Following Jesse James | Midwest Living

Following Jesse James

At historic sites in Missouri and Minnesota, visitors discover that America's most famous outlaw still arouses plenty of passion.

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The Defeat

I comment on Zerelda's bitterness, meaning it sympathetically. But it must sound like criticism to Rebecca. She's called Jesse a murderer in our conversation, but she's a child of the South (raised in Texas and living in Missouri). She curtly says: "You don't really know if they were good or bad. It was just events. I can't say I would've done things differently from Zerelda. I can't even say I would've done things differently from Jesse and Frank (Jesse's brother and partner in crime)."

I find less empathy in Northfield, Minnesota. The town 45 miles south of the Twin Cities has two colleges, lots of coffee shops and bookstores on its historic main street and a motto of "Cows, Colleges and Contentment."

The James gang was internationally notorious when it attacked Northfield's First National Bank on September 7, 1876. Townspeople grabbed whatever guns they could and tore into the eight gunmen. Only Jesse and Frank made it back to Missouri. Today, 100,000 people celebrate Northfield's Defeat of Jesse James Days each September. Local children gather to hear raid reenactors ask, "Who was the hero of the Northfield raid?" The kids shout, "Northfield!"

Joseph Lee Heywood is the persistent face of that heroism. He was a quiet 39-year-old bank clerk, husband, father and treasurer for both the town and Carleton College. Heywood refused to open the vault, and a robber (probably Frank James) shot him in frustration. The gang took $26.70 of the bank's $15,000, even though the vault actually was unlocked the whole time.

I enter the old bank wondering where Heywood found such resolve. Even after adjusting for the more duty-bound 19th-century mind-set, it's hard to imagine a man dying for other people's money. Then Hayes Scriven, the Northfield Historical Society's executive director, clarifies what was at stake that day.

"There was no FDIC then," Hayes says. "If a bank got robbed, that money was gone. In my opinion, if the bank had been robbed, Northfield would have folded."

We walk toward a case holding a large open book, and Hayes says, "This is our most-viewed artifact." It's a bank ledger with entries dated "Sept. 7-76" in Heywood's graceful writing. The day's entries end with an incomplete line, then resume on September 9. When a new clerk replaced Heywood at the ledger, I wonder, how long did he stare at the red blotches I see splattered across the pages-evidence of a man who died protecting his town's dreams?

It gets me thinking about the bullet hole in St. Jo, which doesn't ring as true as the ledger. The hole is now about 6 inches long and 3 inches high, chipped away by souvenir hunters long ago, before glass covered it. But the hole remains the museum's big draw. A sign outside announces "See the Bullet Hole."

During my visit, I quiz Gary about the authenticity of this hole, which, like Jesse's legacy, has grown so large and ragged over time that it's hard to say what was originally there. Smirking, Gary says a lawyer advised him to cover the hole if he couldn't prove it was real. But in Jesse's case, legend is often more valuable than truth. As Gary told the lawyer: "You'll kill the goose that laid the golden egg! Who are we to say it's not authentic?"

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