TWO DAYS BEFORE SEPT. 11, I visited one of my favorite Minnesota small towns and annual festivals. I went to Northfield for the Defeat of Jesse James Days.
This year was the 125th anniversary of the fateful day when members of the James-Younger gang rode across the bridge into town. The people of Northfield take great pains to celebrate not the infamy and charisma of a roving gang of bandits but the bravery of the townspeople. Townspeople who, until a crisis was upon them, didn’t look much like heroes. Before their economic and physical security was threatened, they were just a butcher, a tailor, a town doctor, a druggist. In their wildest dreams they would never have imagined themselves in a life-and-death struggle, much less a struggle that would be remembered and admired for more than a century.
On a September day in 1876, the gang intended to rob the First National Bank of Northfield in what they thought of as a near-holy cause: to reclaim Southern money they believed had been taken north of the Mason-Dixon line by unscrupulous carpetbaggers and placed in the bank in the little mill town on the Cannon River.
Whether that money had actually been obtained illegally, whether it had actually been moved to the north, and whether it had ever been deposited in the Northfield bank is unproven. What the bank stood for, in the eyes of Jesse and Frank James, Cole and Bob Younger, Charley Pitts, Clel Miller, and the rest of the gang, was everything they felt a Southern man ought to stand against: Northern dominance and Northern ideology. They weren’t thugs, these men. Frank was well-read and quoted Shakespeare regularly. Jesse was well-liked and admired by many. The Youngers were articulate and thoughtful; they sang in the church choir and were described as being kindly and heroic. They and their families had been tormented and beaten by Union Soldiers during the Civil War. They were men who believed that their cause was just and that their enemies were the cause of their pain.
So the gang rode north, eventually coming to Northfield. Some tethered their horses and entered the bank. Others patrolled the streets. Inside the bank, the gang used a brutal beating to try to persuade bank teller Joseph Lee Heywood to open the safe. The safe, in fact, was unlocked, and could have been opened at any time. Heywood, also city treasurer of Northfield and volunteer treasurer of Carleton College, knew the fortunes of the townspeople and of the young town itself rose and fell on the balance in the bank, so he lied and said the safe was locked. The frustrated robbers believed him and left the bank with $26.70. One of them, likely Frank James, turned as he left and killed Heywood.
Outside in the streets, the citizens of Northfield were defending their town. A cry had gone up: “Get your guns, boys, they are robbing the bank!” The robbers rode up and down the street, shooting and cursing, desperate for their companions to flee the bank so they could make their escape. Shopkeepers, a hardware store owner, a doctor, and townsfolk grabbed every musket, shotgun, and pistol they could find and began firing at the horsemen. One storeowner, equipped only with an empty revolver, leveled it at the robbers and scared them off more than once. A tailor shook his fist and yelled a threat. The town postman and a few others, unable to find weapons more effective or substantial, picked up rocks and threw them. Surprised by the unexpected resistance, the gang fled in disarray. They lost two members and a horse in the process; $15,000 remained safely in the open vault that Heywood had valiantly defended. The gang separated and got lost trying to find Mankato. Lawmen from various towns organized posses, and the gang members were hunted down, and many were killed or captured. The town of Northfield had done what Pinkerton detectives and lawmen had failed to do. They had stopped the seemingly unstoppable James-Younger gang. Two days after this year’s commemoration of Northfield’s heroism, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the world in sweeping, irrevocable ways. But in some ways, maybe not so much.
One hundred and twenty-five years ago, one small town isolated on the southern Minnesota plains, unprepared and unaware, recognized a threat, banded together, and moved to act decisively. Not without fear, certainly, and not with abandon. But with a sense of community and an awareness of how the fortunes of one are linked to the fortunes of others. Without regard for themselves, they simply took care of one another.
Not unlike the New York firefighter suiting up to go back into the broken World Trade Center, who, the afternoon of Sept. 11, looked into the camera and said, “If it was your job, you’d do it, too.”
This first appeared in Minnesota Monthly, November 2001