Last Glance: Jesse James

A social call before the Northfield heist.

The last battle of the Civil War happened in Minnesota 11 years after the south surrendered. During the war, William Quantrill raised a band of guerrilla fighters to attack Union sympathizers in Kansas and recruited a couple of promising young Missourians, Frank and Jesse James.

Once the war was over, Frank and Jesse wouldn’t let it die. In August 1876, the James’s and their cousins (the Younger Brothers) came to “Yankee” Minnesota, which had been the first in Union to send troops when Lincoln called for volunteers in 1861. They cased banks from Faribault to Mankato looking for the right one to avenge the war.

Lake Minnetonka was growing fast and wealth was more plentiful than policeman. Martha Baier Spandel recalls running into the handsome bank robbers with the dashing southern accents who were bathing in Minnehaha Creek. The gang had paid a “social call” on her father, so she sat to chat with the pleasant men and ate sausages and bread. Little did anyone know that they were destined for a notorious heist and shoot out.

Fortunately for Minnetonka, “We came to the conclusion that [the banks] had enough to do to take care of the farmers…; therefore, we went to Northfield,” recalled Cole Younger. The gang stayed in the Maurer-West Hotel in Wayzata and then the Nicollet Hotel in downtown Minneapolis before the eight bandits split up to descend on Northfield.

The James Brothers heard that $200,000 lay waiting for them at the First National Bank. What better way to rally the gang than remind them that the bank was owned by a former Union general who profited from the South’s loss? The dapper bandits dressed in leather spats, tall boats, long coats and rifles, and galloped into town September 7, 1876.

Two bandits were gunned down by the people of Northfield from the roofs. The rest of the gang fled town followed by a posse of 1,000 men. Charlie Pitts and the three Younger Brothers were showered with bullets near the town of Madelia, Minn.

The Younger Brothers were captured two weeks later at the old Flanders Hotel in Madelia, where locals gathered eagerly to hear stories of bank heists. The robbers’ outlaw tales enthralled the audience so much that the locals gave them flowers before they were sentenced to life in prison at Stillwater State Penitentiary.

As much as Northfield claims its valiant residents defeated the bandits, Frank and Jesse James escaped to form another gang of Missouri thieves to stage train heists. A fellow gang member, Robert Ford, shot Jesse to collect a giant ransom, thus ending his string of vigilante justice.