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And Yet More Shameless Self-Promotion

August 17, 2013 Leave a comment
Buy this book--please.

Buy this book–please.

My first book for adults is now in bookstores everywhere! Or at least in Minnesota! But it’s definitely available on Amazon and through the publisher. The title: Famous Crimes of Minnesota (hence its availability in the Gopher State).

True crime is not part of my usual oeuvre (assuming I even have one…), but an editor I worked with before pitched the idea, I didn’t have much else going on at that time, and it’s always fun to learn something new. And I got a trip to Minnesota out of it, which led to this earlier post.

Additionally, I will make royalties off the book—theoretically—which is pretty unusual for me, since most of my stuff is done work-for-hire. So please, buy the book so I can make the mortgage payments on my new house (an experienced chronicled here and here at my other blog, A Year in Santa Fe) for at least a few months.

And to pique your curiosity, here’s an excerpt, about the famous Northfield Raid, which led to the demise of the James-Younger gang.

In the years after the Civil War, the legend of Jesse James and his outlaw gang filled newspapers and served as the inspiration for poems and songs. James helped create the legend himself, writing letters to newspapers in between his crimes, sometimes denying them, other times painting himself as a Robin Hood who gave his ill-gotten gains to the poor. (Of course, he and those who made him into some sort of folk hero ignored the fact that the stolen money often belonged to hard-working common people, and not the “one percent” of the day.)

In 1876, James, his brother Frank, and the rest of their gang ventured out of their usual area for committing crimes. They targeted the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, with politics as well as money in mind. The gang heard that Adelbert Ames, former governor of Mississippi, and his father-in-law General Benjamin Butler had just deposited $75,000 in the bank. Ames had recently moved to Northfield to take over his aging father’s flour mill. The deposit though, may have just have been a rumor, as some say it never occurred.

To the James gang, the two Northerners were justifiable targets for robbery, given their treatment of Southerners during and after the Civil War. Most of the gang had fought under William Quantrill, leader of Quantrill’s Raiders, an infamous Confederate group that carried out guerrilla warfare in Kansas and nearby states. To James and the others, Ames was a carpetbagger who represented the Radical Reconstruction carried out by vengeful Republicans. Butler, in the mind of Cole Younger, was especially deserving of being robbed, after his harsh treatment of the citizens of New Orleans during the war. Younger later wrote, “We felt little compunction, under the circumstances, about raiding him or his.”

How much politics motivated all the James-Younger gang’s crimes has stirred some historical debate. T.J. Stiles writes in his biography of Jesse James that the outlaw’s reign of robbery and terror and was part of a calculated effort to restore Confederate power in the defeated South. Other historians downplay politics and see a thug who, like many thugs before and since, let greed and a thirst for public attention fuel his deeds. Minnesota may have been targeted in 1876 because the heat from law enforcement was too intense for them back at their home base of Missouri. And as in many criminal tales, the Northfield heist might have been the mythical “last big score”; Cole Younger said the proceeds would let the gang “start life anew in Cuba, South America, or Australia.”

The Northfield Raid in particular plays a significant part in the James’ saga, since it marked the end of the gang—though not the end of Jesse’s crimes. And in an odd twist, there is no direct evidence that the James brothers even took part! In his accounts of the crime, Cole Younger never mentions either by name, and the brothers never admitted they were there. But the detailed historical retellings of the crime place the James brothers in Minnesota in the days leading up to the crime, and few doubt their role in the Northfield Raid.

Not According to Plan

The gang began arriving in Minneapolis around August 23, 1876. Some checked into the Nicollet Hotel under assumed names, and there are reports of Jesse visiting a local bordello. Two others stayed at the Merchant’s Hotel in St. Paul. Over the next days, the gang hatched its plan, counting on the knowledge of their one Minnesotan, Bill Chadwell, to help them navigate their routes. Within a few days, the eight-member gang split into two groups and began heading out to scout the area around Northfield. Talking to a local farmer just outside the targeted town, one of the gang commented, “Why, according to your statement of the Northfield people, a very few men so inclined could capture the town.” The farmer agreed, perhaps giving the hardened robbers an even greater sense of confidence than usual.

