Marley Brant's Introduction to The Story of Cole Younger
Return to The Story of Cole Younger.
by Marley Brant
Cole Younger. The name itself invokes a wide variety of vivid images: rugged, ruddy rough rider soldiering in the service of the diabolical William Clarke Quantrill; misunderstood, repentant old man; and, of course, fearless train and bank robber. Words such as vengeful, honorable, intelligent, foolish, egotistical and jovial also seem attached to the man.
In my twenty-plus years of researching and studying this unique individual I have been continuously enchanted with the many sides of this sometimes imperious, other times acquiescent frontier personality. I have found Cole to exhibit a multitude of dispositions, each driven by the ultimate objective at hand. This was a strong-willed man who wanted what he wanted when he wanted it and was used to employing whatever means at his disposal to reach his goal. He was at times forceful, driven and antagonistic. Yet it was easily within his power to turn on the charm and impel even his strongest enemies to view him as humble, powerless and penitent. Cole Younger was able to enact chameleon-like changes to present himself in whatever light best suited his needs and desires. In the course of his tempestuous youth, he had learned all the tricks and paid more than a premium price to arrive at a place where he felt he would ultimately experience his lifetime finale. Cole Younger, like his adversary Jesse James, never would have felt it proper to settle for anything less than what he felt he deserved: legendary status.
Exactly who was Thomas Coleman Younger, the notorious outlaw? Born as heirs to two prominent Southern families, the fourteen children of Henry and Bursheba fared well for the first twenty-two years of the couple’s marriage. The family owned at least two farms and were considered wealthy and socially prominent. That would change with the onset of the Kansas-Missouri Border War and later the War Between the States. Henry Younger’s dry goods store would be robbed continuously by Kansas Redlegs and Jayhawkers and adored son Richard would die at the age of twenty-one of an unrelated illness. It is here that we see, in retrospect, the acute development of the character of young Cole Younger.
Having incessantly been forced, in his own mind at least, into the background due to the achievements—college, business acumen and enterprise—of his eldest brother, Cole was determined to prove to his family that he was every bit as capable and promising as brother Richard. He developed the disposition of a happy, educated, devil-may-care arbiter of good taste and good humor. The girls adored him and the young men of the area always included him in their adventures as Cole could be counted on to provide a good time, regardless of the event. Only a handful of people were aware of Cole’s darker side—that of a rebellious and obstinate bully. Yet that was the brother that Cole’s younger siblings, Jim, John and Bob, grew to know and resent. Cole would eventually prove his adequacy and promise at all costs. His brothers would be ultimately enveloped in their older brother’s need to make a grandiose statement of his worth.
With the full outbreak of the Civil War, Cole realized that he had been born to be a soldier. Not just any soldier but one who, through his superior intellect and insights, would be noticed and glorified. Enlisting with the rugged and ruthless Missouri guerrillas at the age of seventeen, Cole quickly learned all he needed to know to be a successful disciple of William Clarke Quantrill. His combat techniques were quickly honed and his cunning approach to difficult strategic situations were admired by those in charge. Cole rapidly rose to the position of “captain” and would make a name for himself at the Battle of Lone Jack as a compassionate and fair adversary. Before long Cole Younger had earned the reputation he yearned for and desired. His name was placed near the top of the guerrilla hierarchy, known by all who favored the movement and, with caution and disdain, by those who didn’t. Cole became what he always had hoped he would become: a local hero.
After the war, with the Confederacy in ruins, Cole found that although he continued to be well-respected by those who supported the Lost Cause, he had been labeled an outlaw by the Union government. Unable to return to the society from which he came, Cole was unable to enjoy the reputation he had earned. Cole Younger didn’t like that turn of events one bit. Nor did he like the members of the conquering society who robbed him of both his freedom and his moment of glory. Cole had become close friends to Frank James during the war and when Frank suggested that Cole join Frank and his brother Jesse in an event guaranteed to restore their hard-earned reputations as men of action, while at the same time rewarding them with vast sums of money, Cole was quick to enlist in yet another organization: the James-Younger gang. After his first robbery, there was no turning back for Cole Younger.
Bearing in mind that Cole found his glory in the days in which he was a soldier and seeker of justice, it is not difficult to imagine that Cole would color his activities in this light for the rest of his days. With the biased righteousness of the defeated and humiliated, Cole would continually seek retribution for the wrongs committed against him. No matter the victory or defeat, Cole was, in his own mind at least, a victim of an unjust society. There was little that he could or would do which would not be justified in his opinion. And such would be his approach when Cole Younger set out to “set the record straight” and write, in his own words, his life’s story.
