Friday, August 13, 2010

The Rapacious Jesse James and the Heroics of Joseph Lee Heywood

Popular legend has depicted Jesse James as a sort of American Robin Hood. The historical truth is a great deal different. Jesse James and his brother Frank got their start fighting with Confederate forces under William Quantrill during the Civil War. Very few people understand exactly how vicious that conflict came to be in the Kansas-Missouri border area. After the war, Jesse and his brother Frank were members of a gang that claimed they were only robbing from Republican business interests. Reviewing that gang’s paper trail makes for very depressing reading. They had an absolutely ghastly record of killing innocent bystanders. Some historians calculate that Jesse James was responsible for killing fifteen men himself before he met his end when a member of his gang, Robert Ford, shot him in the back of the head at point blank range to claim a bounty offered by a railroad company. I consider that to be a important PSH (Public Service Homicide).

The James brother’s most famous bank robbery took place in Northfield, Minnesota on September 7th of 1876. The James’ claimed that they picked out that particular bank because it was owned by two ex-carpetbaggers, Adelbert Ames, who had been Republican governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction, and his father-in-law, Congressman and US Major General, Benjamin Butler. On that fateful day in September, the two James brothers, three Younger brothers, and two other men rode into Coffeeville intent on robbing the First National Bank, which had 12,000 dollars in its vault. Their plan hit a major snag when they ran into the bank’s assistant cashier, Joseph Lee Heywood, who told the gang members that the bank’s vault had a time lock and that he could not open it. In the present day, in our age of FDIC guaranteed deposits, no one could possibly expect a bank employee to show that kind of fortitude. However, in those days money lost in a bank robbery was simply gone. Heywood knew he was protecting the life savings of his entire community. Joseph Heywood proved himself to be a very brave man: despite having his skull broken by a pistol butt, having a knife held to his throat till it drew blood, and then having a bullet fired an inch from his head, Heywood continued to insist that he could not open the vault.

No good deed goes unpunished. Before the James gang left the bank, one of them shot Heywood in the head, killing him. He left a wife and young daughter. By this time, the James gang discovered that they had picked wrong town’s bank to rob. A great many town’s people had grabbed rifles and shotguns and started firing at the outlaws. One was killed on the spot, three other gang members were wounded, and one townsperson was killed. The James brothers tried to make a clean getaway but soon learned that just about everyone in that part of Minnesota was coming after them. The gang split up. A posse surrounded the Younger brothers and one other gang member, Charlie Pitts, and they simply shot Pitts on the spot. The brothers received 25 year prison terms. One of them died in prison; the other two served out their sentences, but one, upon learning that his terms of parole required that he not leave Minnesota, took the easy way out and committed suicide (have you ever tried living in Minnesota?). Cole Younger actually managed to live into old age and in his dotage went on the lecture circuit with Frank James. Two former blood thirsty sociopathic killers became much in demand speakers. Go figure. There are a couple of extraordinary ironies about the James family saga. One of them is that Jesse James had a son, Jesse junior, who was only six years old when his father was killed. He grew up to be a lawyer, changed his name (gee, I wonder why), and moved to California where he died in 1950.

Every September 7th, Northfield, Minnesota celebrates the defeat of the James gang. The final irony is that, as a result of a shoot out that cost five men their lives and that led three men to go to prison to serve long prison sentences, and due to Joseph Heywood’s heroics, the James gang got away with a grand total of $26.70. Five men died for that.