Posted November 14, 2002

 

An Interview With Cole Younger

 

November 7, 1880 author J. W. Buel visited Cole Younger and his brothers Jim and Bob in the Stillwater, Minnesota prison where they were serving life sentences for the Northfield robbery and murders. They had exchanged letters before this with Cole willing to talk about his war history but insisting he would divulge nothing else. The interview below is an example of his long-standing uncommunicativeness concerning any criminal active by himself or any others. His interview with Cole Younger was published in his book

"The Border Outlaws:

An Authentic and Thrilling History of the Most Noted Bandits of Ancient or Modern Times,

THE YOUNGER BROTHERS, 

JESSE AND FRANK JAMES,

and

THEIR COMRADES IN CRIME"

 

A PERSONAL INTERVIEW WITH COLE YOUNGER

The lengthy communication of October 31st [1880], from Cole Younger, determined me upon a visit to Stillwater for the purpose of having a personal interview with the noted brothers, and in accordance with this decision I left St. Louis on the 5th of November and arrived at my destination on the morning of the 7th. After introducing myself to Warden Reed, that very affable prison official conducted me at once to a reception-room where, after a very short wait, Cole, Jim and Bob Younger walked in, by whom I was greeted very cordially. 'My first tacit observation was, " did I ever see three finer looking men ? " Cole is the largest, being about six feet three inches in height, but all the brothers measure considerably over six feet, and their bodies are knit together with that smooth compactness which indicates the strength of steel. They were models of form, and if I were a woman I should have no hesitancy in pronouncing each of them decidedly handsome. But better than all this, they bear themselves like perfect gentlemen and never fail, so I am told, in producing the most favorable impression upon all their visitors, of whom they have not a few. Cole is the spokesman of the trio, and in the beginning it is well to admit that a shrewder questioner or witness never made use of brain and tongue than he. Physiology and phrenology both unite in adapting him for the bar; as a lawyer he would undoubtedly have made a phenominal success; the magnificence of his physique and sharp wits, which manifest themselves in cunning speech and comprehension and quick ideas, leave no doubt of what his career as an advocate would have been. His first words were:

"Well, I learn from your letters that you have decided to write a history of the James and Younger Boys."

"Yes," said I, "such has been my purpose for some years past, and much of the work is already completed; what remains to be finished I have left until some very necessary information may be gathered from you."

"I am very glad to see you," he responded; "but I fear that resolutions, which I have long since taken, will prevent me from making your visit a profitable one."

I replied: "The object of my visit does not contemplate the forging of secrets from your breast; from the tenor of your communications I judged your character; that there were many things which were with you inviolably sacred; I was also assured that no trust confided to your keeping would ever be violated. Upon such subjects I have no wish to question you, but only upon such matters as regard yourself, the war and other things, to speak of which you will not compromise your manhood or honor."

"I cannot see what interest, then, an interview with me would possess more than that with any other of the ex-guerrillas, many of whom are still living," he replied.

I answered: "The relations to the public are different, and then there are some things of which you might honorably speak, chiefly concerning yourself, that would be of special interest to the thousands who have read of your exploits."

"Well," said he, "propound your questions, and what I can conscientiously answer I will, but when you tread upon sacred grounds I shall be quick to inform you."

Q. In the first place explain, if you can, some of the causes which produced the guerrillas of Missouri.

A. It would require a history to answer that question properly. The people of western Missouri are, in some respects, very peculiar. We will take Jackson county (where I was born) for instance. In that section the people seemed to be born fighters, the instinct being inherited from a long line of ancestors. It would have been a good idea if, in your book, you had given a short history of that county; the facts might easily be collected in Independence where many old settlers still reside, who are familiar with some of the bitter antagonisms which distinguished the early settlement of that district.

Joe Smith and Brigham Young laid out Independence, but very soon thereafter enough citizens of the county collected to drive them off, after several stubborn fights. The Mormons withdrew from the State and settled their community at Nauvoo, Illinois, but in a few years afterward about fifty of them again came into Missouri and settled in Platte county. They had scarcely established themselves, however, before another company of Jackson county citizens, chiefly from around Independence, organized to drive them off. Among these determined citizens were Richard Fristoe, my grandfather, Wood Nolen, Smallwood Nolen and Sam Owens. While crossing the river in a hand-ferry-boat, the ferryman, who had been bribed by the Mormons, succeeded in turning the boat over midway in the Missouri river. A large number were drowned, but the four I have mentioned succeeded in swimming ashore.

Independence was, for a long time previous to the war with Mexico, headquarters for Mexican freighters. The freight passing between Mexico and Missouri was carried on pack-mules, many Jackson county-men being engaged in that business.

It was in Jackson county chiefly, also, that Col. Doniphan recruited his famous regiment for the Mexican war and made that wonderful march known in history as De rando del murato, (the journey of death). After subduing New Mexico, Doniphan marched to Chihuahua, which then had 40,000 inhabitants, and raised the United States flag over the citadel; and from this latter place he continued his march to the Gulf of Mexico.

Independence became also the headquarters and fitting-out post of the Forty-Niners when the great pilgrimage to California began. Majors, Russell & Waddell, the greatest overland freighters the world has ever produced, lived in Independence.