By September 6, Cole Younger’s group was in Millersburg, 11 miles west of Northfield, while the rest of the gang was at Cannon City. The next day, they rendezvoused in Northfield. The plan was to send three men into the bank first—most likely the James brothers and Charlie Pitts, with Younger and Clell Miller to follow. The other three would stay at a nearby bridge. The men outside the bank were to keep the streets clear and scare off any would-be heroes while the others carried out the robbery.

From the start, however, the plan went awry. The three men assigned to go inside went in too early, before Cole and Miller reached the bank door to stand guard. When they did reach their position, local hardware store owner J. S. Allen was about to go inside. After Miller ordered him to turn around, Allen took off, shouting, “Get your guns, boys, they’re robbing the bank.” The townspeople would heed the call.

Meanwhile, inside the bank, things were also deviating from the plan. The robbers had entered with their usual bravado, shouting their intention to rob the bank and warning everyone inside, “If you hallo we will blow your God-damned brains out.” When learning the head cashier wasn’t there to open the safe, the gang turned to assistant cashier Joseph Heywood. But as Heywood explained, the safe was on a time lock and he couldn’t open it. Seeing that the door to the vault was open, one of the bandits entered it. Heywood quickly shut the door, trapping him inside—and unleashing the fury of the remaining two robbers.

Heywood soon felt cold steel on his neck, the blade of a knife one of the robbers wielded. “Open that door or we’ll cut you from ear to ear,” the bandit said. Heywood, a seasoned Civil War vet himself, broke free, but soon absorbed the blow of a revolver crashing against his head. The robbers continued to demand money, and one fired his gun. In the ongoing confusion, bank teller Alonzo Bunker tried to make a break for the door, and was shot in the shoulder for his attempted escape. Wounded, he managed to get outside, where more mayhem was unfolding.

The Gang Takes Flight

At almost the same the first bullet was fired inside the bank, Cole Younger set off a warning shot, to alert the gang members back at the bridge that the robbery was going wrong. Jim Younger and his cohorts at the bridge quickly reached the bank, firing their guns and telling the townspeople to go back inside their homes. But the people of Northfield were not about to let anyone, even the Cole-Younger gang, disrupt life in their town without a fight. Resident Elias Stacy had arrived on the scene with a shotgun, and its blast caught Clell Miller in the face. Manning, the hardware store owner, killed one of the robbers’ horses. A second shot from his gun hit Cole Younger in the thigh; a third proved fatal to Bill Chadwell, piercing his heart. Meanwhile, a bullet from medical student Henry Wheeler’s gun finished off Miller, while another wounded Bob Younger.

The men inside the bank finally came out, but not before one of them killed assistant cashier Heywood. T. J. Stiles speculates it was Jesse James who pulled the trigger, while Cole Younger later claimed it was Charlie Pitts. No one knows for sure. Whoever killed him, a newspaper reported that Heywood was left “with his brain and blood oozing slowly from his right temple.” Outside, along with the two dead robbers was Nicholas Gustavson, a bystander who was hit in the shootout and would soon die from his wound.

As Northfield residents surveyed the scene around the bank, the six remaining gang members began their flight. They had no time to destroy the local telegraph office, so news of the attempted robbery and their escape spread quickly. So did the offer of a reward from Minnesota governor John S. Pillsbury—$1,000 for each man, dead or alive.

At first the gang managed to outrun the news of their crime, passing through Dundas and Millersburg unchallenged. Outside Shieldsville, though, they exchanged shots with local residents who realized who they were. As the gang moved on, they reached unfamiliar territory. As Cole Younger wrote, “When we got into the big woods and among the lakes we were practically lost.” They moved slowly at times, stopping to treat Bob Younger’s shattered elbow, and abandoning their horses since the posse would be looking for men on horseback. They trudged on through the rain, at one point encountering a man named Dunning. Some of the gang wanted to kill him. Instead they let him go after making him promise not to tell authorities the gang’s whereabouts. Dunning agreed, but then almost immediately broke his promise when he reached Mankato.

