Every September, the citizens of Northfield, Minnesota, put on a civic extravaganza. It includes men’s and women’s arm wrestling, a beard contest, a softball tournament, an arts fair, an antique collector’s show, a kiddie parade, a drum and bugle corps, the Minnesota Street Rod Association Show, a beer garden, several dances, and a Grande Parade (which two years ago featured a team of live llamas and Miss Pork Queen of Rice County).
Above all, it includes several reenactments of a very special moment in the city’s history. For Northfield is the town that defeated Jesse James.
On the morning of September 7, 1876, Frank and Jesse James, Cole, Bob, and Jim Younger, and three lesserknown thugs rode into Northfield intent on making a withdrawal from the farming deposits kept in the First National Bank on the corner of Bridge Square and Division Street. The attempt was a bloody disaster.
Unlike the citizens of the town in High Noon , who fled to the church and left Gary Cooper to deal with the bad guys utterly alone, the people of Northfield displayed remarkable backbone in the face of “the greatest revolver fighters in the world. ” One of them, seized by a robber on the sidewalk in front of the bank, tore away and ran off, shouting, “Get your guns, boys! They’re robbing the bank!” Inside, one of the three men on duty, Joseph Lee Heywood, steadfastly refused to open the bank’s vault; he was shot and killed on the spot. Another, Alonzo E. Bunker, threw himself through a glass door at the back of the bank and, although wounded, ran to spread the alarm.
Thwarted, the bandits left the bank’s deposits untouched and began riding up and down Division Street, shooting up everything in sight. Fire was returned by Henry M. Wheeler, a medical student home on vacation, and Anselm R. Manning, owner of a hardware store. Other men stood in the street and pelted the gang with rocks and bottles. In the end, two robbers were killed, Bob and Cole Younger were wounded, and the bunch was driven out of town. Later, some one thousand armed men tracked the gang down, killed one more of them, and captured the Younger brothers. Only Frank and Jesse managed to escape, sneaking back to their home county in Missouri through Dakota Territory. The Younger brothers were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Reason enough for celebration, as a reporter of the time summed it up: “On the one side was a band of heavily armed and thoroughly trained and organized banditti, carrying out a carefully made plan, in their own line of business, after weeks of preparation. On the other side was a quiet, law-abiding community, unused to scenes of violence, taken utterly by surprise and at a fearful disadvantage. … Yet the banditti were beaten at their own game. ”