In the war of 1856 Jackson county, and the settlement about Independence especially, was more largely represented, perhaps, than any other section. This diabolical war, distinguished by the most atrocious cruelties the conqueror can inflict upon his captive, prepared the way, and created the guerrilla in 1862. Natural fighters, conducting a war of spoliation and reprisal,--through the brush,--trained to quick sorties and deadly ambuscades, how easily they drifted as their instincts inclined, and became guerrillas by an irresistible combination of circumstances, such as I have explained.

The story of the Black Flag is told again on the Gratiot Prisoner Notes page, go to the listing for Annie Fickle.

Q. Your answer is very comprehensive and interesting. Now, will you be kind enough to tell me what finally became of the "Black Flag" which Quantrell [sic: common misspelling of Quantrill used throughout] carried ? Geo. Shepherd gave me a very interesting history of that flag, which I shall relate in my book, but he was unable to tell me what eventually became of that ominous symbol.

A. Jim Lane carried a black flag until the fall of 1863, when we captured it, and sometime afterward we sent it to Sterling Price. I think both flags were subsequently cut up and made into over-shirts which some of the boys wore.

Q. Do you know where Quantrell is buried?

A. He sleeps in the Catholic grave-yard at Louisville, Ky.

Q. Do you know whether or not Jesse and Frank James are full brothers?

A. Surely their mother is the same, and I presume their father was also the same, but he was dead long before I knew the family.

Q. Will you explain the causes and circumstances which led you to Northfield; also, explain, please, how you became separated from the two comrades who succeeded in escaping? I have been told that the shooting of Jim Younger, in the mouth, caused such profuse hemorrhage that the pursuers could trail you by the blood; that one of the two who escaped insisted on killing Jim in order to destroy the trail, and that it was this proposition which caused the separation.

A. Positively, I will have nothing to do with writing or furnishing any information concerning the Northfield robbery, or any other robbery. I do not say this through any unkindness; I have made the same reply to life-long friends, among whom were two brothers-in-law. I should say the same to sister Retta, whom I love better than all the world, if she should ask me the question.

Q. How long was each of you in the surgeon's care after your capture ?

A. Jim and I are still receiving surgical attention, and will be the remainder of our lives.

Q. How often have you and your brothers been wounded?

A. I have been wounded altogether twenty times; eleven of these wounds were received at Northfield. Jim was wounded four times at Northfield, and six times in all. Bob was never wounded until the pursuit in Minnesota, where he was struck three times.

Q. Can you tell me who was in command at Independence and issued the order that thereafter guerrillas taken by capture would not be treated like ordinary prisoners of war? Shepherd says he is not certain, but thinks it was Maj. Blunt.

A. It was Jennison, Colonel of the 15th Kansas cavalry.

Q. What are your respective duties in the penitentiary ?

A. We have no special duties. Jim and I being on the hospital list do very little, while Bob performs various duties. I occupy much of my time in theological studies for which I have a natural inclination. It was the earliest desire of my parents to prepare me for the ministry, but the horrors of war, the murder of my father, and the outrages perpetrated upon my poor old mother, my sisters and brothers, destroyed our hopes so effectually that none of us could be prepared for any duty in life except revenge.

The tear which stole into Cole's eye told how much he suffered in the remembrance of those sorrow-laden days when war"3rove happiness eternally from the Younger household. Out of deference to that honorable feeling, I could not question him further upon such an extremely unpleasant subject.

Q. How do you regard your treatment in the prison ?

A. I will say that since our capture we have met with uniform kindness, and while in the penitentiary our relations with the officers have been cordially pleasant, and for their considerate and kind disposition we feel profoundly grateful. There has never been so much as a hard thought between us. While I think of it, I should like to ask a favor: In your last letter you seemed to intimate that I had self in view by referring to the liberality with which I distributed corn to the poor in 1862-3. Now the favor I ask is this: In the first place, many of my old comrades are married and settled down in Missouri, where they are living peaceful lives. I want it understood that all these men fought for principle, not for plunder, and that they were true-hearted, honorable soldiers, fighting for what they esteemed was a righteous cause. In relation to me giving corn, and also pork and beef, to the poor during that hard winter, when food was so difficult to obtain, I will only say that I was following an example set by my blessed and sainted mother, whose charitable heart never failed to respond to distress. These facts I desire you to make understood in your book.

"Border Bandits" by J. W. Buel is available from booksellers at ABEBOOKs: Just click "Find Book" to see available listings.

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Q. How much land did your father own at the time of his assassination?

A. He had 3,500 acres, a greater part of which was under cultivation, with barns, houses, etc. All this property went with the ravages of the war. My part has long since been spent in keeping out of the clutches of mobs.

I thanked Cole and his brothers for the marked kindness they had shown me, and after again explaining the possible necessities, owing to conflicting and current errors, of my connecting them with crimes of which they were perhaps as innocent as myself, we shook hands cordially and I withdrew.

After my return to St. Louis I instituted inquiries, by letter, in order to receive a denial or corroboration of Cole Younger's statements, respecting his liberality and conduct during the war. I communicated with several Union men, all of whom, while pronouncing Cole a desperate fighter, yet accorded him full credit for his magnanimity in helping the poor, relieving distress and affording every possible protection to women and children, regardless of political sentiments.

 

 

 


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