Still eluding capture after a week on the run, the gang decided to split up. Cole Younger, in his account, says Howard and Woods left the other four. T. J. Stiles says it was Frank and Jesse James who separated from the gang, stealing horses and beginning their getaway to the Dakota Territory. They sometimes went by the aliases of Howard and Woodson. Along the way, both men were wounded by buckshot, but they managed to escape capture.

Pics of the gang--the dead and the surviving Younger brothers

Pics of the gang–the dead and the surviving Younger brothers

Cole Younger had directed the others to Madelia, where he thought they could get horses. Cole, who had stayed in the town before the heist, was spotted by a resident who recognized him, and soon another posse was after them. The posse cut them off from reaching the horses and the four robbers retreated into some bushes. Hearing a small contingent of the posse preparing to attack, the Younger brothers and Charlie Pitts readied for a charge of their own. As bullets flew, Pitts fell dead, shot through the heart. Each Younger was wounded, and Bob called out, “I surrender. They’re all down but me….I’ll not shoot.” Sheriff James Glispin ordered his men to stand down, and later assured Younger that the posse would protect them from a rumored lynch mob. “But the only mob that came,” Younger wrote, “was the mob of sightseers, reporters, and detectives.”

Trial and Prison

In jail in Madelia, the Youngers had a string of visitors: reporters, Christian women seeking to save their souls, people bearing gifts of food and cigars. At one point, Cole Younger blamed his life of crime on his military service, and explained the Northfield robbery as revenge on the state for gambling losses the gang had suffered in St. Paul.

The trio was moved to the jail at Faribault, and in November 1876, the Younger brothers were formally indicted on four counts: the murders of Heywood and Gustavson, the assault on Bunker, and the robbery itself. Cole Younger maintained that he and his brothers had killed no one. Their lawyers said that as accessories to the crimes, they could face the death penalty, unless they pled guilty. The Youngers took their lawyers’ advice and each was sentenced to life at Stillwater State Prison.

Bob Younger served almost 13 years at Stillwater, dying there in 1889. His brothers, both before and after his death, held a variety of jobs. For a time, Cole was the prison librarian, and for about a decade was the head nurse at the hospital. Cole reported that the doctors he met were “staunch partisans…in the efforts of our friends to secure our pardons.”

The efforts of others inside and outside the prison won Jim and Cole Younger their release in 1901. Soon after his release, Cole Younger told a reporter he had “reached the limit of my capacity for taking punishment.” But unlike Jesse James, at least he had survived his punishment. Jesse had been shot dead in 1882. Frank meanwhile, teamed up with his old partner Cole for a legitimate pursuit. In 1903 they launched a show called the “The Great Cole Younger and Frank James Historical Wild West.”


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Research Methods to Ignore

December 2, 2012 2 comments

I may be a History Nerd, but I proved today in spades that I am not the smartest researcher. I’m writing this from Minneapolis, where I’m gathering information for a new book. A few months ago back in my office, doing some preliminary research online, I became convinced that the Internet and the books I had found would not be enough—or at least “authentic” enough, whatever the hell I meant by that—so I planned a trip to the Twin Cities to dig into the primary sources.

Victoria Woodhull-- one helluva woman, at least until she moved to England and became respectable

Victoria Woodhull– one helluva woman, at least until she moved to England and became respectable

I’ve worked with primary sources before, of course. Back in college, I spent countless hours at the microfilm machine, poring over old Hartford Courants and government documents for papers on immigration, among other topics. For my first bio, on Madeleine Albright, done while she was still serving in the Clinton administration, I made requests to Colorado libraries for clippings about her father’s academic career, and trekked into NYC to look at her dissertation. (I tracked down a sibling too, hoping for an interview, but word had already come down from on high: No talking to the media. But it’s for a kids’ book I explained. Still no dice. So heartless.) Then there was the train trip from Chicago down to beautiful Carbondale, home of SIU, where I went through some of the paper of Victoria Woodhull, spiritualist, advocate of free love, first American to publish Marx’s Communist Manifesto in English, presidential candidate almost 40 years before all American women could vote (with Frederick Douglass as her running mate), first woman to crack the male-dominated world of Wall Street. The work was for a historical drama still unwritten.

