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Jesse James tested the mettle of Joseph Heywood.

As the U.S. banking system took form during and after the Civil War, the job to which every ambitious bank teller or clerk aspired was that of cashier. The cashier’s name appeared beside that of the president on the bank stationery. The cashier had final say regarding the amount of money that could be withdrawn. And when a cashier was not on duty, an assistant might fill the role. Dealing with all that money was trying enough, but on occasion even more was asked of these employees. When men entered banks intent on making unauthorized withdrawals, the cashiers’ nerves and common sense were put to the test. How they reacted was sometimes a matter of life and death.

In the 1870s Midwest, Frank and Jesse James and their cronies put bank men and other guardians of the safe to the test quite often. In an unsigned letter to The Kansas City Times in October 1872, Jesse (many historians think it was him) admitted to the recent brazen daylight robbery on the Kansas City Industrial Exposition grounds and then made a general observation: “A man who is a d_ _ _ _d enough fool to refuse to open a safe or a vault when he is covered by a pistol ought to die. There is no use for a man to try to do anything when an experienced robber gets the go on him. If he gives the alarm, or resists, or refuses to unlock, he gets killed, and if he obeys, he is not hurt in the flesh, but he is in the purse.”

One of the best-known bank employees to defy the James-Younger Gang was Joseph Lee Heywood, an acting cashier of the First National Bank of Northfield, Minn. In September 1876, when the gang struck his bank, Heywood was 39 with a 5-year-old daughter, Lizzie May, now stepdaughter of the woman his first wife, in a deathbed wish, had urged him to marry. As one might expect from someone of his profession, Heywood was not a flamboyant man. He had served the Union honorably in the 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, notably at the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg, but he was ultimately discharged because of poor health. During a prophetic postwar conversation with Carleton (Minn.) College President James Woodward Strong, concerning the October 1864 cross-border Confederate raid on St. Albans, Vt., Strong asked Heywood if he would have surrendered the money as bank tellers did at St. Albans: “I do not think I should!” Heywood said.

The job of cashier had become vital due to the inchoate state of American banking. Before the Civil War, banking entrepreneurs issued scrip that customers could redeem by presenting it to a cashier, who would exchange it for federally minted gold coins from the vault. Banks were not supposed to issue scrip unless they had coins enough in the safe to cover half or perhaps one-third of the scrip value. In practice, underfunded banks failed all the time, and people commonly kept their money stuffed in mattresses. The Civil War touched off a crisis, as many Northerners demanded that banks hand over the value of their savings accounts in gold coins. This had a catastrophic effect on the nation’s credit, so the government began to issue greenbacks—federally backed U.S. currency. Banks redeemed greenbacks for scrip at a discount fixed by the cashier. The cashier’s job was to know which banks were solvent and which were failing and to fork over hard money on that basis. The cashier also had to be able to spot counterfeit scrip, which flourished in a day when nobody was yet accustomed to paper money.

The First National Bank of Northfield was not a national bank; it was privately owned, in part by Benjamin Franklin “Beast” Butler, a former Union commander loathed for his heavy-handed occupation of New Orleans (ladies would place his picture inside their chamber pots), and by bank president Adelbert Ames, Butler’s son-in-law, a former U.S. senator and Reconstructionist governor of Mississippi. The rumor that Butler and Ames had salted away $75,000 in uninsured cash in the bank had inspired the James-Younger Gang to strike it.

In prior robberies, the gang had presented counterfeit scrip to cashiers and then feigned umbrage when the scrip was declared bogus. At Northfield, Jesse James got right to the point: “Throw up your hands, for we intend to rob the bank,” he announced as he strode into the First National on September 7, 1876.

Confronted by the ultimate bogeyman of any good bank employee, Heywood stonewalled. “You are the cashier,” Jesse said, perhaps because Heywood was the oldest man present. “Now, open the safe, you goddamned son of a bitch!”

“It is a time lock and cannot be opened now,” Heywood replied. He was lying.

The vault door was wide open. As one bandit stepped inside, Heywood tried to slam the door on him. Another bandit caught the door and let the robber out.

“Damn you!” Jesse said. “Open the safe door or we’ll cut your throat from ear to ear!” He whipped out a bowie knife and nicked Heywood’s throat, drawing blood.

“Murder!” Heywood shouted. Jesse clubbed him over the head with his Smith & Wesson, knocking him silly. At this point, teller Alonzo Bunker, 26, tried to reach for his own .32-caliber Smith & Wesson beneath the counter, and one of the robbers crowned him. Jesse fired a warning shot into the floor near Heywood’s head.

“Where is the teller’s cash?” One of the robbers asked Bunker, who pointed to a roll of nickels. As the robber rifled through the drawers, the teller made a break for the rear door. Bunker made it outside, despite being shot through the shoulder. (The bullet missed his vitals, and he lived until 1929.) Once Bunker reached the street, screaming of robbery and murder, the whole town polarized. Anyone not yet wearing a gun picked one up at the hardware store and started shooting.

Cole Younger, raffish cousin of the prim James brothers, was riding up and down the street with brothers Jim and Bob, driving citizens indoors with random gunfire. When a hapless Swede named Nicholaus Gustavson emerged from a saloon and demanded—in Swedish—to know what the hell was going on, Cole shot him in the head. (Younger confessed this gratuitous murder on his deathbed; he may have assumed Gustavson was speaking German rather than Swedish, as Quantrillians generally shot or hanged Germans on sight for their rumored abolitionist and Union ties.) With several members of the James-Younger Gang dying or seriously wounded, Younger poked his head into the bank to give Jesse and Frank the bad news. “The game is up—we are beaten,” he said.

The last robber to leave the bank—Jesse perhaps, but more likely Frank—paused long enough to shoot Heywood in the head. The Northfield holdup garnered a grand total of $26.75. A quarter million in inflation-adjusted cash remained untouched in the safe Heywood had guarded with his life. Posses sent the three redoubtable Younger brothers to prison and the remaining robbers, save Frank and Jesse James, to the cemetery.

Adelbert Ames contributed $5,000 of his own money—in an era when a fair saddle horse was worth $100 and an improved farm with a house went for $3,000—to make sure little Lizzie May Heywood didn’t suffer for her father’s heroism. Responding to a written appeal regarding the Heywood Fund, the Chicago Clearing House of banks donated $1,000 “to express their appreciation of that noble element of true manhood, fidelity and duty displayed by the late Joseph Lee Heywood.” A Pittsburgh clearing house donated $200, a Maine bank sent $150, and banks in the Midwest and New England sent amounts of $100 or more, while scores of private citizens kicked in amounts of $2 or less. “Mr. Heywood certainly developed a heroism which I do not wish to exhibit,” confessed the president of the Kellogg National Bank of Green Bay, Wis. He donated a whopping $25.

“I send a small contribution for the fund for Mrs. Heywood,” wrote a banker from New Haven, Conn. “Her husband must have been a noble fellow, and anyone near and dear to him, and dependent upon him, should receive the sympathy and assistance of those who can appreciate noble deeds.

Lizzie May Heywood and her stepmother collected about $20,000—enough to ensure they wouldn’t sink into poverty as a widow and an orphan. “He sacrificed his life in a good cause, and has rendered a valuable service to all the monied institutions, and has proved himself a hero,” one donor wrote. “How many of us could have stood the test? And who could have blamed him if he had not?”


The author thanks Minjae Kim and the Minnesota Historical Society for their help.

Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here