The Kansas City Times (Kansas City, Missouri) issue of June 20, 1897 carried the headline, “The Younger Brothers May Be Pardoned” and recounted events leading up to their incarceration. A Minnesota governor was said to be considering a pardon of Jim and Cole Younger for time served. Some twenty-one years earlier, the James – Younger Gang had attempted to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota on September 7, 1876. The Youngers (Jim, Cole and Bob) and their associates, Frank and Jesse James, along with four other individuals (Bill Stiles, Clell Miller, Charlie Pitts and Bill Chadwell (a/k/a Stiles)) had planned to meet to attempt to rob the bank. They rode in and began the bank robbery with Jesse, Cole, and Pitts going inside the building and the other five standing guard outside. The outlaws were discovered and citizens began to fire on them. Cole was shot in the hip, Bob was shot in the elbow and Jim took a round to the jaw. Miller and Chadwell/Stiles were killed outright along with one civilian, believed to have been shot by Cole, and one employee of the bank. Pitts, Frank and Jesse were also wounded. A posse caught up with the Youngers, the James and Pitts. Frank and Jesse escaped, the Youngers were captured and Pitts was killed. The Youngers pled guilty to the bank robbery attempt in order to avoid being executed.
The James brothers are now (as they were then) likely better known than the Youngers. The two groups of brothers are rumored to be cousins, but if there is a family connection between the Youngers and the James, it may be distant. Frank and Jesse’s mother’s maiden name was Cole, but Cole Younger’s full name was Thomas Coleman Younger, with the name Cole being a nickname.
The Younger brothers came of age in Missouri. Their father was Henry Washington Younger who was a lawyer and stock man. Missouri was a border state between the North and the South in the Civil War. Missouri initially hesitated to align itself with either the North or the South early on and became something of a battleground for irregular troops of both sides. The Younger family farm was raided a number of times with Union irregulars known as “jayhawkers” and on one occasion in the summer of 1862, Henry was killed by them. Cole was seventeen at the time and is said to have taken revenge on the particular outfit he believed to be responsible. However, we have read at least one comment that the killing of Henry Younger could have been motivated by jayhawker animosity toward Younger family members who had joined the Confederate army. Cole and at least one brother in law (John Jarrett or Jarrette, the husband of sister Mary Josephine Younger) went on to join Quantrill’s Raiders, an irregular Confederate organization known as “bushwhackers” and remained with them until William Clarke Quantrill died in battle in 1865. After that, Cole transferred to a regular Confederate army outfit and Jim Younger is said to have joined the same group when he turned fourteen. After the end of the Civil War, the brothers returned to Missouri to find that the family had lost everything.
As early as 1866, Cole and some of the brothers are believed to have robbed the nearby Clay County Savings Association and several more banks shortly after that. Frank and Jesse James joined them around 1867. Even if they were not related, they knew each other from having served with the Quantrill unit. Some accounts skip at this point to the early 1870s and the crimes that the James, the Youngers and their various associates committed, but in a 1909 newspaper account, Cole was interviewed and said that his mother, Bursheba, along with several siblings moved to Scyene in Dallas County, Texas in 1868. Cole said that Jim, Bob and he lived peaceably there. In 1870 and 1871, Bob recounted, Jim served as a deputy sheriff, Jim and Bob sang in a local church choir, and Bob got married to a local girl. In some accounts, Cole was romantically linked to Belle Starr, but we can find no connection between the two other than that they were acquainted. Another possible connection is that Belle’s brother, Bud Shirley, was also a member of Quantrill’s Raiders and was killed in Missouri in a Civil War battle.
In the early 1870s, the Kansas City Fair was robbed and the Younger brothers were named as suspects, but Cole maintained that none of them had any connection to this crime. Around that same time, the younger brother John had been “forced into a quarrel” with a local man, according to Cole, and killed him. Cole had also gotten into a duel in Louisiana in which a man was shot. Most of the brothers including Cole returned to Missouri to find that the economic climate was no better than when they had left for Texas. Cole also cited reconstruction laws that prevented former Confederate soldiers and sympathizers from holding professions, preaching the gospel or doing many other things. Those committing violations were subjected to fines and imprisonment. Cole gave this as the justification for their return to bank robbery. For a while they were successful. We will not list here the institutions that they are said to have robbed during this period, but there were a number of them.
John Younger was the first to die. In March, 1874, he and at least one other brother were eating at a house near Roscoe, Missouri that they sometimes stopped at when they were surprised by Pinkerton detectives. They each drew their guns, a short gun fight ensued and John was shot in the chest by one of the detectives. John fell to the ground and is believed to have died there of his wounds.
After their incarceration, Bob contracted tuberculosis while still in prison in Stillwater, Minnesota and succumbed to the disease in 1889. Jim committed suicide in 1902, shortly after his parole in 1901.
Cole survived the longest. In prison there were at least two situations that seemed to illustrate that his life had taken a turn. He and his brothers were said to have been model prisoners. Cole, Bob and Jim were involved in the rescue of female prisoners in January, 1884 when a portion of the prison caught fire. Cole also came under the influence of a night guard named Bernard Casey, who was of the Catholic faith. With the friendship and counseling of Casey, Cole returned to the faith of his youth and to deal with anger and other issues. Casey went on to become a Catholic priest, celebrated for his long ministry. Cole was pardoned at age fifty-nine and lived a peaceable life thereafter. He publicly spoke about the evils of crime and liquor. Cole died of natural causes at age seventy-two.
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