Seven minutes: that’s how long it took for the James-Younger gang’s Northfield bank robbery to fail utterly. Since September 7, 1876, the foiled raid has been discussed and disputed repeatedly. The Minnesota Historical Society maintains a significant cache of material—from first-person testimonies and reminiscences to government records—documenting the attempted robbery and its aftereffects. Now, much of this material has been digitized and is accessible via the Web.
One interesting item is Cole Younger’s first written account of the robbery, penned to aid in his subsequent parole effort. Other items include southern Minnesota residents’ recollections and impressions of the gang, both before the event and after. One woman, for instance, recalls how as a six-year-old she and her family observed the gang spend the night prior to the attempted robbery in a rural school outside of Red Wing—and includes a map of the farmstead and school.
Most of the material comes from official state records, which derive from the criminal trial, prison terms, and paroles/pardons of the Younger brothers. The materials on whole have significant research value, but some items are of singular interest. For instance, on January 8, 1902, Miss Alix J. Mueller wrote Governor Van Sant “a woman’s prayer for mercy to one whom she loves.” Miss Mueller had met Cole’s younger brother Jim at the Stillwater State Prison about 1896, and a romance and engagement ensued. Though Jim was paroled in 1901, he was precluded from entering into legally binding contracts—including marriage. Miss Mueller entreated the governor’s assistance, yet her very words foretold the end: “For he is sorely stricken, and I am an invalid.” No pardon being granted, Jim Younger committed suicide nine months later in St. Paul, and Alix Mueller died of tuberculosis about a year and a half later. Partly as a result of his brother’s fate, Cole Younger was granted a conditional pardon in 1903.
There are other novel items as well. Upon being released from prison, Jim and Cole Younger had to submit monthly parole reports. These reports essentially acted as employment records, and the current employer was obliged to vouch for the report’s accuracy. Coincidentally, one of these reports links Minnesota’s most famous bank robbery—the Northfield raid—to perhaps its most infamous crime era—the gangland 1930s. In April 1902, Cole was working for St. Paul Police Chief John J. O’Connor, watching his homestead and laborers. O’Connor had provided safe haven for criminals in St. Paul during his tenure, as long as they didn’t perpetrate their crimes within city limits. Though O’Connor retired in 1920, his system persisted, ultimately proving an inducement to the likes of John Dillinger and the Barker-Karpis gang.
Digitization of this material was made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Here follows the list of collections that contain digitized material about the attempted Northfield bank robbery:
Christopher Welter, Collections Assistant