Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape, by Mark Lee Gardner, 2013, William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins), $27.99.
By September 7, 1876, the infamous James-Younger Gang had successfully robbed many banks and trains in Missouri and other locations a long way from Northfield, Minn. “No gang of criminals was more feared, more wanted, more hated and more celebrated,” writes author Gardner, whose last well-received book tackled Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in a dual biography. He adds the gang “had never been challenged, denied or defeated.” That was about to change in a big way, as citizens of Northfield badly foiled the gang’s plans for Northern riches and then the gang’s plans for an immediate return to their Missouri homes. The Northfield bank raid fiasco has become the gang’s best-known crime. But even in failure the legend of Frank and Jesse James grew, as they were the only ones out of the eight holdup men to escape the massive, if disorganized, manhunt. Charlie Pitts (real name Sam Wells), Clell Miller and Bill Stiles (real name Bill Chadwell) all died in action, while three Younger brothers—Cole, Bob and Jim—were shot up (but not quite to Hell) and then made inmates of the state pen.
The Northfield bank raid was featured in two 2001 books—Robert Barr Smith’s The Last Hurrah of the James-Younger Gang, in which he celebrates the Northfield defenders who thwarted the robbery, and John J. Koblas’ Faithful Unto Death: The James-Younger Raid on the First National Bank, September 7, 1876, Northfield, Minnesota. But even readers familiar with those earlier books will delight in the exciting yet smooth way the intriguing story plays out in the hands of Gardner. The Rocky Cut robbery and the gang’s Minnesota planning (the revealing confessions of captured gang member Hobbs Kerry had a lot to do with making travel plans) provide just the right prelude to the main action of rapidly flying lead between outlaws and Northfield citizens (two in particular were most effective), capped off by interesting details about the great manhunt (actually some lawmen almost botched things afterward as badly as the gang did during the robbery). Gardner transitions easily from what the badmen are doing in this unfamiliar land to the activities and viewpoints of the Minnesotans.
There is a natural hole in any telling of the gang’s Northern adventure, of course, because the James brothers eventually separated from the other survivors and never talked publicly about their movements, while the Youngers, despite their long prison terms, never even admitted that Frank and Jesse were in Minnesota. Gardner does detail a remarkable on-the-road-home encounter between the James brothers and Dr. Henry Mosher of Sioux City, Iowa, based on an interview published two years after the raid but not discovered by other researchers.
Frank and especially Jesse would live to rob again in more familiar haunts. After Jesse’s assassination six years later, Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden rejected a Minnesota requisition (also recently discovered) to surrender Frank James, even though eyewitness Frank Wilcox identified the older James brother as the killer of Joseph Heywood, the acting cashier during the holdup. Gardner makes a strong case that one Bill Stiles was not in fact either Bill Chadwell or a ninth man in the holdup. The author also suggests that one strong reason the James-Younger Gang went to Minnesota was to kill Samuel Hardwicke, a Liberty, Mo., attorney who had assisted the Pinkertons and later fled to St. Paul. That murder mission, by the way, was also a failure. As for this book, it’s a winner and a must read for anyone interested in perhaps the most infamous outlaws of the Old West and/or in Minnesota’s most notable Wild West event.