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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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