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By Staff | Mar 13, 2009

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 19th century, bold entrepreneurs whose interests ranged from banking to railroads.

Frank and Jesse James came to Northfield, Minn., 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-handled 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 life-long 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!”

Myron Koets, a local businessman, added, “There’s an oral history that the James brothers spent the night at a farmhouse northeast of Pipestone. It seems they burst into the house and demanded food, then slept by the front door with their guns across their chests. It’s speculated that they also stole the farmer’s horses. This would mean that a lowly plow horse made the dramatic jump at Devil’s Gulch!”

Devil’s Gulch is located in the town of Garretson, S.D. “It’s about 20 feet across at the spot where the jump took place,” said Don Schubert, a local historian. “We have photos from back then and you can see that the jumping-off point was plumb level. A horse could have made it easily.”

Why didn’t Jesse simply ride around the gulch?

“That’s often pointed out,” said Don. “Go half a mile north or south and you can readily cross the creek. But the story is that the posse was so close that Jesse took a pot shot at them and was able to wound one of their horses.

“Garretson holds Jesse James Days every June. There’s still a lot of interest in the James legend; we’ve had people come here from every state and 26 foreign countries.

A lady from Doon, Iowa, once told me that she has a photo of her great-grandfather with the James brothers that was taken shortly after they gave the posse the slip. There’s all kinds of stories like that out there!”

The legend of Jesse James lives on and on. But my question is this: a century from now, will small towns be holding Bernie Madoff Day celebrations?

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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