Monday, October 14, 2013

"Shot All to Hell" by Mark Lee Gardner (2013)

Hang on to your hats for this wild and crazy, true ride back into the days of the James-Younger gang as they stage their last bank robbery in Northfield, Missouri in 1876. Most people assume that the James- Younger gang were all killed sometime in the late 1800”s, as the days of the truly Wild West came to a close. I know I did. But the truth is much more interesting. And this book is loaded with it.

The Northfield Raid; in which the James-Younger gang robbed the First National Bank  on September 7, 1876; serves as the starting point for this well written and compelling saga of their last robbery, and subsequent capture. And what a saga it is, as the two bands of brothers take off on a breakneck escape from a robbery where everything went wrong, only to find themselves in the same predicament while trying to escape.

Nothing goes as planned as the gang gallops off, wounded and confused. The whole town heard the commotion of the robbery and quickly armed themselves from the town’s 2 hardware stores, posing a deadly obstacle to what should have been a clean getaway.

With the whole county pursuing the wounded outlaws, it is only a matter of a few days before the gang elects to split up, with Younger Brothers moving more slowly due to the extent f their injuries. The James Brothers began their long ride toward captivity, traveling hundreds of miles from where they left the Youngers.

When the Youngers are captured, they refuse to acknowledge that it was the James Brothers with them in Northfield. But that is little matter to the posses who are chasing them. The reward money has really piled up, and coupled with the past outrages by the James Brothers, it is further incentive to take them dead or alive.

As the trial of the Younger Brothers gets underway, the James Brothers have gone into hiding as “farmers”. They are also big spenders, owning race horses and were always in need of more money. Their brief retirement after the Northfield Raid lasted only about 5 years before Jesse got the urge to begin robbing trains agai. But this time he did not have the aid of the Youngers, or even his brother Frank; all of whom had seen service as Confederates in the bloody border wars with Quantrill’s raiders.

Unlike those former Confederates, the new gang which Jesse assembled felt no allegiance to anyone beyond the amount of the next score. By 1882 Frank had rejoined his brother and the two fell in with the Ford Brothers. The rest, as they say, is history.

Cole Younger and Frank James both lived to be old men; Cole being paroled from prison sometime in the late 1890’s, and Frank James gaining an acquittal around the same time. This is a fascinating and well written account of the most infamous gang of robbers to come out of the old West.

With their mixture of good manners, coupled with a penchant for violence when necessary, the two sets of brothers managed to evoke a sort of sympathy from the general public. As I read this book I could not help but think that if these boys were alive today they would have a Facebook page with about 10 million “friends.” 

Don't be surprised if you find yourself shaking off the dust of the trail as; with a keen eye to history and detail; the author has penned a fascinating and lively book. It is well worth the time it takes to read.

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