Sept. 7, 2022

Jesse James and the Northfield Bank Raid

Jesse James and the Northfield Bank Raid

September 7, 1876. A failed bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota sparks the downfall of outlaw Jesse James.


Cold Open

It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon on September 7th, 1876.

The outlaw Jesse James dismounts his horse and ties it to a hitching rail outside the First National Bank on Division Street in Northfield, Minnesota. He makes sure not to tie the knot too tight. If his plan to rob this bank goes well, he’ll want to make a quick and easy getaway. Jesse turns and looks at his two companions—his brother Frank and fellow gang member Bob Younger—as they check their own horses’ reins.

The three outlaws walk to the corner of Division Street where it opens up onto the town square. Jesse takes in the area. A young man lounges on a chair outside a drug store opposite the bank. A few people wander up and down the street and across the square. It’s not as quiet as he hoped, but it’ll do.

Jesse sees two men on horseback cross the Iron Bridge then enter the opposite side of the Square. But Jesse is not worried about them. They're two more members of the Jesse-Younger Gang, Cole Younger, and Clell Miller, ready to provide backup. He gives them a knowing nod.

Then he turns to Frank and Bob and says, “it’s time.” The three men stride down the boardwalk and pause outside the bank.

Jesse flings the door open.

Jesse, Frank, and Bob pull out their guns and rush inside. Three workers sit behind a long, L-shaped desk, their mouths agape as they watch the bandits enter with grim faces and weapons drawn.

Jesse levels his gun at the nearest cashier and tells him to open the safe, but he stammers he can’t—he says the safe has a time lock on it and it won’t open yet. But just as the cashier speaks… Jesse hears a gunshot from the street outside. He doesn’t know who is shooting or why, but he knows one thing for sure. He’s not going to die in this bank. If necessary, he and his fellow gang members will shoot their way out.

Since the end of the Civil War just over a decade ago, the James-Younger Gang has terrorized the Midwest by robbing banks and holding up trains and stagecoaches. They left behind a trail of murdered civilians and lawmen as they plundered tens of thousands of dollars across 11 states.

But the infamous Northfield Bank Raid marks the end of the James-Younger Gang; and the beginning of the end for the notorious outlaw Jesse James. The bloody fallout of this failed robbery will leave several of Jesse’s gang members dead or in jail, and see Jesse running from the law, on this day September 7th, 1876.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is September 7th, 1876: Jesse James and the Northfield Bank Raid.

Act One

It’s just before 2 o’clock in the afternoon on September 7th, 1876, just before the Bank Raid begins.

22-year-old Henry Wheeler relaxes on a chair outside his father’s drug store which overlooks the town square. Henry is enjoying the final few days of his summer break from the University of Michigan, where he’s studying medicine. He spends his time helping his father behind the counter and chatting with townsfolk he’s known since he was a kid.

Northfield, Minnesota is a small town surrounded by wheat and corn farms and a few lumber and flour mills. It’s the kind of frontier community where everybody knows everybody and strangers stick out. That’s why, today, the five men gathered outside the First National Bank catch Henry's eye. Three of them stand near the front door. Two sit on horseback nearby. They seem like they’re waiting for someone or something.

But Henry is not worried about these fellows. They look a little rough around the edges, which makes Henry think they’re probably just cattle traders. And their bulging purses will be welcome in Northfield’s shops and saloons.

But as he watches the men, Henry sees someone else out of the corner of his eye: Mr. Allen, a local hardware store owner. Mr. Allen makes his way across the square, eyeing the strangers too, but more suspiciously.

And just then, the three men on foot make for the front door of the bank and crash inside. One of the two men on horseback jumps down and grabs Mr. Allen by the collar, pointing a pistol in his face. Henry hops to his feet in panic as the reality of the situation dawns on him: the men aren’t cattle traders; they’re bank robbers.

The other man on horseback looks in Henry’s direction and fires a warning shot telling Henry to stay put. Henry doesn’t listen. Instead, he decides to run, grab a weapon, and fight back.

