Posted October 25, 2002

Civil War St. Louis Reviews...

284 pages, illustrated

"When the Heavens Fell: The Youngers in Stillwater Prison" by John Koblas

available from in hardcover& paperback


"The Great Cole Younger & Frank James Historical Wild West Show

by John Koblas


available from in hardcover& paperback

260 pages, illustrated


Reviewed by D. H. Rule

Author John Koblas adds two new entries into the field of books on the James-Younger gang with "When the Heavens Fell: The Youngers in Stillwater Prison" and "The Great Cole Younger & Frank James Historical Wild West Show", and both are fine additions.

When the Heavens Fell: The Youngers in Stillwater Prison

"Be true to your friends if the Heavens fall" was Cole Younger's response to the question of who the two men were who escaped death or capture after the disastrous Northfield, Minnesota bank robbery attempt. Had he, or his brothers Jim and Bob, been willing to name Frank and Jesse James as the other two participants in the robbery they may have shortened the twenty-five year time they spent in prison in Stillwater, Minnesota. But they never named the James brothers and--for the Youngers--the heavens did fall upon them as they were committed to prison.

Koblas begins the book with the Youngers' arraignment on charges of murder and robbery. From the gates of Stillwater prison, he backs up his story with a history of the area in which the prison stood, and of the prison, itself. I found this chapter to be exceedingly interesting, giving a flavor and depth to the setting in which the Youngers found themselves, and setting the scene for the state and people who controlled the Younger's fate for the next twenty-five years and more. This historical context is one of the many valuable additions to the field of James-Younger research that has been missing before and which Koblas now provides.

Bob Younger died in prison in 1889, with his death and the attempts to free him before it covered in detail. Despite thirteen years having passed since the Northfield robbery, feelings still ran high in Minnesota concerning the imprisoned outlaws, and many notables, including those who were victims in the Northfield robbery bring forth their opinions on the attempts to raise sympathy for the dying outlaw. The book then follows the events in the Youngers' lives in prison over the years and the numerous attempts to secure them a release by pardon or parole and the outrage and agreement each effort cause. The documentation and statements of those taking both sides of the pardon/parole issue is very well done and gives many intriguing looks at the stances taken and the long-lasting effects the Missouri outlaws attempted bank raid in Minnesota had.

As well as following the Youngers, Koblas also tracks the events in the lives of other important figures, particularly Frank James, and presents intriguing information suggesting Frank may have been the driving and monetary force behind Bronnaugh's long-time campaign to free the Youngers. While not conclusive, this direction of research was intriguing and provocative. Another particularly interesting part was the possibility that James gang associate Bill Ryan may have been imprisoned in Stillwater under an alias.

There are a few points in the book where minor factual errors may have crept in. These errors usually seem to have come from reliance on other sources that are, themselves, of dubious accuracy (such as Carl W. Breihan's books on the James and Youngers). One point I believe was in error was a story of Jim Younger's troubles in Texas, a story which should have been about John Younger, the brother killed by Pinkertons several years before the Northfield robbery. These points tend to be in asides rather than in the primary research which appears to be impeccable.

Throughout, John Koblas keeps a steady pace of high quality writing. The book reads quickly and smoothly, continually drawing the reader forward in a very entertaining style. A huge amount of information in presented on each page, yet the author never becomes ponderous in the presentation. The book is, quite simply, a good read.

"When the Heavens Fell" is heavily illustrated with many pictures and photos you won't find in other James-Younger books as the author scoured Minnesota archives, not just the typical Missouri collections.

The one notable failing of the book was the extremely abrupt ending. The story chopped off suddenly and at, what seemed at the time, an odd place--before the Younger's actual release from prison, which was the moment the book had been building toward. The story, however, picks up seamlessly in:

The Great Cole Younger & Frank James Historical Wild West Show

What do you do when you're an aging ex-outlaw with no money, no job skills, and parole restrictions placed upon you? If you're Cole Younger, you bend those parole restrictions almost to the breaking point (while still trying to look poutingly innocent no matter how flagrant your behavior) and capitalize on your outlaw fame by running a Wild West show with another ex-outlaw, the notorious Frank James.

The story of the latter years of Cole Younger and Frank James that John Koblas tells in "The Great Cole Younger & Frank James Historical Wild West Show" is a fresh and wholly entertaining look at these two aging outlaws and how they dealt with their notoriety and their facade of sometimes sanctimonious innocence.

For those who have read Ted Yeatman's excellent account of these years and of the Wild West show in "Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend" (available from, follow link), this new book by John Koblas does not duplicate Yeatman's work or account.

Koblas takes a different approach to the story, focusing on the people and personalities within the events. I was left with a wonderful sense of who Cole Younger and Frank James were at their essence, beyond the image of their outlaw myth, and their own publicly projected aura of innocence they maintained for decades. Koblas presented a Cole Younger and Frank James who were well-rounded individuals where one could see both the elements that made them two of the country's most notorious outlaws and also two of the most successfully reformed outlaws. It was an amazingly deft handling of these two characters such as I've never seen done quite so well before.

The book is well-illustrated, with newspaper ads and pictures from their Wild West show from around the country.

As a pair, or individually, both "When the Heavens Fell: The Youngers in Stillwater Prison" and "The Great Cole Younger & Frank James Historical Wild West Show" by John Koblas are recommended and welcome additions to the field of James-Younger reading.

Available from


"When the Heavens Fell: The Youngers in Stillwater Prison" by John Koblas

hardcover - paperback


"The Great Cole Younger & Frank James Historical Wild West Show

by John Koblas

hardcover  - paperback

Also by John Koblas:

Northfield: The Ninth ManThe Jesse James Northfield Raid: Confessions of the Ninth Man, by John Koblas

Just a dandy book in every regard. This is a purely Minnesota-centric history of the James' and Youngers' unfortunate visit to Minnesota in 1876. The author begins with the story of a man who claimed that Chadwell and Stiles were two separate people and that he was "the ninth man" at the Northfield robbery. Koblas tracks the James and Youngers' progress and movements across Minnesota in minute, exacting detail (yet still very good reading!) and gives credence, or not, to Stiles claim. Lots of photos and good writing.


Jesse James Ate HereJesse James Ate Here: An Outlaw Tour & History of Minnesota at the Time of the Northfield Raid
by John J. Koblas
Covers every step the outlaws took in the state of Minnesota and every person they encountered. Koblas continues with his fine research and enjoyable writing style though this book may be a tad more interesting to Minnesotans than to the general reader. However if you're interested in the Northfield robbery, this is a must-have.

2002 D. H. Rule

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