Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Honoring those who defeated Jesse James in Northfield September 6, 2022

Posted on the First National Bank in Northfield, now the Northfield Historical Society. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

IF NOT FOR A QUICK-THINKING bank cashier and determined townspeople, things could have ended much differently for the community of Northfield on September 7, 1876, when the James-Younger Gang rode into town intent on robbing the First National Bank.

This is where it all happened. The bank is along Division Street in historic downtown Northfield near Bridge Square. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Markers ring supposed bullet holes on the building exterior. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

The James-Younger Gang re-enactors riding in the Defeat of Jesse James Days parade. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

That brave employee, Joseph Lee Heywood, stood up to the robbers who demanded cash from the bank vault. In the end, he lost his life, shot in the head. Likewise, Swedish immigrant Nicolaus Gustafson, unable to understand the outlaws’ commands to get off the street, was shot in the head and died four days later. Outlaws Clell Miller and William Chadwell, (also known as William Stiles) died, too, in the ensuing chaos as they attempted to escape.

A t-shirt displayed in the front window of the Northfield Historical Society (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Townspeople reacted to the bank raid by throwing skillets and bricks and aiming birdshot at the would-be robbers fleeing on horseback through the narrow streets of this river town. Their efforts, along with those of Heywood, effectively ended a long string of bank and train robberies across the country. The three Younger brothers were shot and captured in a gun battle near Madelia while Frank and Jesse James escaped to Missouri.

The Northfield Historical Society entrance by Bridge Square. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

That’s the summary backstory of “The Most Famous Bank Robbery in American History” as tagged by the Northfield Historical Society based in the bank building and with a permanent exhibit, “The James-Younger Gang Bank Raid.” I toured the exhibit in 2012 and highly-recommend it to learn the full story behind this event.

Posted just outside the NHS entrance. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

A toy horse is part of the front window display at the NHS. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

One of the many events during Defeat of Jesse James Days. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

This historic happening focuses Defeat of Jesse James Days, beginning Wednesday in Northfield. I’ve attended that, too, but mostly stay away given it’s one of the biggest community celebrations in Minnesota, meaning crowds. Honoring Heywood and the brave townspeople of 1876, the September 7-11 event includes a long list of activities like the popular bank raid re-enactments, an Outlaw Run, car and craft shows, an art festival, a rodeo, tractor and truck pulls, a parade and much more. Annually the Joseph Lee Heywood Distinguished Service Award is “given to a Northfield citizen who exemplifies a commitment to public service, which Heywood lived.”

This sign on a building marks the Northfield Cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

In the midst of all this, I’d suggest a visit to a place away from the crowds. The Northfield Cemetery. Here Joseph Lee Heywood and Nicolaus Gustafson lie buried. A few weeks ago I sought out their graves given my interest and my desire to honor these two men who lost their lives during the failed bank raid.

Joseph Lee Heywood‘s gravesite. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)
A portrait of Joseph Lee Heywood is posted in the Northfield Historical Society window. Although I’m not certain, I believe the other images are of his wife and daughter. He remarried after Mattie died. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Heywood’s marker up close. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

The bank cashier’s burial spot is decidedly prominent, his grave marker rising high within a squared off space. Mattie Buffum Heywood, who died in May 1873 at the age of 34, is buried by her 39-year-old husband.

A surprisingly new marker marks the grave of Nicolaus Gustafson. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Finding Nicolaus Gustafson’s grave took effort. Eventually I found it near the cemetery entrance next to the chain link fence along busy Division Street South. I expected an aged tombstone like Heywood’s, not the more modern granite marker with the postscript inscription, A SWEDISH IMMIGRANT SHOT BY ROBBERS. Gutafson, who had just turned 30, arrived in Northfield from neighboring Millersburg on the day of the robbery to sell produce with another Swedish immigrant. He was buried in Northfield because the Swedes did not yet have a church or cemetery. In 1994, the good people of Northfield installed the gravestone gracing his final resting spot. A historic marker at Christdala Church also honors Gustafson.

This marker in front of Christdala Church, rural Millersburg, honors Nicolaus Gustafson. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2020)

In all of this, there is something to be said for the strength of those who are now part of our history. Their actions, whether intentional or not, determined outcomes. For communities. For families. For the future. How many lives were saved because of Joseph Lee Heywood, because of those determined Northfielders, even because of a Swedish immigrant rushing to a street corner?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

8 Responses to “Honoring those who defeated Jesse James in Northfield”

  1. beth Says:

    Wow, I really never knew the whole story. I think it’s great they keep this in the public eye. I work with a teacher whose last name is Gustafson. I’m going to ask if he knows this history.

  2. Valerie Says:

    This is a nice recap of the special DFFD in Northfield. I remember when they changed the name from Jesse James Days to the Defeat of Jesse James Day.

  3. Very interesting insight to that historic event.

  4. Very interesting. We watched a bank robbery reenactment in Mason City for John Dillinger and it was one of those events that was discussed as to whether it was a good thing to reenact or not. But history is history, right? Good and bad.


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