Whether Cole Younger was a master storyteller or simply in denial about most of the illegal activities in which he participated can be debated. I suppose there are even those, over one hundred years after the outlaw’s Waterloo, who would believe his account that Northfield was the only robbery in which he participated. Since the man was never tried for a crime other than that Minnesota caper, we will never know the absolute truth about how many or in which robberies he may have been present. Cole denied living a life outside of the law from the onset of the criminal career of which we biographers believe he was indeed quite guilty. From the first time that he may have been suspected of having been involved in a robbery, that of the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri on February 13, 1866, Cole told some mighty tall tales.
By 1903, Cole Younger had served twenty-five years in the Stillwater Penitentiary paying his debt to society for his participation in the Northfield affair. The list of crimes of which he was suspected of committing, and of which he denied having had anything to do, was as long as his arm. With the editorial aid of Cole’s late-life good friend and future Jackson County Marshall Harvey C. (Harry) Hoffman, and with financial aid from members of Cole’s family and other friends, Cole decided to compose the story of his life. At least it would be the story of his life as Cole would have his readers believe. The Story of Cole Younger (by Himself) would be subtitled Being an autobiography of the Missouri Guerrilla Captain and Outlaw, his capture and Prison Life, and the only authentic account of the Northfield raid ever published. Whew. In his introduction Cole claims that he will use this manuscript to offset the lies told about he and his brothers by “sensationalists” with the truth. He concludes with the statement “I wish to say that from cover to cover there is not a statement which could not be verified.” It promised to be quite a book. Unfortunately, in over two decades of intense study of Cole Younger, the James brothers and their families, there is little that I could find to actually authenticate much of what was written to support Cole’s conspicuously stated objective to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Cole, like his partner-in-crime Jesse James, would use the power of the printed word to deny his wrongdoing and elevate himself into a misunderstood, if not honorable, war hero and lover of children, small animals, truth, justice and the American way.
Cole begins his book by discussing in detail the prestigious family from whence he came. This is probably the most truthful chapter of his account although others of his extended family tree may have been horrified to find their ancestry linked to his in so public a manner. Also of note is that much of Cole’s reminisce of his wartime activity, while playing up his participation and seeking quiet glory for his multitudinous acts of chivalry, reads like very creative fiction. The stories in Cole’s account of the War likely did occur, but how accurate they might be and to what degree he was involved in major decision making remains elusive to documentation. The fact that Cole as a guerrilla soldier and his family, as unwilling participants in the stressful, sometimes horrific, life of Confederate civilians, led lives of uncertainty, anxiety and turmoil cannot be dismissed. The war in Missouri was bitter and brutal, regardless of which side any given resident favored. Cole’s family suffered greatly, as did their other Confederate neighbors. Whether Cole Younger was justified in seeking retribution and a certain protection for his family through his alliance with the guerrilla forces of William Quantrill is arguable, but Cole did seem sincere in his belief that such association was the only path that a young man in his times and circumstances could take. Special times create special circumstances and perhaps it was appropriate for Cole to seek whatever means he could to defend and provide at least some degree of succor for his mother and younger siblings. As to the guerrilla massacre at Lawrence, Kansas Younger’s report is probably fairly accurate, from a guerrilla’s point of view. It is also likely that, as he states, Cole did “save some lives.” He was known not to be brutal in battle. It has been documented elsewhere that he was considered by both his comrades and his enemy as a fair and reasonable soldier, often times sparing the lives of his enemies or seeing to it that they were treated appropriately by others. As proven later, throughout his outlaw career, Cole Younger was not a savage man. He often went out of his way to avoid fatal physical confrontations and used his gun against others only as a last resort.
Yet by the time that Cole arrives at the chapters of his book that involve his outlaw career, his capricious turn with a phrase rapidly metamorphoses into fantasy. If we are to believe Cole, with the exception of Northfield, he was never involved in a robbery and knew the James brothers primarily through his wartime associations. It is with his description of his first meeting with Jesse James that our suspicions rise to the immediate impression that all is not truthful in Cole’s manuscript. Cole claims to have met Jesse James at a post-war meeting of former guerrillas who had participated in the Lawrence raid and who had responded to an attorney claiming he would defend their actions in a court of law. Such a meeting has not been documented. Even if it had taken place, since Jesse James did not participate in the guerrilla actions at Lawrence and was, in fact, still recovering from a near-fatal wartime wound, it is extremely unlikely that Jesse attended such a gathering. It is more likely that Cole met Jesse through his close friend Frank James after the two James brothers had made plans to rob the Clay County Savings Association and Frank sought to include Cole Younger.
