Killed Long Ago, These Outlaws Refuse to Die

The Wall Street Journal

September 6, 2001 - By Karin Winegar

Spurs jingling, duster billowing and a desperado gleam in his eye, Chip DeMann swings back in the saddle this week for his 32d year of robbery during the 125th anniversary of the Northfield, Minn. bank raid. The James-Younger gang's foiled September 7, 1876 bank robbery took seven minutes, triggered the largest manhunt in US history up to that time and launched an enduring national industry in the enjoyment and study of outlawry. The attempt is celebrated as The Defeat of Jesse James Days, a September afternoon when Jesse James, Cole Younger and their larcenous pals got their comeuppance from a bunch of Minnesota farmers and storekeepers.

Northfield's welcome sign offers "cows, colleges and contentment," but the raiders' conspiracy put this small town on the national map. Nothing since, not its two colleges (Carleton and St. Olaf) nor the birth here of economist Thorstein Veblen, has captured quite so much attention. As local farm woman Ida Bennett Porter said presciently a few years after the raid, "Nothing very exciting happened after that in Northfield." Nothing, that is, until Mr. DeMann, as Chairman of Raider Reenactments and official leader of the James-Younger gang, robs the bank six times each September to the delight of a crowd that reaches 200,000 -- 80 times the entire population of Northfield in 1876.

On Defeat weekend, the aroma of gunpowder mingles with the fragrance of toasted grain: Across the Cannon River from the bank, an 1869 building houses part of the Malt-O-Meal cereal company. The gang chose the Northfield bank in part for the milling fortunes in its bank vault, and the mill still produces tons of cereal annually. "It would be too easy to make the Defeat weekend a three day drunk," said Mr. DeMann, a Malt-O-Meal warehouse manager. "This is a time to recognize the history and the heroism of the local people. In 32 years as head bandito, I've tried to steer them toward historic accuracy. There's an entire generation now who realize the import of this in U.S. history."

Killed by a shot in the back in St. Joseph, Mo., at age 34, just six years after the raid, Jesse James is one of those iconic American rogues who has refused to die: his story has been told to date in a dozen documentaries, some 90 books, countless dime novels and comic books (in France and Germany as well as the U.S. ), and in TV specials ranging from Leonard Nimoy's "In Search Of" to this August's Warner Bros. release, "American Outlaws."

Jesse James' great grandson, retired Orange County, Calif., Judge James R. Ross, released his own book "I, Jesse James" in 1989. "It's surprising people don't realize he was a southern hero," said Ross, who was raised by his grandfather, Jesse's son, who graduated summa cum laude from the Kansas City School of Law. "I call my great-grandfather notorious instead of famous or infamous. I feel a dichotomy about him: you have to know what happened in the Civil War and then make your own decision about him, which is what my grandfather told me."

According to Mr. Ross, in 1937, when Darryl F. Zanuck was seeking a story to compete with "Gone with the Wind," he persuaded Mr. Ross's mother to sign a contract giving him the rights to the Jesse James story she had written with Billy Judson, a former gang member, for $10,000. "He brought her over and had her picture taken with Tyrone Power and really snowed her," said Mr. Ross. " This was the depths of the Depression, and she was supporting four people on $95 a month. She never heard from him after that." Mr. Ross, then 13, and his mother attended the premier of that 1939 movie starring Power. Afterwards, she was asked how true the movie was, said Mr. Ross. "She said, 'Well there were two men named Jesse and Frank James and they did ride horses.'"

The first Northfield raid re-enactment took place in 1948 as part of a fall harvest festival; it became a regular event in 1970. Now the rugby tournament, firemen's bingo games, rodeo, kiddie parade, art show and three dozen other sideshow events are subsumed to the re-enactment itself.

It takes place on Division Street where the bullet holes from the actual raid (some considerately circled in black marker) can be seen in the original limestone two-storey bank building. About 300 re-enactors have participated over the years, playing Pinkertons, passers-by, and Joseph Heywood, the bank teller who was shot and killed when he refused to open the safe. The DeMann clan supplies five of the eight robber-re-enactors: in addition to Chip, his brothers Jerry, Doug and Chris and his father Chuck (now 76) ride in raids. When brother Chris didn't show during the filming of "In Search Of" (it was prom night), Chip's wife, Jane Moline, became the first and only woman to ride in a re-enactment. Chip and Jane's two sons, Trip, 14, and Gus, 11, who ride in regional parades in their own scaled down hats, guns and dusters, seem likely to carry on the family tradition of filling outlaw boots.

