A History and Eulogy for the James-Younger Gang

For eight years, starting in 1868 and not ending until the disastrous Northfield bank robbery in 1876, the James-Younger Gang had remarkable luck. Every bank, train and stagecoach robbery they attempted succeeded, and the brothers who formed the core of the gang (Frank and Jesse James, and Bob, Cole, Jim and John Younger) always managed to escape capture and only one, John, was killed. Then, in the fall of 1876, the Missouri gang for the first time decided to range far beyond their accustomed territory, and raided the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota, on September 7. It turned out to be a bad decision.

Photo: Jesse James
Photo: Jesse James. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The bank’s cashier was not terrorized and refused to open the vault, the Northfield citizens in the street outside realized a robbery was in progress, and shooting broke out. The fierce gunfire killed two of the outlaws on the spot, and a massive manhunt began for the remaining six as they desperately fled south. The pursuing posse gunned down a third gang member and captured all three Younger brothers. Only the James boys made it back to Missouri, and the band was broken. The James-Younger Gang would never ride again.

Photo: Jesse (25) and Frank James (29) in 1872, Carolinda, Illinois
Photo: Jesse (25) and Frank James (29) in 1872, Carolinda, Illinois. Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library; Wikimedia Commons.

After the failed Northfield robbery, the press and public realized the gang was finished. A month after the raid a correspondent in Missouri wrote a long history of the James-Younger Gang, containing a detailed history of the “remarkable career” of the “bold bandit band,” noting its “rude sort of chivalry.”

An article about the James-Younger Gang, Cincinnati Daily Gazette newspaper article 5 October 1876
Cincinnati Daily Gazette (Cincinnati, Ohio), 5 October 1876, page 7

Here is a transcription of this article:

A BROKEN BAND.

The Remarkable Career of the James and Younger Brothers.

After Fourteen Years of Crime the Missouri Bandits Are Used Up by Citizens of Minnesota – How the Brothers Gained Their Spoils.

St. Louis (Mo.) Correspondent of the New York World.

Two years ago, when Missouri had declined to honor Carl. Schurz with further Senatorial honors, he retaliated by applying to this Commonwealth the epithet of “the robber State.” During his political lectures in the canvass of several States, he reiterated this again and again. He went farther, and attempted to hold the Democratic Administration of Missouri responsible for the bold bandit band which began robbing banks and railroad trains in the spring of 1868, and continued their operations almost with unvarying success down to the raid on Northfield, Minn. The fact that the trails after each one of these robberies led toward, or into Western Missouri, gave to the criticism a coloring which other facts did not justify. Schurz, however, did one thing; he gave to the robber band a national notoriety, and made the names of the James boys and the Younger brothers familiar to the whole country.

The Secret of Their Success.

It was not undeserved either. The band which they represent has enjoyed a success paralleled by no other criminal or outlaw organization on this continent. For eight years these men baffled the best detective talent in the country. The authorities in every State from West Virginia to Texas, and from Minnesota to the Gulf, and the detectives of Chicago, Cincinnati, and Louisville, have all by turns taken a hand in the pursuit of the robbers and in hunting them down. Their tactics were very simple, but they never failed till the Northfield job. The secret of their success lay in their knowledge of the Southwestern country and their complete isolation from all but known friends and old war companions. They were continually moving but always by unfrequented roads and over by-paths. There were nearly a score in the band at first, and periodically from four to eight of them would fall on a bank in some country town, or upon a railroad train at some way station. Half of them, riding up and down the streets discharging revolvers and uttering curses long and loud, would throw the townspeople into a panic, while the others, dismounting, dashed into the bank, overpowered the cashier, and swept the contents of his safe into a sack, and then the band would be off like the wind, scattering after the first few hours’ ride, and leaving a trail so blind that pursuers were thrown too far in the rear to ever make capture possible. The attacks on the railroad trains were similar, the objective point being always the express safes. Individuals were rarely or ever molested save when it became necessary on one of these rapid retreats to enforce a horse trade. In the brief conversations which these men held with their captives they professed a rude sort of chivalry, saying rich corporations were their only prey, and they never killed in cold blood.

