Column: Frank, Jesse are fleeing: Who are those men on Lake Ocheda beach?


WORTHINGTON — We are into a tangle of Jesse James anniversaries. The bank raid at Northfield was 130 years ago. It was 90 years ago that Cole Younger died. (There were two family groups involved in the Northfield shootout, Jesse and brother Frank, Cole and his brothers Bob and Jim.)

It was 105 years ago Monday — July 10, 1901 — that Cole and Jim Younger were paroled from the Minnesota State Penitentiary at Stillwater. Cole, who was 57, said, “I believe there is agility enough in my old bones to let me turn just one somersault. I feel like a 10-year-old boy at the mere possibility.” Prison, he said, is “burial without death.”

The Youngers were memorable inmates. Cole founded the penitentiary newspaper Prison Mirror, which continues to this time. Cole and Jim worked in the prison library. Jim read and studied every issue of Scientific American. (Bob Younger died in the prison, of tuberculosis, in 1889.)

The Minneapolis paper this week featured an interview with the Youngers printed the day they were released from prison. Minnesota Historical Society has reprinted Cole Younger’s autobiography. From all of this, we still do not know:

Were the Younger brothers on the shores of Lake Ocheda south of Worthington?

There are things known definitely:

Jim Younger was shot below the nostril, through the upper right lip, at Northfield. He bled as a man with a bloody nose that could not be stanched. He grew weaker as days went by.

The Northfield raid was on the afternoon of Sept. 7. The James brothers and the Younger brothers passed through Mankato, moving southwest, at midnight, Sept. 12. Frank and Jesse were increasingly impatient. At 2:30 a.m., the decision was made to go separate ways. The James brothers rode west. The Youngers continued to Lake Crystal, lifting, dragging, bolstering Brother Jim.

The Youngers made a camp about 65 feet from the St. Paul & Sioux City Railroad tracks.

What no one knows, what no record shows:

Where were the Youngers from Sept. 13 to Sept. 21, the day of the shootout in the swamp near Madelia?

One key to this puzzle that never can be solved is that the Youngers abandoned their horses. Why would fleeing fugitives give up their mounts in 1876? Well — to jump aboard a train.

Once on a train, why would they leave? Here it must be noted that in that September, the railroad was constructing the new track to Adrian, to Luverne, to Sioux Falls. Org — Sioux Falls Junction — was congested. There were track crews and work trains. Men all about. Through freights were bringing supplies, rails, ties. Trains stopped.

A fugitive would want to flee this scene. Lake Ocheda was less than two miles distant.

Sunday afternoon, Sept. 17:

Mr. Lowe, manager of Worthington Milling Co., and a companion, were riding in his buggy. They came to the ferry site — Ocheda Narrows — on what today is Plotts Avenue.

In the reeds, in the brush, they saw three men. The men fell flat. One of them wore a waterproof cloak, the others had none. Two of the men rose and fled. Mr. Lowe, who may have had more courage than sense, started toward the third man. The other two men returned and lifted their companion, who appeared to be sick or wounded. He fell several times. The three scampered into a corn field.

Lowe headed back to Worthington at a trot to alert Sheriff Julius Towne. The sheriff came to the Ocheda beach with a posse. The lawmen found blood and boot tracks to confirm Mr. Lowe was not imagining things. They could find nothing else.

In the morning, the sheriff returned with a larger posse, including men from Winona who had been in pursuit of the robber gang since Northfield. They identified a print of a square-toed boot with a small heel, which the Winona men said was a telltale clue. The lawmen literally were on the heels of the fugitives.

It can be surmised the Youngers returned to the railroad tracks, where they found another waiting train. Luck was running out; this train was northbound. When they rolled back to the familiar terrain of Madelia, the bandit brothers exited a boxcar. It was here they were found — on foot — on Thursday.