Like the First Minnesota’s charge at Gettysburg, or the Dillinger gang’s escapades in St. Paul, every good Minnesotan knows the story of the Northfield Raid. On September 7, 1876, Frank and Jesse James, along with Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger, attempted to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. When clerk Joseph Lee Haywood refused to open the vault, the James-Younger gang shot him dead. Northfield citizens heard the shot, grabbed their own guns, and ambushed the gang in the street. Gang members Clell Miller and William Stiles were killed, as was Northfield resident Nicholas Gustavson. The James brothers got away, but the Youngers were captured near Madelia, Minnesota, after several days of pursuit. Sentenced to life in the Stillwater State Prison, Cole and Jim were paroled in 1901 (Bob died in prison in 1889).
Among the most revered objects in the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection is this linen duster. It was recovered outside of the Northfield bank just after the raid, and is known to have been worn by one of the James-Younger gang members (purportedly, Cole Younger himself). Dusters were common in the horse-and-buggy era (and even in the days of open automobiles). Just as its name implies, a lightweight duster keeps dust and dirt off of one’s clothes while traveling. For the robbers, though, their dusters served a darker purpose. The long, loose garments concealed their guns. As soon as the gang members walked into the bank, they shed their outerwear and revealed their weapons. This duster was left behind as the gang fled from the ambush.
The duster came to the Society in 1890 as a donation from George N. Baxter, the prosecuting attorney for Rice County in 1876. Baxter apparently held onto this piece of evidence after the Youngers’ trial, and saw to it that it was preserved for future generations. While the Youngers’ prison sentences may have been cut short, the duster’s survival seems far more permanent.
Matt Anderson, Objects Curator