Cole claims to have been in St. Clair County, Missouri at the time of the robbery at Russellville, Kentucky. He would claim to be at family and friends’ homes in this area almost every time he was suspected of a robbery. There is some truth to his being in the St. Clair area often but it is most likely that he was “in the area” either before or after the robberies, which he most likely committed, in order to line up alibis and establish his being there “about that time.” He does claim to have been in Louisiana during the Savannah and Richmond robberies and that, at least, would be true. This alibi would give credence to the others, in Cole’s mind, as he probably did not participate in those robberies and his alibi for those robberies was valid. Cole implies that if one alibi is authentic then his word should be taken that all of his alibis are true. Cole also provides alibis for his brothers throughout the book for various robberies, no doubt implying again that if the alibis he supplied were proven to be correct he would then, in turn, be let off the hook. Jim Younger would likely not be happy with Cole’s approach as far as he was concerned, as it is questionable whether Jim participated in any robbery other than Northfield. John, on the other hand, actually was in California at the time specified by Cole in regard to the Corydon robbery as he had yet to join the James-Younger gang. The same holds true for Bob, who no doubt was in Dallas living with his family as a sixteen-year-old boy at the time of that same robbery. Bob wouldn’t join the gang for several more years.
As close as Cole claimed to be to his family, he was not above using them to elevate his status or direct blame away from himself. Poor brother Bob would later take the brunt of the blame for the Northfield fiasco at the hands of Cole. Bob would also serve as a vehicle to demonstrate both Cole’s generosity and fabled name when Cole wrote that he paid for Bob’s entry into William and Mary College. Cole states that Bob left the college because he could not escape Cole’s infamy. No records have been located that Bob ever attended the college, which would have been an impressive feat. Because of the war Bob was able only to attend school for his first years of eligibility. As for Cole’s name being so widely known at the time, this too seems to be a figment of Cole’s imagination. It would be some years before Cole would achieve the national fame he sought. Cole was also the first to mention brother John as being in anyway connected with the robberies when he mentioned him in an alibi for the Kansas City Fair robbery. At that time, the public was not even aware that John Younger existed.
Because of the blatant lies that Cole tells in his autobiography, we are hard pressed to know when he is telling the truth. In the case of his liaison with Belle Starr, however, he may well be truthful. There is little doubt that the young Myra Shirley had a massive crush on the guerrilla captain but that is probably as far as it went. The subject of the father of Belle’s daughter, who would later be called Pearl Younger, is controversial. It is my contention after years of analysis, that Cole was not the father of Pearl and that what he states in his autobiography is true.
All and all, Cole’s stories about his post-war activities must be viewed with more than a grain of salt. He has interwoven a handful of true adventures into his fictitious tales of being wrongly accused by law enforcement and the public of robberies, he claims, with which he had nothing to do. These stories portray Cole as a harassed cattle driver whose only purpose in life was to protect his family and live as best a life he could after having been labeled an outlaw. Little thought has been given as to the way that his protests of innocence have given his critics all the more reason to believe that his family members were more intimately involved in his life of crime.
Cole continues his fictional account with great emphasis on the robbery at Northfield. Again, interspersed with the truth of the gang’s travels in Minnesota prior to the robbery, Cole takes great literary license to tell a tale of misadventure, misjudgment and mismanagement. Cole begins by telling us because of all of the robberies that “were laid at our doors” he and his brothers decided to execute their first and only robbery so they could escape their persecutors once and for all and relocate to Mexico where they would no longer be unjustly accused of crimes they did not commit. Throughout his narrative of the Northfield fiasco Cole refers to two accomplices as Woods and Howard. He adamantly refuses to name Frank and Jesse James as his partners in crime. It is interesting that in his account, Frank and Jesse are given aliases so close to the names that the two used while posing as upright citizens in Tennessee. Jesse was known by the name of Tom Howard and Frank as Ben Woodson. While Cole would state emphatically both here and in future accounts that Frank and Jesse had nothing to do with the crime, it seems he could not find it within himself to be creative enough to assign the James brothers names far different from those which they used, and by which they would be later identified as having used, in the Nashville area. Perhaps Cole subconsciously, or perhaps pointedly, found it difficult to maintain the oath of silence upon which he and the James brothers had agreed.
