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Chasing Jesse James

Agriculture.com Staff 03/09/2009 @ 9:06am

Many are rightfully wrathful about Bernie Madoff and other such financial evildoers, calling their actions nothing less than outright banditry. That's just a partial explanation.

The problem isn't so much that Madoff and his ilk stole a lot from a lot of people; it's more that they lacked panache. Their modus operandi was flat-out weaselly.

These modern robbers could take a lesson from a group of businessmen who operated in this region in the nineteenth century, bold entrepreneurs whose interests ranged from banking to railroads.

Frank and Jesse James came to Northfield, Minnesota, in 1876 to do some "gun-barrel banking." They opted to spread the risk by taking on partners, including the Younger brothers.

Their business model involved extracting capital from the First National Bank of Northfield. Their plan fell apart when townspeople responded forcefully and downsized two of the would-be financiers.

I spoke to a young man named Jason who works at First National Bank. "We have on display a pearl-handle pistol and a set of spurs retrieved from one of the robbers who was killed," he said. "The town holds a Defeat of Jesse James Days Celebration every September. It's quite a big deal."

Their attempt at rapid capitalization a bust, the entrepreneurs decided to restructure their organization. The Younger brothers, who were both wounded, took off in one direction while the James brothers went another.

Some days later the Younger brothers were spotted in a slough near the town of Madelia. An action committee of local businessmen was quickly assembled, and the Younger brothers' firm was dissolved after a brief but intense takeover bid. Charlie Pitts, an associate of the Youngers, was terminated when he interfaced with high-velocity lead products.

"Two of my great-uncles were part of the posse," says Adeline Yates, a lifelong Madelia resident and history buff. "My dad would often point to the plum thicket on the riverbank where the gun battle happened and say, 'You remember that spot! That's where history took place!'"

I asked Adeline if the posse members were rewarded. "They got $250 each, quite a sum back then. Many decided not to claim the reward because they feared retribution from the Younger clan. A couple of men who took the reward later moved away because of this.

"The Younger brothers were treated quite well when they were taken back to Madelia. They were put up in a hotel and given medical attention. They later said they were surprised, that they assumed they would be summarily hung.

"The local doctor supposedly collected Charlie Pitts's skeleton as a souvenir. But they recently did a DNA test and discovered that the bones aren't Charlie's, so no one knows what became of his remains. I'm sure the town's Younger Brothers Capture Event will go on this September as usual."

The James brothers rode west, toward Murray and Pipestone counties. Gregg Johnson, a local resident, told me, "My grandfather was drafted into the posse that chased the James brothers across Murray county. Grandpa said that their goal wasn't to catch them; they just wanted to make sure the James brothers made it out of the county!"

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