Book Review: The Jesse James Northfield Raid: Confessions of the Ninth Man (by John Koblas) : WW

8/12/2001 • Frank James, James Gang, Jesse James, Outlaws, Wild West Reviews

The Jesse James Northfield Raid: Confessions of the Ninth Man, by John Koblas, North Star Press of St. Cloud, St. Cloud, Minn., 1999, $24.95.

Most accounts say that Billy Stiles, also known as Bill Chadwick, was killed during the James­Younger Gang’s unsuccessful robbery of the First National Bank of Northfield, Minn., on September 7, 1876. There were reportedly eight outlaws involved in what may have been the Old West’s most famous bank holdup. Killed with Stiles/Chadwell was Clell Miller. Charlie Pitts was shot down in the aftermath at Madelia. Jim, Bob and Cole Younger were all captured. Jesse and Frank James escaped. The two Jameses and three Youngers make for a sort of outlaw full house, and the names of the three other men (the discards, if you will) are at least familiar to Western outlaw buffs…except there are four other names. Perhaps Billy Stiles and Bill Chadwell were two different people, and perhaps there were nine outlaws involved in the fiasco. Anyway, that’s author John Koblas’ wild card in his entertaining 261-page examination of the Northfield raid.

In 1931, a man purported to be Bill Stiles claimed that he had been an outer guard on the road leading out of Northfield during the robbery and thus had escaped without being counted among the raiders. So it was this Bill Chadwell fellow who died that September day in 1876, while Stiles, after a 13-year stint in prison for another crime, converted to Christianity in 1913 and lived the life of a devout Christian until his death in Los Angeles in 1939. Well, maybe. Even Koblas isn’t sure. Right in his first chapter, “An Old Man’s Tale,” he writes: “We do know Bill Chadwell, Clell Miller and Charlie Pitts were killed, but once Chadwell’s corpse was put in the ground, there could be no positive identification of Bill Stiles.”

Still, Koblas provides enough evidence that Stiles survived into the 20th century to convince some open-minded folks that Northfield’s Malevolent Eight were really Northfield’s Notorious Nine. And even readers who don’t buy the “ninth man” argument will want to add this book to their Western collection, because the author has made a detailed examination of what is known about the raid. Much has already been written about Northfield, including two articles that appeared in Wild West Magazine. Experts on the raid might not find too much new here. And all the answers to the confusion won’t be found here, either. But for those of us who can’t get enough James-Younger adventures, it’s a real treat to see the raid receive this kind of thorough treatment–like being dealt a pat hand, with one wild card thrown into the mix for a little added spice.

Louis Hart