The Errors of Detectives.

That these men succeeded so long in their nefarious profession, for profession it came to be, seemed almost like a mockery on the capacity of American officers. One mistake, and perhaps the worst made, was that these officials commenced by attributing to the James and Younger families all the crimes, disregarding the likelihood that there were others associated with them, which has since proven to be the fact. By this action of the authorities these outlawed men were able to establish perfect alibis in some of these cases, which tended to excite sympathy for them and to confuse the officers. Then, again, the descriptions became so mixed that nothing could be made out of them. When the various members of the Northfield band were captured it was utterly impossible to identify them until men who had known the outlaws personally in Missouri were taken there to identify them.

The Record of Their Crimes.

The career of these men as robbers opened at Russellville, Ky., in the spring of 1868, where a bank was robbed by six of them in precisely the manner before described. In December, 1869, they rode into Gallatin, Daviess County, Mo., killed the cashier, John W. Sheets, and carried off the contents of the bank safe. On this occasion the robbers were traced to Clay County, the home of the James boys’ mother, and yet the outlaws established their innocence of the crime by the affidavits of the merchants of Liberty, where they had been the day of the robbery. The next exploit was ten months later, when seven of the bandits rode up to the gate of the Kansas City Exposition grounds, and, in the presence of 20,000 people, robbed the ticket agent of the day’s receipts. Corydon, Ia., was visited on the 3d of June, 1871, and the bank relieved of all its treasure. In the flight, the robbers turned on the pursuing party and worsted them. The banks of Columbus, Ky., and of Ste. Genevieve, Mo., were next raided, and then in 1873, a train was wrecked on the Rock Island & Pacific road, just east of Council Bluffs, and the express car plundered. There an engineer was killed, but the raiders reached Missouri in safety. They always disappeared in the western counties of this State. Subsequent developments showed that from this State they stole quietly away over the cattle-drives to Texas, where they had ranches, and lived in comparative security under assumed names. The next year after the Iowa train robbery a train on the St. Louis and Iron Mountain road was flagged at Gadshill, and five men held as prisoners two hundred passengers, while they leisurely robbed the Adams Express car. The affair took place only sixty miles below St. Louis, but the retreat was safe. Muncie, Kan., a few miles west of Kansas City, was chosen as the place for stopping the Kansas Pacific train, and Wells, Fargo & Co. lost $30,000 worth of gold dust. The same day another detail of the gang made a descent on the Corinth Bank, in Mississippi. There was no mistaking the handiwork. It was the same programme in every instance, and the trail led straight to Missouri. The Huntington (W. Va.) Bank went next, and then the Missouri Pacific train at Otterville last summer.

Booty Amounting to $250,000 – The Fate of the Band.

This is the record of the principal robberies down to the Northfield affair. In every instance the booty was taken, varying in amount from $8,000 to $40,000 – a quarter of a million the total aggregates. Not a man was killed or captured until the Muncie affair, when Bill McDaniels, arrested in Kansas City on another charge, was found in possession of part of the Wells, Fargo & Co. plunder. In trying to make his escape, he was mortally wounded, but died without revealing his confederates. Jim Read was killed in Texas, and confessed his connection with the gang, but was mute as to his partners. In the flight from Huntington, Thompson McDaniels was mortally wounded, but never spoke a syllable to his death. Jack Kean was captured, and is now serving out his term in the West Virginia Penitentiary; but his lips are closed, like the others, by a solemn oath which all have taken. Clell Miller and Bill Stiles [Bill Chadwell – ed.] were killed in the attack on the Northfield (Minnesota) Bank. Charlie Wells [Pitts – ed.] was killed in the flight near Madelia, and two [three – ed.] of the Youngers – Cole and Robert [and Jim – ed.] – with Calvin Carter, are now prisoners. In a fight with the Pinkerton detectives, near Osceola, in this State, after the Iowa train robbery, John Younger was killed, and James Younger crippled for life. The gang of nearly a score has been within two years narrowed down to Frank and Jesse James, Bill Hinds and John Jarrette, the last a brother-in-law of the Youngers. In all probability they will never rally again, and the career of the Missouri bandits may be said to have ended with the Northfield fight and flight.