Cole relates the pre-robbery days with a rare bit of truthfulness, telling of the gang’s whereabouts and activities. No fool he, Cole had to know that these stories could and would be substantiated by eye witnesses. He sets us up correctly for the immediate event of the robbery but the story as to consequence and blame deteriorates into one which this author, at least, has a great deal of difficulty believing. Younger tells us that his brother Bob, one who Cole himself had never known before to drink, joined Howard and Pitts in consuming a quart of whiskey. This scenario seems quite unlikely. Even if the inexperienced young Bob were to have gotten drunk for the first time immediately before committing a complicated robbery in an unknown area with unknown possibilities, there are other factors at play which would make this dubious. Through historical examination, we have concluded that it was not Charlie Pitts, but rather Frank James who was the third outlaw inside the bank during the robbery. While Jesse James was known to imbibe in the occasional glass of wine or social drink, it is extremely unlikely that Frank James, an experienced guerrilla leader and robber, would allow either himself or his partners-in-crime to drink and become drunk. The robberies of the James-Younger gang were carefully planned with precision. To think that a robbery in unknown territory with unknown factors would not be taken seriously by all parties involved is to not know the characters of the individual members of the gang. In this book, Cole says that he did not know until after the robbery was over that the men had been drinking. In later accounts he said that he did know but was powerless to stop it. The idea of Cole Younger becoming a powerless bystander for such an important robbery, with an organization that had been together for over ten years is ridiculous. Even if Cole felt powerless to control his younger brother, whom he would later claim privately was under the spell of Jesse James, Cole would have had something to say. Had Cole believed that the men involved were drunk, he would not have endangered himself and the others in such a fashion. He would have demanded that the robbery be called off, at the very least. However, this cover up of the facts of the story, clearly are intended to hold Cole Younger blameless for what happened during the robbery. Cole’s information, which we can conjecture as mostly untrue, was presented after the untimely death of brother Bob who died of consumption while serving his life sentence in the Minnesota State Penitentiary and Charlie Pitts, who was killed by the posse at the scene of the Youngers surrender at Hanska Slough.
Another reason Cole places Pitts in the bank with Bob and Howard is to no doubt substitute Pitts for Woods, aka Frank James, and keep him away from the scene of the murder of cashier Joseph Heywood. Careful study has caused us to conclude that Frank James was the man responsible for the murder of Heywood. Not only can we place him inside the bank through physical description but the question of the rider of the “dun horse,” long speculated by the contemporary press as being the man who shot Heywood, has also been identified as having been purchased and ridden by Frank James. Frank James’ family itself, believes Frank to have been the man who killed the acting cashier. Cole explains that the basis for his premise that Frank and Jesse were not involved in the Northfield robbery stems from the fact that he and Jesse James were not friends. That much is true: the two were often adversaries in regard to the leadership of the gang and the individual strong and egotistical personalities which were involved effectively sabotaged any efforts made by Frank James to create a more tranquil fraternity within the gang.
Cole correctly relates the post-robbery manhunt and eventual surrender of the Youngers at Hanska Slough. Again, having dozens of witnesses to these events prevents Cole from diverting too far from the path of that which is the truth. Cole’s few pages on his life at Stillwater seem innocuous enough and his mention of some of his post-release activities seem for the most part truthful. He veers from this path slightly while relating the suicide of his brother Jim. Cole claims that he was “sick in bed” at the time of Jim’s death. The fact was that Cole and Jim were not friendly at the time due to differences of opinion over Jim’s love life and the way in which Jim chose to conduct his life. Jim, an intelligent, sensitive man in his own right, resented, as had brother Bob before him, Cole’s interference in his daily life.
Cole uses his final pages to reprint the text from the “lecture” he delivered while traveling throughout the Midwest, “What My Life Has Taught Me.” Cole’s Bryanesque delivery of his life’s lessons learned provides further insight into the Cole Younger who might have been had he not been a victim of both the War Between the States and his own misguided urgency for recognition and respect. Cole Younger, a man whose personality comprises the various guises of victim, adventurer, fabricator, redeemer, brother and friend, is a complicated, controversial American allegory. Cole sought legendary status and it is that status he achieved. There was only one Cole Younger. The story of his life, as dictated by him with all its half-truths, insights, anecdotes and outright lies, makes for a engaging and electrifying read. When all is said and done, Cole Younger—partly truth and partly fiction—is a captivating American legend.
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