Henry bolts through the front door of his father’s drugstore. He charges through the shop and out the back door. Then he heads for the rear entrance of a hotel where he knows there’s an old rifle sitting behind the counter. He grabs the weapon—and several rounds. Then he opens a window that looks out over the town.

The robbery is still in progress. And there’s more trouble on the way. He sees three more outlaws ride up on horseback, guns drawn. These late arrivals yell like banshees and shoot wildly, blowing out windows and pinning down anyone who dares to move.

Henry loads the rifle and fires a round into the street, and misses. So he ducks down and reloads, trying to control his breath and the adrenaline pumping through his veins. He rests the barrel of the gun on the window sill. Then he takes careful aim at one of the outlaws and calmly squeezes the trigger.

Henry's target jerks back, and drops from his saddle. On the ground, the wounded outlaw struggles to his knees, blood pumping from his chest before he falls face-first into the dirt. 

Henry quickly ducks down below the windowsill to reload. Then he hears more gunshots, but they’re not coming from the outlaws in the street. They’re coming from other citizens like him, defending the town. Henry peeks his head above the windowsill. Two more outlaws have been shot. One of them is writhing in pain on the ground. The other is upright, still on his horse, but badly wounded.

Soon, the outlaws inside the bank burst through the front door and out into the middle of the street. The gang continues firing rounds as they mount their horses, gallop down Division Street, and ride away.

When the smoke clears, Northfield is eerily quiet. Henry gets down to the street and strides past a dead horse and the bodies of two dead outlaws. Also lying on the ground is an innocent civilian - a local Swedish immigrant - who is mortally wounded. And then, Henry creeps inside the bank.

There, he finds Joseph Heywood, the bank cashier, slumped over his desk with a bullet in his head. His colleagues tell Henry that Heywood refused to open the safe so one of the robbers shot him for his disobedience.

Northfield is a mess of broken glass, bullet holes, and bodies. But the James-Younger gang is doing too well either. Eight men rode into town. Only six rode out alive. And almost immediately after the robbery, law enforcement will chase the gang’s surviving members across Minnesota until they finally close in, determined to bring the killers to justice.

Act Two

It’s September 21st, 1876, 14 days after the Northfield Bank Raid.

Captain William Murphy, a Civil War veteran, stands near a swamp in southern Minnesota. He and a local sheriff are commanding a posse in pursuit of the Northfield bank robbers; and today, he’s finally tracked them down.

The bank robbers have evaded capture through a combination of luck and determination, but they've lost men and sustained injuries. Only Jesse James escaped Northfield unscathed. Telegraph wires were abuzz with news of the raid, putting the entire state on watch for the fugitives. Hundreds of lawmen, vigilantes, and bounty hunters joined the chase. And the wounded remnants of the Jesse-Younger Gang limped nearly 100 miles west, stealing and begging for food, bandages, and medicine. But they were eventually cornered here, in the marshy swamp.

Captain William Murphy turns to the members of his posse. He asks for volunteers to join him and the local sheriff in a bold attempt to flush out the fugitives. A small group of men raise their hands.

William instructs these brave volunteers to spread out. He tells them that if they have to open fire, they should aim low at the knees. He wants to take the robbers alive.

William, the sheriff, and the volunteers slowly edge forward into the swamp. But then, suddenly, a gang member pops up from the thicket, raises his gun, and squeezes off a stray shot. William and his men fire back. The gang member falls down, clutching his chest. William just shakes his head. So much for aiming low.

Soon, three more outlaws pop up from the thicket and open fire. William feels a blow hit his side like a sledgehammer. He stumbles backward but keeps his feet, and continues his advance. He and his men keep shooting until the return fire stops, and the swamp falls silent.

As the smoke clears, William examines his side. The rosewood pipe in his pocket is broken but there’s no blood. The bullet is lodged in his belt. William feels very lucky. He’ll have a nasty bruise, but he’ll survive.

