’t try to get hold of that,’ Younger said as he slipped the revolver into a pocket. ‘You couldn’t do anything with that little derringer anyway.’”
James fired a shot near Heywood, presumably to intimidate him. Bunker took advantage of the distraction to run to the back door. Charlie Pitts chased him and managed to put a bullet through his shoulder, but the teller escaped.
Roughly at this point, Cole Younger rode his horse up to the front door of the bank and screamed to his henchmen inside, “For God’s sake, come out! They are shooting us all to pieces.” Bob Younger and Charlie Pitts ran outside. Enraged, Frank James fired a shot at Heywood, missed, then walked up to him and shot him in the head point-blank — killing Heywood instantly — before he followed the others out.
In The Street
The robbery had blown up in the James-Younger gang’s face almost immediately. Two townsmen, J.S. Allen and Henry Wheeler, were among the first witnesses to spot what was going on. Gang member Clell Miller grabbed Allen and drew his gun, shoving it in the man’s face and snarling, “You son of a bitch, don’t you holler!” But Allen was able to pull away and run. As he did so, Wheeler shouted, “Robbery! They are robbing the bank!” The frustrated Miller fired at him, but missed. Wheeler sprinted around a corner and out of the line of fire as he raised a cry that would be remembered word-for-word forever after …“Get your guns, boys! They’re robbing the bank!”
The boys did exactly that.
Allen owned a hardware store nearby, and began handing out guns and ammo to all who were willing to fight. The first to get into the action was a farmer named Elias Stacy, grabbing a shotgun from Allen. Seeing Clell Miller mount his thoroughbred, Stacy cut loose with the shotgun. Witnesses said Miller appeared to be blown off his horse by the blast.
However, he was back on his feet momentarily: In the haste of the moment, the ammunition shoved into the shotgun had been birdshot instead of buck or ball. The tiny pellets hit Miller in the face, painfully disorienting him, but none penetrated through the skull or reached the eye sockets.
Up the street was another hardware store, owned by one Ansel Manning. He snatched a Remington rolling block single-shot rifle in one hand and a fistful of cartridges, stuffing one into the chamber on the run. Emerging onto the street, he and two of the robbers saw each other simultaneously. The gang members ducked down behind their horses.
Thinking quickly, Manning deprived one outlaw of cover by simply shooting the horse with a .45-70 bullet. As the animal collapsed, Manning took cover to reload, but found his rifle had jammed.
At this point, author Gardner recounts, “(Pharmacist George) Bates, positioned in the front door of a clothing store, had secured a shotgun and aimed it at the bandits. But try as he might, he could not get the gun to go off. Disgusted, he tossed the shotgun away and grabbed a fine revolver — only to discover it was unloaded. Still, whenever a rider came close, he pointed the empty revolver at him from the doorway, shouting ‘Now I’ve got you.’ Each time, the robber spun his horse and fired at the druggist, who ducked inside amid showers of glass and wood splinters.”
The Fight Continues
Henry Wheeler, who had shouted the call to arms, finally got one himself at a nearby hotel, the Dampier House. It was a Civil War-vintage Smith percussion carbine and the clerk only had four paper cartridges and caps for it. Quickly loading the rifle and running upstairs to a higher vantage point, he fired from a window at Jim Younger but missed both him and his horse. By the time he reloaded, his best target was Clell Miller, who was also mounted.
Bracing the fore-end on a windowsill, Wheeler squeezed off his second shot and Miller toppled off his horse. The gunman attempted to rise, but then collapsed. The .50 caliber slug from the old cap n’ ball had torn through his shoulder and transected the subclavian artery. Miller, out of the fight, quickly hemorrhaged to death.
Cole Younger dismounted, and seeing his friend was dying, stripped him of his guns. At this moment, he was hit in the hip: Ansel Manning had gotten his .45-70 back up and running. Gardner writes, “Cole was lucky the shot had not done more damage than it did, as Manning’s bullet first struck one of the stairway’s balusters, taking some of the energy off the lead bullet, as well as deflecting its path.” It was at this point Cole Younger began yelling to his cohorts inside the bank to come out and abandon the mission.
Manning reloaded the Remington again, and his next target of opportunity came in the form of Bill Chadwell. Firing offhand — from 80 yards, according to historian Breihan — he center-punched Chadwell, who moments later slumped off his horse and died in the dusty street. Another of the gang ran up to him and stripped his corpse of his revolvers, too. (“If you die, we get to split up your gear” may not be as new a meme as some think.)
Cole Younger — clearly enraged at the way things were going — took aim at a man in the street and fired. Nicolaus Gustavson, hit in the head, collapsed instantly. He would die some time later of cerebral edema induced by the wound. A new immigrant from Scandinavia, he most likely couldn’t speak English and therefore didn’t understand the warnings being shouted up and down the street.
By now, the “inside team” was emerging from the bank. Bob Younger, finding his horse dead, aimed at Manning. Gardner relates, “As Bob swung his revolver up to shoot Manning, the hardware dealer leveled his rifle at (the) outlaw, who promptly darted behind a box beneath the stairs. Bob kept his revolver up, its hammer at full cock, waiting for a chance to fire. For a few seconds, the two weaved back and forth in a deadly game of peek-a-boo, until Cole yelled at Bob to shoot through the stairs. Manning retreated behind the stone corner as Bob’s bullets popped jagged wooden splinters off the staircase.”
