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Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013

The Northfield Raid and the Wild West’s Great Escape

The James Gang were failed robbers but heroic outlaws

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In Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape (William Morrow/HarperCollins), Mark Lee Gardner introduces Jesse and Frank James at the beginning of their outlaw days (Jesse started during the Civil War, riding with William Quantrill whose outfit was more vigilante than Confederate army). But the focus is on the James’ Sept. 7, 1876, Northfield, Minn., failed bank robbery and its aftermath. Along with the Younger brothers, the James gang kept fighting the Civil War well after its cessation.

The Youngers and Jameses were from Missouri, anarchic and divided during the Civil War. Afterward, many with Southern sympathies refused integration into the Union. With cultural affinity for the South, Jesse James was perceived by sympathetic Missourians, and even the nation, as an everlasting, romantic Confederate hero no matter how brutally and lawlessly he acted.

With expert sourcing and remarkable narrative skills, Gardner follows the James-Younger gang to Northfield, re-creates the foiled robbery and traces their mad and daring escape. While we’re reading an exact historical account, we find ourselves in what flows like a novel. The story is enhanced with maps, photographs and eyewitness accounts from the time.

The lives of the principals in the James-Younger crew are traced beyond this famous robbery to their deaths, and this is where Shot All To Hell becomes much more than history. It crosses with ease into matters of the human condition. The robbery forced a split between the Youngers and the Jameses. Jesse was assassinated in 1882. Frank was tried six months later after finally surrendering in what was called at the time the “Trial of the Century.” He was acquitted. Cole Younger was caught and imprisoned, but ultimately pardoned. On his deathbed in 1916 he privately met with Jesse’s only son and told him that the James boys’ “acts and treatment of us were honorable and loyal.”

In 1876 an anonymous poem was published in the Winona Daily Republican and reprinted in other Minnesota newspapers. It celebrated the robbery and heralded all involved, good and bad, naming each in a doggerel recount of the day that captured the imagination of the nation. Frank James went back to the family farm and charged admission (50 cents per person) to reporters and the public to tour the homestead. Ironically, he became internationally famous largely due to his defeat at Northfield and brave escape. One reporter on the tour asked “if Frank thought what he had done with his life had been ‘worthwhile.”’

He answered: “If you’re not a quitter, anything you’ve done has got to be worthwhile….I’d rather have all the pain and danger and trouble than to be just a plain farmer.” The attributes of honor and loyalty combined with a painful and dangerous lifestyle pursued regardless of cost seem to be how we prefer our heroes. They may be failed bank robbers but they’re still successful outlaws.