Gunfire, slick pavement, spooked horses and unpredictable props have presented challenges that the original band never faced. Prior to the restoration of the bank in the late 1970's, when such anachronisms were removed, two parking meters and a plank served as a hitching rail for the gang's horses. When the guns went off, so did the horses, galloping riderless down Division Street with the makeshift hitching rail bouncing after them and the gang members in pursuit on foot.

There have been split trousers and a broken nose. One rider accidentally wrenched his horse over on top of himself. In one particularly action-filled afternoon performance, Doug DeMann shot himself in the leg. And once, as re-enactor Wayne Eddy playing robber Bill Stiles lay "dead" in the street, his pistol misfired, setting off his entire cartridge belt, his pants and his underwear. He stoically accepted the acclaim from the crowd, who assumed this was a stunt, then mounted his horse in charred shock.

At the following year's re-enactment, Mr. Eddy found two fire extinguishers strapped to his saddle.

"There is just shooting, shooting, shooting," said Jane Moline, who serves as raid choreographer. "So they don't run out of ammo, some of the men pack up to six guns. They are riding horses up and down a slippery street. They are a little wired. And these are real guns: although they are blank cartridges, if you are shot right, you'll be dead."

The popularity of the eight riders in dusters has spread far beyond Northfield: Chip DeMann, his friends and kin make up to 56 appearances a year from the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas to the Black Hills Stock Show in Rapid City, hauling their horses, costumes and firearms. Originally they rode in modern Levi's jeans, meat cutters' coats and 1920's cowboy boots. But today they appear on period-correct McClellan saddles, in custom made dusters, weapons, vests, pants and shirts appropriate to the post-Civil War south.

On Oct. 6, the gang will appear in San Angelo, Texas as guests of the National James-Younger Gang Association convention, a group of 160 amateur and professional historians, to put flesh on the many myths about the gang. The convention includes a barbeque on land believed to be part of the Peace Ranch where Jesse and Frank hid between bouts with the law. Thurston James of Sherman Oaks, Calif., is editor and publisher of The James-Younger Gang Journal that goes to the members of the Association, which was founded in 1993. He has been collecting books about Jesse for 20 years or more, since he discovered he is a sixth cousin three times removed on his father's side.

This fall also marks the publication of the definitive history of the raid, "Faithful Unto Death, the James-Younger Raid on the First National Bank" by historian and James-Younger gang buff Jack Koblas of Burnsville, Minn. The title refers not just to Heywood, who gave up his life to defend the bank, "But the Youngers never squealed on the Jameses," said Chip DeMann. "They took secrets to their graves."

Writers began shaping the James-Younger gang story since the year of the raid itself, when "the Guerillas of the West or The Life, Character and Daring Exploits of the Younger Brothers" was published. It was followed by 15 more books before the turn of the century including "Jesse James, My Father" by Jesse James, Jr. in 1899. Although dozens of witnesses saw the original event, time, pride and hearsay have resulted in "Rashomon"-like disputes about what happened, when and why. The last surviving bank robber of the gang, Cole Younger, died in 1916, and his stories sometimes contradicted one another.

The gang -- Jesse and Frank James, Cole, Bob and Jim Younger, Charlie Pitts, Clell Miller and Bill Stiles -- included several former Confederate soldiers; they chose the Northfield Bank because they believed money stolen from Confederates was deposited there by Adelbert Ames, a local mill owner and former governor of Mississippi and by his father-in-law, another former Union General, Benjamin Butler. Frank and Jesse James and the Younger brothers, Cole, Jim and Bob, along with some less nobly motivated accomplices, rode from Missouri to Minnesota to capture and return it to the suffering South.

Chip DeMann first rode in the re-enactment in 1970 at age 16, the year he was also mayor of Dundas (pop. 462), the youngest mayor in the U.S. Dundas is three miles from Northfield on the Cannon River, where the gang washed their wounds on their unsuccessful escape flight south west. They were captured in a slough near Madelia, Minn., two weeks later.

Mr. DeMann claims he's become fat (he's lean), old (he's 47) and bald (you'd never notice under his derby) portraying a man who will be forever young and, in the American imagination, dashing. (Even President Teddy Roosevelt once referred to Jesse James as "America's Robin Hood.") His affably chatty style makes him a winning ambassador for Northfield and for the raid. He will be at his best this weekend, as the gang takes on the town again. "But in the end," he says, "being bad guys, we always have to lose."