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The Defeat of Jesse James Day

From September 9 to 12, the sounds of hoofbeats echoed on the streets of Northfield during the Defeat of Jesse James Days—an annual celebration of the failed Northfield Bank Raid of 1876.

The Northfield Raid was an infamous robbery attempt on Northfield’s First National Bank. A crew aptly named the James-Younger Gang — I’ll give you two guesses on the last names of those involved — already had a criminal history spanning over a decade by the time they landed in Northfield. 

Reveling in their previously-stolen riches, the James-Younger gang needed to replenish their supplies. Riches, unfortunately for this gang, did not correlate with intelligence, and the plan they concocted was far from fool-proof. In the middle of a typical Minnesotan September day, with the sun hanging high in the sky, the gang trotted in on horseback. 

The plan went awry from the start when the bank clerk, Joseph Lee Heywood, refused to open the safe for the robbers. His would not be the only innocent life lost that day; Nicholas Gustavson, a Swedish town resident, was also killed during the chaos that ensued. Shots were fired, and the gang found themselves running away from that fateful encounter—a journey that would span over 400 miles, ending in the eventual capture of the robbers. 

This particular September day, 145 years later, these same events were reenacted (blanks replacing bullets but horses remaining the getaway vehicle of choice) under a bright sunny sky. Bleachers were reserved for those with a current-year Defeat of Jesse James Days button — a button which I did not have, as it cost the coveted monetary equivalent of a cup of coffee. 

Instead, I found a place on the crowded sidewalks and wedged myself in to catch a glimpse of the horses and had enough of a view of the actors to be able to anticipate most of the gunshots. Did I jump at the first few? Yes. They were rather loud. A nearby fussing toddler shared my startled sentiments, and there were a few shrieks from the kiddos as guns blared. But for the most part, the energy of the crowd was a rapt and respectful one. 

The actual reenactment spanned  only about half an hour, with the physical portrayal preceded by an oral recounting of the events. The actors, dressed in authentic 1876 costumes, (some of which were provided by the Northfield Historical Society), displayed their outfits by walking back and forth down the street during the oral recountment. 

One student in attendance, Julianna Baldo ’25,  remarked that she was “surprised by the quality of the costumes” and left “very impressed.” Baldo recommended the experience, describing it as a “great way to learn about a little slice of American history in a well-put-together way.”

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