So William continues advancing through the thicket until hears a voice calling out. The outlaw says that all the gang members apart from him are down. So the local sheriff calls out, “come out with your hands up”. The outlaw says he’ll do his best, but he has a broken arm.

William watches, his eyes scanning the thicket in case it’s a trap. Then, a lone outlaw rises to his feet, holding a blood-stained handkerchief in his left hand, his right arm dangling limply.

Suddenly, a shot rings out from behind William and the outlaw crumples up into a heap. William shakes his head again. Then he staggers through the thicket, rubbing his aching side. 

The outlaw who just tried to surrender is lying on the ground in pain, groaning and indignant that he was shot while trying to give himself up.

William glances around and sees three more bodies; two of the outlaws are badly wounded; one looks dead. William sighs in frustration. Six robbers survived the Northfield Raid. There are only four here. Which means two of them are still out there.

William questions the only outlaw who’s able to speak. The bandit tells him the gang split up about a week ago. The other two are long gone. But he refuses to give up their names.

Eventually, William will learn the truth. Of the four captured gang members, Charlie Pitts died in the thicket. The Youngers—Cole, Jim, and Bob— survive, but go on to face trial and hefty prison sentences. The two missing men are Jesse James and his brother Frank.

Soon, the James Brothers will escape South and find a place to lie low in Tennessee. With most of the gang members captured or dead, Frank will decide he’s had enough of lawbreaking and turns instead to the simple life of a farmer. Frank will thrive in his new occupation. But Jesse won’t be able to adapt to a normal, peaceful life. Soon, he will return to a life of crime and form a new gang, a decision that will cost him his life.

Act Three

It’s the morning of April 3rd, 1882, in the kitchen of the house in St. Joseph, Missouri, six years after the Northfield Bank Raid.

Robert Ford sits across a breakfast table from the outlaw, Jesse James. He only half-listens as Jesse explains the plan for their next robbery. As soon as they finish breakfast, Jesse wants to hit the road and ride to nearby Platte City. There’s a bank there. And he wants to go in hard with Robert and his brother, Charley. Robert nods his head and plays along. But he has no intention of going through with the crime. In fact, he’s waiting for the perfect opportunity to betray Jesse.

For years after the Northfield Bank Raid, Jesse managed to lay low. But the straight life didn’t suit him. In 1879, he started a new gang to continue robbing banks and trains. But for Jesse, it just wasn’t the same. The old James-Younger Gang had worked together for years. The men had trusted each other. But this time around, Jesse struggled to find men he could count on. His brother Frank rejoined him, but Frank’s heart wasn't in it. And many of those who tried to be a part of Jesse’s gang weren’t up to Jesse’s standards. He ran them off.

But Robert Ford was the exception. Jesse's grown to like him and trust him. So today, as Robert listens to Jesse prattle on about his latest plan, Robert knows he’s got Jesse right where he wants him.

Unbeknownst to Jesse, Robert has been secretly negotiating with the Governor of Missouri to hand Jesse over in return for a cash reward. But Robert is scared of the infamous outlaw. He knows Jesse is dangerous; he has no intention of giving Jesse a chance to defend himself. Robert has decided that he’s not going to even try to take him in alive.

Robert watches as Jesse finishes breakfast and then heads into the parlor of his home. Jesse complains about dust on a picture on the wall. So he unbuckles his gunbelt and sets his two pistols down. Robert saunters into the room and watches Jesse climb on a chair to clean the picture. This is the moment. Jesse is unarmed and his back is turned. Robert draws his weapon, walks up to Jesse, and fires into the back of his head.

It’s an ignoble end for one of the Wild West’s most notorious criminals. But the downfall of Jesse James began long before Robert pulled the trigger, starting six years before, when a failed bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota led to the end of the James-Younger Gang on September 7th, 1876.


Next onHistory Daily. September 8th, 1522. Spanish navigator Juan de Elcano returns to Spain, completing the first circumnavigation of the globe.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.