Meanwhile, Wheeler had reloaded his Civil War relic, and came to Manning’s rescue with a shot shattering Bob Younger’s right elbow. Younger gamely grabbed his revolver with his left hand and kept shooting, but to no avail.
By now, most of the gang was in the saddle. Bob Younger, one arm dangling and his horse dead, cried out “My God, boys, you’re not going to leave — I’m shot!” His brother Cole grabbed Bob by his good arm and swung him up behind him onto his own horse … and the gang galloped out of town.
According to most researchers, what followed next was the biggest manhunt in American history at the time. Many in the ragtag posse were citizens who had taken up arms to pursue the thieving murderers. Though the fantasy would persist the James’s and the Younger’s were Robin Hoods who only stole from the rich — bank deposits weren’t insured in those days and the citizens knew the money the gang tried to steal was their own lifesavings.
The pursuit was far too involved to relate here, and I’d strongly encourage readers to peruse All Shot To Hell by Mark Lee Gardner, a book I’ve mentioned already. This work appears to encompass the most detailed research into this incident ever compiled.
The hunt lasted a week; most of the unseasonable, constant and chilling rain made it difficult for the fugitives with no shelter and little food. The James Brothers struck off on their own, abandoning their three cousins, the Youngers — two of whom were seriously wounded — and Charlie Pitt.
The posse caught up with Pitt and the Youngers on September 14 near the little village of Madelia, Minn., at the Watonwan River. They refused an order to surrender, and chose to shoot it out. If Cole Younger thought they were being shot to pieces in Northfield, he “hadn’t seen nothin’ yet.”
Watonwan County Sheriff James Glispin faced off with Charlie Pitts, five yards apart in a stand of willows. They fired simultaneously. Pitts, with a revolver, missed. The sheriff, with a single-shot rifle, didn’t. His bullet centered Pitts high in the sternum, dropping him instantly and fatally.
As the firefight continued, the posse outgunned the outlaws. Jim Younger was the first of the brothers to drop, rendered unconscious by a bullet shattering his jaw, lodging in his palate. Brawny Cole Younger went down next; hit multiple times including a bullet in the head, barely missing the brain. Bob Younger, his gun empty and wounded again, finally declared surrender. All had been shot multiple times. It was over at last.
The Younger brothers survived to go to prison. Bob died there of TB in 1889. Jim and Cole were paroled in 1901, Jim committing suicide a year later. Cole Younger made a living writing about his life and doing a Wild West show with Frank James. Cole died from natural causes in 1916. The James brothers escaped. Jesse formed a new gang and member Robert Ford later murdered him in 1882. Frank James surrendered to the Governor of Missouri with a sweetheart deal to keep him from facing trial for the Northfield raid. Tried and acquitted for two lesser crimes, he lived as a free man for decades, dying of natural causes in 1915 at age 72.
Chadwell and Pitts had been known to go by other aliases, creating confusion as to the names of the non-related gang members. Today’s historians generally agree it was Chadwell who died in Northfield, and Pitts, in Madelia. Henry Wheeler, one of the courageous armed citizens, was a medical student and reportedly ended up with at least one of the dead criminals’ bodies for study purposes.
The gang left the bank with only $26.70.
When you hear gun prohibitionists claim armed citizens will have no chance against criminals, consider this: The armed citizens of Northfield blasted half of the 8-man gang, killing two and wounding two. None of those armed citizens were so much as wounded. The two innocents slain, and the bank man who was wounded, were unarmed and helpless to fight back against the murderers. Beyond those injuries were only cuts and minor graze wounds on the good guys’ side.
According to some accounts, the citizens inflicted even more damage. In Jesse James, Legendary Outlaw, Roger Bruns writes on September 17, 1876, the still-fleeing James brothers forced Dr. Sidney Moshier to “treat Frank James’ wounds. His left leg had been badly shot up at Northfield.” Another account has Jesse slightly wounded also, meaning the armed citizens may have shot as many as six of the eight bandits.
Danger ignored can quickly become danger unleashed. There had been ample warning, and ample time to call in authorities. It didn’t happen in Northfield. When a resident mentioned the ominous strangers to former Police Chief Elias Hobbs, Hobbs blew him off as being “too suspicious.” Hobbs, unarmed, had wound up impotently screaming at people to throw rocks at the robbers as the gun battle went down in the street.
Decrepit, obsolete weapons one must run to retrieve and load will terribly slow down response to criminals who strike heavily armed, with their guns loaded and in hand. Birdshot is not the munition of choice for dealing with homicidal criminals. You want a gun sighted-in for you. Manning wisely chose the one gun in his inventory he had personally fired, and knew where it hit: His Remington allowed him to shoot Chadwell out of his saddle at 80 yards.
It appears none of the good people were carrying their own concealed handguns that day. If they had been, the odds might have quickly evened on the street outside the bank when Clell Miller started the shooting there.
Inside the bank, the murderous robbers ruled. The one staged gun teller Bunker was hoping to reach wasn’t where he could easily access it before he was “under the gun” himself. Had the employees been trained and equipped to quickly draw and open fire when the trio initially burst in, the outcome inside the bank might have been vastly different.
On the hardware side, note the armed citizens with long guns prevailed against murderers with handguns. In an abstract from a paper presented at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Conference in 2008, James A. Bailey, Ph.D., stated: “The attempted Northfield bank robbery led to the demise of the infamous James-Younger Gang. The bank robbers armed with revolvers were no match for the citizens armed with rifles and a shotgun.”
A tip of the Handgunner cap to Mark Lee Gardner, whose recent book Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape is the “authoritative text” on this incident.