The Last of Quantrill’s Guerillas.

These men are the last of the Quantrill band of guerillas, the few survivors of those who sacked Lawrence, Kansas, and who waged a war of extermination along the border. The fire and sword, which Jennison and his Jayhawkers brought into Missouri, they carried back into Kansas. Both bands were so atrociously cruel and bloodthirsty that Federal and Confederate authorities were both loath to recognize them as allies or belligerents. They were land pirates, and carried a black flag.

Cole Younger, at seventeen, led one of the companies of Quantrill’s command at the attack on Lawrence. Strange as it may seem, nine-tenths of the members of this gang of cutthroats and desperadoes were only boys in years. The Youngers joined the guerilla leader one after the other before they were fifteen years old. Jesse James was with him at sixteen, and Frank James two years older. It was the same with the others. The camp became their school and college. It was the warfare of the savage that they carried on; rarely, almost never, a square, stand-up fight, but forced marches and unexpected descents upon unprotected settlements. Naturally enough, they graduated from such training as this into life-long outlaws and robbers. In the war, with the James boys and the Youngers, they had won the title of leaders, and it was in their brains that this series of bank and train robberies was conceived and planned. The others were common desperadoes. I have sketched hastily the career of these men since the war, for every one of these outrages is but a chapter in their respective lives. Of the desperate, bloody deeds in their war record volumes might be written. Woodcraft, riding, and marksmanship have been their studies since boyhood, but the truthful events in their lives seem almost incredible.

Why the James Boys Became Outlaws.

Jesse and Frank James are the sons of the Rev. Thomas James, a Baptist preacher. He was a graduate of Georgetown College, Kentucky, and after marrying Miss Zerelda Cole, of Scott County, Ky., settled in Clay County, Mo., where the mother of the James boys still lives, the wife of Dr. Samuels. The father of the James boys was one of the founders of William Jewell College, of this State, and became a leading man of his denomination in the West, but died before the war.

At the very beginning of the irrepressible conflict, Clay County became the bloody debatable ground. Frank James, eighteen years old, joined Quantrill. One day a company of militia visited the farm, and taking out old Dr. Samuels put a rope about his neck and ran him up three or four times, letting him down in time to save his life. They took Jesse from the plow, put a rope about his neck, and led him around, beating him with the flat of their sabers. Then they went away saying this was a warning not to harbor bushwhackers. Jesse joined his brother with Quantrill, and from that time out was an outlaw. Both of these boys, with Cole Younger, were in at the sack of Lawrence. Later a band of twenty-seven of the guerillas, headed by the James boys, fell upon a detachment of the 15th Kansas Cavalry at Cabin Creek, in the Cherokee Nation. There was thirty-two of the cavalrymen, and the guerillas killed twenty-nine of the thirty-two, Jesse James disposing with his own hand of the Captain, Goss, and the Chaplain of the 13th Kansas, Rev. U. P. Gardner.

The Centralia Slaughter.

Joining Bill Anderson, another guerilla chief, Quantrill’s men, with the James boys and the Youngers, for the latter joined the band as fast as they became old enough to carry a weapon, they were at Centralia, Missouri, when a train was stopped. The cars were full of soldiers, most of them unarmed. They surrendered, and the guerillas led them off and shot them down till not a man was left. Then they burned the town, and turning on a full head of steam, sent the train tearing down the track toward Sturgeon, the next station. A detachment of 300 Federal troops, under Maj. Johnson, came down to avenge the outrage, and they fell into an ambush and were slaughtered, barely a score escaping. Jesse James to this day claims that he killed Maj. Johnson and seven others with his own hand. Two years ago Congress passed an act “granting pensions to the widows and children, dependent mothers and fathers, or orphan brothers and sisters of those soldiers murdered by guerillas at Centralia in 1864.”

