Minnesota Fiddlers

by Walter Sigtermans

     On September 7, 1876 three armed men entered the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota.  Two men remained on lookout on the street in front of the bank, and two more members of the gang were at the end of the street ready to create a diversion.
     Things did not turn out as expected.
     The men were members of the notorious James – Younger gang who had been robbing banks in Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas for many years.  In 1874 and 1875 the Pinkerton detective agency attempted to assassinate the James brothers. Jesse and Frank escaped, but the brothers realized that they need to move to greener fields.  The gang consisted of: Jesse and Frank James; Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger; Charlie Pitts and Bill Stiles

The Magnificent Seven Northfield Posse - the men that captured Jim, Cole and Bob Younger 1876

      The first thing to go wrong was that the bank teller, Joseph Lee Heywood, claimed that the safe was a new model, which could not be opened except at certain times of the day.  According to the teller, the lock to the safe was controlled by a timer.  This was a lie. In fact, the door was unlocked, and all anyone had to do was turn the handle and pull the door open.  But Mr. Heywood convinced the would-be thieves that the safe could not be opened until 3 p.m.
     At this point one of the towns people approached the bank and the lookouts in front of the bank started shooting into the air to scare everyone off the streets.  This went according to plan, many of the people ran indoors into the hardware store across the street from the bank.
     When the hardware store owner realized that the bank across the street was being robbed, he unlocked his cabinet of new guns and handed out ammunition to the customers trapped in his store.  The street exploded into gunfire.
     The James – Younger gang was now facing a town full of armed citizens.  In spite of their numbers the people in the hardware store were still outgunned.  They were shooting with .22 caliber rifles and shotguns; firearms intended for shooting rabbits, coyotes and birds. The criminals were armed with more deadly, though less accurate Colt 45 pistols, although, as the seconds ticked, by a couple resourceful townspeople were able to retrieve some Civil War Era carbine’s and open fire with much more powerful and accurate effect.
     After a seven-minute gunfight, two members of the gang had been shot dead on the street, and all the other members had been hit by at least one bullet, one member of the band had eight bullet wounds.  Joseph Heywood, the bank teller that had thwarted the bank robbers, had been shot dead by one of the gang members, as was a Northfield resident who had recently immigrated from Sweden.

     Jesse James kept a low profile for a few years in Kansas, living under the alias of Mr. Howard, but eventually he returned to a life of crime. Six years after the Northfield raid, in 1882, Jesse James was betrayed by Robert Ford, one of his gang members, who shot Jesse in the back.
     It wasn’t long until a song was written about the death of the leader of the Northfield Raid.  Jesse James was considered a folk hero in the southern states, but in Minnesota… not so much.  The Ballad of Jesse James has been recorded a number of times since 1925, and its a nice Key of G tune with great lyrics worthy of a Minnesota Bluegrass jam (especially in the area of Northfield, MN).
     Since 1948 the city of Northfield re-enacts the attempted robbery and shootout in front of the First National Bank of Northfield (which is now a Museum).

Click here to access the sheet music of  "The Ballad of Jesse James"

Click here to access the mp3 of "The Ballad of Jesse James"

     A posse was soon formed and the chase was on.
     Wounded and short one horse the gang split up.  After a week of pursuit, the Younger brothers and Charlie Pitts were cornered near Madelia, Minnesota.  After another firefight, in which Charlie Pitts was killed, the Youngers were arrested and spent time in prison in Mankato, Minnesota.
      Jesse and Frank James escaped.

Jesse James Slipped Here

Jesse and Frank James in 1872

Joseph Lee Heywood - the bank teller of the First National Bank of Northfield