Friday, December 6, 2013

Shot All to Hell

by Mark Lee Gardner
William Morrow     2013
309 pages     Nonfiction

Shot all to Hell by Mark Lee Gardner is about the robbery of the Northfield, Minnesota bank by the Jesse James and the Cole Younger gangs in 1876. This is not my usual book choice, but I had a personal reason for reading it. Our teenaged great grandmother was there on that day, and her story has been part of our family lore for all these generations.

My son called me all excited one day. "Mom," he said. "They're talking about the Northfield robbery on the radio." Sure enough. There was a new book about the robbery and the author was on NPR. Now, you must know that our whole family had arrived in Northfield from all over the country just prior to the radio report to bury our mother and grandmother. We had walked around downtown Northfield and looked at the spot where Great Grandmother Alice Finney had hidden during the robbery. We had driven out to Stanton, the tiny village where our family lived, and we had clocked the distance from where Alice and a friend first saw the bank robbers until she got into Northfield and the hardware store where the owner hid them from the robbers and the gunfire. Then, my sister and I did some research, collaborated the family lore with the actual history, and wrote up the story as one of three stories in a picture book that was illustrated by my son. 

As you can imagine, I read Shot All to Hell with a great interest. There is a lot that is mythological about Jesse and Frank James, and Cole, Bob, and Jim Younger. Several movies have been made and many books written. Gardner has used the 1876 Northfield Minnesota attempted bank robbery as the centerpiece of the history of the gang. Prior to reading the book, I didn't know how the men got to be outlaws. During the Civil War, there were bands of mercenaries or bushwhackers, as they were called, that struck fear in the hearts of the people who lived along the Missouri/Kansas border. There were murders, assassinations and massacres during the war. It was all about slavery, of course. Jesse James and his brother as well as the Youngers were part of the group of men who followed General Quantrill in those brutal raids. Over the years, Jesse and Frank James became folk heroes of sorts and their adventurous lives were followed closely by the press. They continued robbing trains and banks, sometimes with Cole Younger and his brothers, all the while living fairly ordinary lives as farm owners and settled citizens in Missouri.

Gardner tells particularly of the fateful day that they decided to rob the bank in Northfield, Minnesota. It was harvest time and this was a prosperous bank. The men teamed up with the Younger brothers and a few other men, and tried to rob the bank just like they had robbed other banks and trains. What they didn't know was that this was a little town that was going to fight back. A fierce battle ensued on the streets of Northfield as well as in the bank. A couple of the outlaws and a couple of townspeople were killed as well as the bank's clerk. Our great grandmother saw the whole thing peeking out the second-floor window of the hardware store next door.

Most of the robbers escaped but they were followed by posses of several hundred men who combed southern Minnesota in search of them. This part of the history is really the most interesting. After several days the Youngers were captured and put in jail in southern Minnesota. Jesse and Frank made it all the way back to Missouri. Amazingly, after Frank was captured, he was acquitted in a trial--his jurors not wanting to convict someone they considered to be a Civil War hero. He lived to be an old man. Jesse was killed by a spiteful gang member seeking a reward. The Northfield raid was the beginning of the end of their careers.

As you can imagine, the lore of Jesse James has remained prominent in the history of the little town of Northfield. Every year the raid is reenacted as a part of a huge community festival. The town is very proud of their part in history. 

Gardner tells a compelling story.
It reads like a great adventure novel, with the outlaws hiding by day, riding by night, stealing horses, begging food, torn, dirty, and bedraggled. There were sightings everywhere as the men made their way across the bottom of Minnesota into South Dakota, Iowa and then into the safer territory of Missouri. The adventure is a real page turner, and the odd thing is, the reader cheers on the outlaws. You want them to get away.

Reading the book makes my great grandmother's story all the more intriguing. Most of her newspaper obituary in the1940s told of her grand adventure seeing Jesse James rob the Northfield Minnesota bank. 

Shot All to Hell is out in hardback right now but the paperback comes out in June. it is an Indie Next List Selection. A reviewer called it a meticulously researched history...the kind of compelling narrative that all historians should emulate.

 Mark Lee Gardner's website:

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