I wish I had more time to read books on history and historical events. There are so many topics I want to learn about. But when the title of your book is Shot All to Hell, you go to the top of the queue. Mark Lee Gardner likes to use “hell” (or h-e-double hockey sticks as Radar used to say) in his book titles. I’ll have to get his To Hell on a Fast Horse which is about Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. Here Gardner tackles the attempted robbery that ended the James-Younger gang.
I saw this book last winter while wandering SkyHarbor airport while CavWife and kids ate breakfast before they went east for a vacation. It intrigued me, so it ended up putting it on my wish list and got it Christmas (thanks, CavWife!). As a result I read it while on my Christmas vacation. I’ve been a bit busy so I’m finally getting to this.
“They excelled at deception- they had to.”
Gardner notes that it presents a peculiar difficulty in writing about outlaws since lying is a way of life for them. Their own testimony in books, newspaper articles and to friends tends to be unreliable. He looked at other eyewitness testimony as well. This may be as close to the truth as we’ll get to the Northfield Raid.
He begins with the Rocky Cut train robbery which has been attributed to the James-Younger gang to introduce us to them. His point? They knew what they were doing, which makes the failed robbery in Northfield all the more interesting.
“Before September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang had never been challenged, denied, or defeated.”
If they had high school yearbooks then, they would not have been voted “Most Likely to be Famous Criminals” or infamous criminals. They appear to have come for generally good homes. The Younger family was wealthy enough to have slaves prior to the Civil War, and they were “well-schooled, church-going Missourians.” The James brothers grew up as the sons of “a cultured, college-educated Baptist minister.” They too owned slaves.
That is important because both families supported the Confederate States in the conflict. This is what changed everything for both families. Both families suffered at the hands of Kansas jayhawkers. The sons would meet as part of the Quantrill Raiders where they became familiar with bloodshed and utilizing guerrilla tactics. The war hardened them, and the South’s defeat set the stage for their life of crime which they seemed to view as vigilante justice.
“Circumstances sometimes make people what they are,” Bob once said. “If it had not been for the war, I might have been something, but as it is, I am what I am.”
The book is quite entertaining. I often pondered what it would be like to put together as a movie. As with the real story there are explosive bursts of excitement including the failed robbery and shootout, and then the gunfight that resulted in the capture of the Younger portion of the gang.
Woven into the story is the story of the man Jesse hoped to kill in Minnesota- attorney Sam Hardwicke. Hardwicke was instrumental in a Pinkerton raid that intended to apprehend the James’ boys but resulted in the death of young Archie. This is part of what drove the gang to MN in the first place.
The story brings in the advances in safes that made life difficult for the erstwhile robbers. Gardner also delves into the conflicts and arrogance of the men leading the search for the gang. He also notes the conflicts within the gang, particularly Jesse and Cole Younger’s struggle for power.
It is a story of violence, near misses, second chances and imprisonment. It is a fascinating story, and Gardner tells it, usually, in a very interesting manner. The details of their escape makes you wonder if they wished they’d just been captured in the first place. It was, at times, that unpleasant.
If you like history, and tales of the old west, this is the book for you. Circumstances shape and mold us, opening us up to particular temptations. Sometimes they help us make excuses for ourselves. You will see in them your own tendency to justify your own indiscretions. Lastly you see that sin has a bitter price, and you will pay it eventually.