So, I am no stranger to archival research, if not exactly a master of it, as some of my colleagues in BIO are. But I was not prepared for the sense of “WTF am I doing here?” that crept up through me as I approached the desk of the library at the Minnesota Historical Society (an aside—the facilities there, which include a history museum, are stunning. I am not a state historical society maven, but I would bet few states have something that rival what the North Star State has.)

Yes, despite my usual attention to detail and planning, I got there today—the only day I could go, since the library is closed on Sunday and Monday, something else I failed to explore in my usual OCD-like way—and I really didn’t know what I wanted. Thankfully, I knew there was one collection of research material there I couldn’t find anywhere else, and I blurted out its name.

OK, the librarian said, which box?

Which box? Now I really felt out of my element. I imagined all the BIO folks snickering a bit. I made a stab, wrote Box 4 on the slip, and waited for the staff to wheel out a box. My random choice wasn’t totally bad; I actually found some folders with some useful information. But before I could go through it all, I had to leave for a semi-hokey bus tour related to my subject. All right, BIO bastards, stop laughing. I know: Like you could get any useful information for a serious history book from a—bus tour! Well, I like to have an idea of the geography of places I’m writing about, and while the book is about all of Minnesota, a lot of the action takes place in St. Paul. So I headed to the Wabasha St. caves, not far from the Mississippi, and let myself be driven around and lectured to for two hours.

John Dillinger slept--and was almost killed--here, at this St. Paul apartment building.

John Dillinger slept–and was almost killed–here, at this St. Paul apartment building.

I doubt, though, that most people would call it a lecture. The tour guide was more about schtick, though there was some substance. And without that little excursion, I wouldn’t have learned about Summit Avenue, supposedly home to more Victorian mansions than any other street in the country and to authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.  And there were a few tidbits I heard along the way that might prove useful. I had been hoping for pictures that might be appropriate too, though that was a bust (the gray sky and fog didn’t help with that either).

The tour over, I went back to the historical society to finish going through my box. There was little useful left, but also not enough time to get another box, so I headed back to the hotel with only one brief detour—to buy some beer. I needed it.

Tomorrow, it’s back to the research, though this time to one of the libraries at the University of Minnesota. I doubt there will be boxes of material to comb through, but at least I can access old copies of the local newspapers that aren’t available online. Maybe. You see, I didn’t think through that part of this research adventure too well either. But that’s what makes it an adventure—and me less than a professional historian. But I will muddle through the book, and I’m sure it will be fine. And if all goes well, there may be another book on the same topic. So this time next year, look for the befuddled-looking guy stumbling around the Wisconsin Historical Society library.

Just Leif’s Luck

October 14, 2009 2 comments
Who can say no to cod soaked in lye?

Who can say no to cod soaked in lye?

Break out the lutefisk and lefse, give a solemn nod to Martin Luther, and pour another round of Linie Aquavit, because it’s Leif Eriksson Day!

Well, it was. But I guess I missed it. What with all the hoopla over Columbus Day. But there it is in the NYT, President Obama declared October 9 Leif Eriksson Day, just as presidents before him have since 1964.

The first European explorer in North America - leaving aside the claims for St. Brendan.

The first European explorer in North America - leaving aside the claims for St. Brendan.

Continuing our explorer’s theme, let’s take a look at the often-ignored Leif. The presidential proclamation calls him “son of Iceland, grandson of Norway.” Actually he was son of Erik the Red, and though Leif spent his early years on Iceland, it was Greenland that became his home, and the base for the expedition that makes him famous…uh, semi-famous, today.

