Northfield, Minnesota: The defeat of Jesse James and his gang

Jesse James
The Northfield bank museum is located next to the Scriver Building, which houses part of the museum. Bullet hole marks can be seen on the side of the building from a gun fight between robbers and townspeople.

I’ve long had a fascination with Jesse James’ story. Lisa and I have been slowly taking a Jesse James “tour” around the Midwest. The James-Younger Gang ran into not-so “Minnesota Nice” when it attempted to rob the Northfield bank Sept. 7, 1876.

The First National Bank of Northfield is now a museum, which tells the Minnesota bank robbery attempt. We visited at the perfect time, as a couple of high school students were taking their “finals” as tour guides for the James’ history tour. We listened to both kids tell the story of the James-Younger aborted robbery.

The gang spent a couple of weeks performing reconnaissance of the main street and the bank. Then, eight members rode into town. Jesse and a couple of men waited near the town’s bridge a few feet from the bank.

Frank James, as we were told, took two men and entered the bank at about 2 p.m. The bank had three employees working. As was customary for the gang, Frank – and then another – jumped on the counter to announce the robbery. Guns pulled, the robbers sought their loot.

Jesse James
The front counter as it likely appeared Sept. 7, 1876, when The James-Younger Gang attempted to rob the bank.

The employees told Frank the vault was locked and they couldn’t open it. He shouted at the man in front of him to open the vault. He again declined. Knocking the man to the floor, he again demanded the vault be open. This time, he fired a shot into the floor, near the employee. Again, he was told no.

Someone walking along the street noticed the robbery in action and alerted townspeople. Armed and ready for action, the town folk took on members of the gang, two who had rode their horses up and down the street engaging in a fire fight with the locals. This helped distract people from getting to the bank to catch the robbers.

As the trio started to leave the bank, Frank grabbed some money from a drawer. He got away with $26.70. Had he kept looking, he would have discovered $3,000 in a second drawer.

Jesse James
The vault was actually unlocked during the time the robbers were inside. They could have taken about $15,000 if they had checked for themselves.

On his way out, Frank looked at Joseph Lee Heywood – the cashier who refused to open the vault – aimed his pistol and shot him in the head. Heywood died a local hero, saving the bank and town from a major robbery. The vault had $15,000 (today’s equivalent would be $250,000). If taken, the town and bank would likely have been bankrupt. Back then, there wasn’t bank insurance. By the way, the vault was unlocked. If Frank had checked, the gang could have scored its biggest take ever. Instead, they fled for their lives.

Jesse James
Photo of Joseph Lee Heywood and his family. Heywood gave his life to protect the bank and town.

Two gang members were killed during the fire fight. Two others badly wounded.

The gang members eventually separated to split up the posse and improve their chances of getting away. Jesse and Frank succeeded in fleeing back to Missouri. However, for the Younger brothers were captured, while Charlie Pitts was killed during a gun fight two weeks later.

Jesse James
Gun and holster that belong to Charlie Pitts. Pitts was killed during a shootout as a posse attempted to capture him and the Younger Brothers.

Since the town successfully defeated the infamous Jesse James and his gang, Northfield enjoys celebrating the feat. “Defeat of Jesse James Days” is an annual event each September. It includes a reenactment of the bank robbery attempt and fire fight.

Our tour guides did a great job. They provided so much information and we had a fun time learning about the bank robbery and the action. We recommend visiting the bank museum. It’s worth the short drive off Interstate 35. Also, the city is beautiful. We plan to return to check out the architecture and nature opportunities.

The bank museum and more attractions can be found at