Few names in American have the instant recognition, and connotation, as Jesse James.  Star of the dime novel, his legend became more noted than perhaps his true self.  But as you will discover in this historical visit to the end of the James-Younger reign, much of his status earned.  The details may have been been augmented by the human tendency to exaggerate, but there is certainly truth in them.

Mark Lee Gardner has written numerous books about the old west, and is often interviewed by national networks for his expert opinion.  With this book, he gives some background on the James and Younger boys, and how they came to be the most feared bank robbers, but it primarily focuses on what has become called the Northfield Raid.

One morning, in early September 1876, the gang hit the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota.  They chose their target with the idea that it would hurt two enemies with money deposited there.  They expected it to go like their robberies always did — smoothly.  Instead, the staff of First National were stubborn and difficult.  The delay allowed a townsperson to see what was happening and alert others in town.  Northfield fought back.

First National Bank, Northfield, MN.  via MNHS
First National Bank, Northfield, MN. via MNHS

The gang lost two members outright.  The others fled into the woods, wounded and ill-equipped to handle a Minnesota autumn with posses nipping at their heels.   To add insult to injury, the bandits had only made off with a total of $26.60, in coins and scrip.

Gardner tells this story with aplomb.  He not only explains the robbers’ strategies and movements, he interweaves the memories of bystanders, wives, victims and others touched that day.  He truly recreates a rich and moving scene, bringing the daring raid to life.  He also balances the sense of high adventure that a Western requires, with the grim reality that often followed these sorts of exploits.

But while countless midwesterners sped eastward in the August heat, eight strapping and somewhat mysterious men boarded a train in Missouri that would take them north.  They were bound for no exposition or fair, but it was to be a pleasure trip of sorts. The destination for these eight men, the infamous James-Younger Gang, was the last place police and detectives would expect to find them.  ~ Pg. 48

Minnesota had become a their living hell.  The rain and hold continued to sap their strength, making their situation nearly unbearable.  “The oldest inhabitant had no recollection of such persistent rain-storms as we have had during September thus far, ” reported the “Rice County Journal” on September 21.  The outlaws were living that outside and were drenched by nearly every storm.   …

Cole walked with a cane he had carved from a stick.  Bob’s shattered elbow had begun to heal but not in a good way.  He could not straighten his arm, nor could he control his fingers on his right hand.  … Cole had given up trying to remove his wet leather boots.  He did not know it at the time, but his feet had been wet and swollen for some long his toenails were separating from his toes.  ~ Pg. 153-4

This book is extremely readable, the literary version of a good Western.  There is plenty of human drama amidst the action.  It’s a good idea now and then, in these days of a different kind of “bank(er) robber” to revisit how it used to be done — and why it will always end badly for the thief.

Many thanks to William Morrow for the galley copy.

ISBN: 9780061989476
ISBN10: 0061989479
Imprint: William Morrow
On Sale: 7/23/2013
Format: Hardcover
Trimsize: 6 x 9 Rough
Pages: 320; $27.99
Ages: 18 and Up