No one talked much about Leif when I was in grade school. We heard plenty about Columbus, but not much about Leif and his journey to Newfoundland, where he became the first European to found a settlement in North America. (More on that later.) Of course, archaeologists didn’t find evidence of Leif’s presence there until the early 1960s. And let’s face it, as hard-working and ubiquitous as the Norwegians are (in the upper Midwest, anyway), they don’t carry the same demographic clout as the Italians, and they had a 400-year head start in ginning up the PR machine for Columbus. Kids might learn a little about Leif, but to the general population, he is still something of a mystery.

That’s too bad, because the Icelandic sagas depict Leif and his family as the stuff of a ratings-grabbing mini-series. And if there had been cameras in the 10th century AD to get them on a reality show — boffo! Dad Erik and his dad Thorvald were banished from Norway after a little bout of murder with some neighbors. Mayhem followed them in Iceland, which led to another banishment and Erik’s staking a claim in Greenland. Later, Leif’s sister Freydis seems to have masterminded a mini-massacre on Newfoundland (Vinland to the Norse), killing five women herself. According to one saga, she tried to hush up the affair with this threat: “If we are fortunate enough to make it back to Greenland, I will have anyone who tells of these events killed.” More blood-hungry berserkers than subdued Minnesotans, those Erikssons, eh?

At Erik’s little Greenland settlement, the Norse raised cattle and sheep. They also traded the ivory from walrus tusks, along with a few live polar bears, to the folks back in Europe. Leif, eager for adventure, set off to explore lands west of Greenland first spotted by Bjarni Herjolfsson, who, if he had had Leif’s spunk, would have led to our breaking out the lutefisk and lefse to celebrate Bjarni Herjolfsson Day.

Leif first sailed by Baffin Island, stopped briefly on Labrador, then came ashore for the winter on Newfoundland. There and nearby, the  Norse found abundant salmon, grassy fields, and wild grapes or berries, which may have led to the Norse calling the region Vinland (vin can mean either “grapes” or  “grassland”).

Actual on-the-scene footage of the Norse-Skraeling battle!

Actual on-the-scene footage of the Norse-Skraeling battle!

Leif returned to Greenland in the spring with tales of this verdant paradise. On a second journey, Leif’s brother Thorvald explored farther south, around Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. He also made contact with the Indians of the region, ancestors of the Innu and Beothuk. In the spirit of bonhomie that would mark future European contact with the natives, Thorvald called the Indians skraelings — “ugly people” or “weaklings,” take your pick. But the skraelings were strong enough to kill Thorvald, after he and his men attacked them first. And so a pattern was set in motion for the New World…

Another Eriksson brother, Thorstein, led the next Norse expedition to Vinland, hoping to bring his brother’s body back to Greenland. No luck. He soon died, and Thorstein’s widow Gudrid remarried and sailed with the next expedition, hoping to start a more permanent colony. After a year or two, fearful of more skraeling attacks, the Norse left this grassy land, much more suitable for farming and hunting than Greenland, but too far from the Norse there to make it safe.

No one knows when Leif died. He seems to have spent his last years as a leader of the Greenland colony. The Norse stuck it out there until around 1450, when Inuit attacks and colder temperatures either killed off the remaining Norse or drove them off the island.

Tje reconstructed site at L'anse aux Meadows

The reconstructed site at L'anse aux Meadows

The story of Red, Leif, and the family almost seems too fantastic, with the heroic sailing off for unknown lands, the  building of a settlement out of nothing (hey, the Pilgrims got help from the Indians they met…), rivalries and retrievals of bodies. But the sagas and archaeological finds document it (leaving aside some of the holes and conflicting accounts in the written record). Leif has his day, though I doubt many parades. And of course, with the short shrift history gets in our schools today, in this era of mastery tests über alles, don’t expect too many kids to learn much of this story. But if you’re ever in Newfoundland, make a stop at the  living history museum at the first European settlement in North America. And do raise an aquavit for ol’ Leif.