Cole Younger, along with his brothers Bob and Jim, robbed banks and trains with Frank and Jesse James and other members of the James-Younger Gang following the Civil War. After more than a decade of life as an outlaw, Cole’s exploits were halted by a fateful attempt on September 7, 1876, to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota.
When members of the gang rode into Northfield, they wore flowing dusters to conceal their guns. Once inside, they dropped their coats and demanded the money from the vault. Joseph Lee Heywood, the bank clerk on duty, was killed when he refused to open the safe. When the townspeople were alerted and the shooting started, the robbers dropped everything and fled. In the melee that followed, Nicholas Gustavson, a Swedish town resident, was killed, as were gang members Clell Miller and William Stiles.
The pursuit of the gang went on for weeks and covered 400 miles, during which the gang split up and managed to get away. The Youngers were eventually captured at Madelia, Minnesota, in another gun battle, in which gang member Charlie Pitts was killed. The three Younger brothers were tried in Faribault, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to 25 years in the state prison at Stillwater. Bob Younger died in prison in 1889; Jim was pardoned in 1901 and committed suicide in 1902; Cole, also pardoned in 1901, died in 1916. Cole served his time as a model prisoner, and started the prison’s first newspaper, the Prison Mirror.
The Northfield Raid, as the robbery attempt has come to be known, has been the subject of countless novels and movies. It has inspired endless speculation and multiple theories of the sequence of events and who actually participated.
If you’d like to learn about the whole story in person, be sure to visit the Northfield Historical Society, which occupies the same building that housed the First National Bank in 1876. You can tour the exact bank where this failed-heist took place. View more information here.