Northfield, Minnesota robbery – how to bungle a bank job

September 7, 1876

On this day a fatal miscalculation by the James and Younger brothers about the bank in Northfield, Minnesota, spelled the end of one of the West’s most fabled criminal enterprises.

The deadly band of siblings had evaded capture and successfully plundered banks in half a dozen states before they turned into the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. The decision to rob a bank “somewhere in Minnesota” is curious.  And picking Northfield was based on the false notion it held $75,000. (James brothers, top right, Youngers and sister Henrietta, right)

If banditry is best served up by surprise, Jesse James and company could have been more opaque by hanging up handbills.  Arriving in town days before the robbery sporting an arsenal of hand guns, wearing long dusters and purchasing fast horses, they attracted a great deal of attention in the fledgling college town of buckboards and bowler hats.

First National Bank of Northfield, 1876

The biggest failure of all was the actual plan.  The eight members split into three groups, one group to rob bank, another to stand guard outside and a third, to be the get-away guys.   

Bank interior with vault door open

Details of the actual robbery vary.  It was, however, Jesse and Frank James with Bob Younger who entered the bank and announced their intention to rob it.  Cole Younger and a trio of lookout men in front quickly aroused the suspicion of hardware store owner  J.S. Allen and Henry Wheeler, a medical student.     

A series of inexplicable missteps followed.  One, they left the front door to the bank open.  Second, when Allen tried to enter the bank to investigate, Clell Miller blocked his way, pushed him along and told him to “keep your mouth shut.”  Obviously Allen didn’t, raising a ruckus up and down main street telling residents to get their guns, “the banks is being robbed.”

Things weren’t going any better inside.  Teller Alonzo Bunker made a break for the back door, outrunning Bob Younger with a bullet wound to the shoulder.  Cashier Joseph Lee Heywood (right) told the gunmen he couldn’t open the safe because it was armed with a chronometer.  When Frank James went to check, Heywood tried to shut him inside, crushing his arm in the door.

The lookouts had already panicked, riding up and down main street amid a hail of bullets from angry residents on the rooftops.  Jessie, Frank and Bob gave up the cause, too, not before killing cashier Heywood.  

Determined citizens killed two of the bandits, Bill Stiles and Clell Miller, and all three Youngers were wounded.  In addition to cashier Heywood, the only other civilian death was Swedish immigrant Nicholas Gustavson, who didn’t speak English and didn’t understand the warnings.  Residents who hadn’t had time to arm themselves threw rocks at the retreating robbers.

The six survivors reunited at the bridge on the edge of town leaving two dead comrades behind.

The Youngers were finally captured in the massive manhunt and gang member, Charlie Pitt, was killed.   But Frank and Jesse escaped.  There’s no record of how the proceeds of the Northfield robbery may have been split.  The total take was $26 and change, amounting to just over $5 apiece for each of the gang members. 

The James brothers resurfaced in the Nashville area.  For three years they appeared to have retired.  Frank happily took up farming near Whites Creek but Jesse just couldn’t seem to stay on the right side of the law.   Forming a new gang, he was credited with a string of robberies in Mississippi and Louisiana before returning to Missouri.

Two new recruits, Robert and Charlie Ford, weren’t the hard-core bad boys of his former associates, however.  On April 3, 1882, Robert Ford shot Jesse in the back of the head as they prepared to rob the bank in Platte City, Missouri.  James was said to be straightening a picture on the wall.   Ford was acting at the behest of Missouri governor Thomas Crittenden, who promised him immunity and a $10,000 reward for killing the James brothers.

After Jesse’s death, Frank (right) decided the $5,000 price on his head was too attractive to would-be bounty hunters and turned himself in.  He was acquitted in two trials and Missouri officials foiled Minnesota’s extradition attempts.  He died at age 72 in 1915 and is buried in Independence, Missouri.

Bob Younger died in Minnesota’s Stillwater Prison of tuberculosis in 1889 at age 36.  Brothers Cole and Jim were both paroled from Stillwater in 1901.  They were said to be model prisoners. Cole Younger (right) founded the country’s first and longest-running prison newspaper during his years at Stillwater. 

Jim Younger, apparently unable to cope with life on the outside, committed suicide in 1902.  Cole outlived them all.  Saying he had  become a Christian he repented his past misdeeds.  He died in 1916 and is buried in his hometown of Lee’s Summit, Missouri.

Jesse James is buried in Kearney, Missouri, rumors of his survival proven wrong by recent developments in mitochondrial DNA testing.

Both Ford brothers met unfortunate ends, as well.  Charlie Ford, suffering from tuberculosis and, addicted to morphine, committed suicide in 1884.  He is buried in Richmond, Missouri.  Brother Robert, (right)  following his 15 minutes of fame as the man who shot Jesse James, operated a saloon in Creede, Colorado.  On June 8, 1892,  Edward O’Kelley rode into town, entered the saloon and shot Ford through the throat with a double barrel shotgun.

O’Kelley never explained his motives for killing Ford but according to some sources, he was married to a relative of the Youngers.  He served only eight years for Ford’s murder. After his release from prison he went to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and was shot dead in a scuffle with Oklahoma City police officer, Joe Burnett, four years later.  He was buried there at taxpayers expense for $12.50, proving once again crime doesn’t pay.

The Northfield Historical Society, 408 Division Street, Northfield, Minnesota, located in the vintage Shriver Building, has the local lowdown on the James/Younger gang.   Its  permanent exhibit includes photos, documents and artifacts. In addition, the restored First National Bank of Northfield has a replica teller’s cage, the ledgers and the actual vault. 

The museum also tells the history of one of the town’s founding companies, Malt-O-Meal. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for students, $2 for children 6 to 12 and under 6 free.  Open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 Sunday.  For more information go to or call (507) 645-9268.

Two world-class liberal arts institutions are located in Northfield, Carlton College and St. Olaf College.  Carlton’s famous Jo Ryo En Japanese Garden and St. Olaf’s  Flaten Art Museum are both open to the public, as well.  Two  local breweries and a distillery of organic liquors are located in Northfield, as well.  For more information go to, e-mail or call toll-free 800-658-2548.

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

♦ Head On West strives for historic accuracy and relies on a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.