The Leader, Jesse James.

At Lexington, Mo., at the very close of the war, Jesse James received a minie ball through the right lung, which nearly killed him. He suffered repeated hemorrhages, and lingered along until 1867, when one of the bands of vigilantes who were picking up the retiring guerillas and lynching them on general principles, visited the Samuels’ farm-house. They demanded entrance. Jesse, with a pistol in each hand, crept down to the door, and, firing through the panel, dropped the leader; then, flinging open the door, he wounded three more, and fled in his condition through the snow. Strange as it may seem, the poor wounded men were taken into the Samuels’ farm-house and nursed until they could be removed.

Finding no relief from his wound Jesse James went to New York in the spring of 1868 to take a sea voyage. It was just after the Russellville Bank robbery, the initial one in this series, and it is believed that robbery was planned and executed by the comrades of James to furnish him the means for the trip. He went by the Santiago de Cuba in June, 1868, and on board made the acquaintance of a United States officer, named Major Gregg, who, upon reaching California, introduced the guerilla to Halleck, with whom he had a long conversation respecting the border warfare and the deeds of Quantrill and his men.

Jesse spent some weeks at the San Luis (Obispo County) Sulphur Springs, in California, and then came back to Missouri healed. His is the leading mind in the bandit gang, and he will probably be the last man captured. In personal appearance, these outlaws are all tall, muscular men, with countenances expressive of great determination, and bearing no evidences of dissipation. They very seldom drink anything, but are gamblers.

The Youngers.

The history of the James boys is in the main that of the Youngers. The latter were four in number. Their father, Henry N. Younger, was a strong Union man, but in the early days of the war, the dividing line between Kansas and Missouri was the only distinction recognized by the jayhawkers on one side and the guerillas on the other. The elder Younger was killed near Harrisonville by Jennison. He was wealthy, and money supplied the motive for his murder. He left an estate worth over $100,000, but most of it had disappeared before the war closed. Before the murder Coleman Younger had joined Quantrill. During the pillage of Harrisonville he had been sentenced to death by Jennison’s men. The execution was delayed till morning, and Younger, taking the rope provided for his death, let himself down a window, and joined the guerillas. Mrs. Younger keeping her children with her, moved from place to place, but wherever she stopped the militia burned the house over her. On one visit they found John Younger, and hung him up till he was nearly dead, to extort from him the hiding place of Cole and Jim, who had become notorious for their bloodthirstiness under Quantrill.

On one occasion fifteen of the jayhawkers were taken prisoners, and the question arose among the guerillas as to what disposition should be made of them. Cole Younger settled it. The guerillas had just captured an Enfield rifle. It was the first they had seen, and a discussion arose as to its powers. Younger took the fifteen captives and formed them in a row. Then at fifteen paces he fronted them with the new rifle. The first fire brought down three. Younger fired with great deliberation, the guerillas standing around and discussing the test of projectile force, until after seven shots the last man had fallen.

John Younger was the third of the brothers. In the fight at Osceola with the detectives, two years ago, it is told by eye-witnesses, that after Lull had shot Younger in the jugular vein, and with the blood spurting from the wound in a great jet, John Younger straightened himself on his horse, lifted his gun, took deliberate aim, and shot Lull through the lung, and then dropped from his horse dead. The man’s vitality was something almost unheard of.

I have sketched thus hastily the remarkable career of these men. Stories are told of them all over the West, but most of them are mythical. What I have given is gathered from authentic sources, and is true.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Have you uncovered any outlaws in your family tree? Please share your stories with us in the comments section.

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