July 11, 1901: 25 years behind bars

Posted on July 9th, 2006 – 6:20 PM
By Ben Welter

Cole and Jim Younger spent nearly 25 years in Stillwater prison for their part in the Jesse James gang’s failed bank robbery in Northfield, Minn., in 1876. A Minneapolis Tribune reporter interviewed the brothers on the day their parole was granted. The Youngers discussed the development of the telephone and “Edison’s talking machine,” the march of slang and the effect of imprisonment on the human mind. They spoke thoughtfully, and at length.

Jim Younger, who said his optimistic outlook kept him sane during his long imprisonment, killed himself in St. Paul a year after his release, reportedly after a broken love affair. Cole Younger, who wrote a memoir, appeared in Wild West shows and later declared he had become a Christian, died in Missouri in 1916.

Thanks to my colleague, Dick Parker, for unearthing the interview for use in his latest Retro feature.

REJOICING

Younger Brothers Tell The Tribune
Of Their Experiences

Cole Younger 1876
Cole Younger looked a little worse for the wear shortly after his capture in 1876. (Photo courtesy of mnhs.org)

A representative of The Tribune talked with the Youngers before their release was ordered. Both men expressed a desire to keep out of print now and for all future time. They have been talked to death in the newspapers, and many writers publishing alleged interviews did so without warrant.

The effect was prejudical to their chance of release. To find a man boasting over the newspaper columns, between quotation marks of daring deeds he did in old guerilla days, is to create suspicion that he still has a soft spot in his heart for the old adventurous life, but when it is found that the man quoted never uttered any of the statements attributed to him – that the whole story as published was pure invention – the injustice may be understood.

Warden Wolfer strives the keynote of the situation when he asserts that sustained public interest, conflicting public opinion concerning the Youngers has been due to the insistence of newspaper editors on making copy about the men. In many cases articles written have been largely imaginative, and utterances of the prisoners have been made to serve as the basis for unfair deduction. Not long ago a writer for a St. Louis newspaper interviewed the men and when his article was read in the prison it proved as fanciful as any of Grim’s fairy tails.

“When I get outside the prison door, if ever I do get out,” said Cole Younger yesterday, “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. Beyond any doubt the actuality will overcome me to the extent of just one old-fashioned handspring.”

“Me, too,” interrupted Jim. “Remember the time they let us go over on the wall to the warden’s house that time – must be eight years ago?”

EFFECT OF LONG IMPRISONMENT.

Northfield Bank
Here’s what Northfield’s First National Bank, targeted by the James gang, looked like in about 1870. (Photo courtesy of mnhs.org)

“I can remember the way everything looked, right now,” said Coleman. “It’s very strange,” he went on reflectively – “the effect that long confinement produces on one’s ideas of space. I don’t quite know whether the muscles of the eyes contract, or whether it is refusal of the brain to immediately comprehend what the eyes see, but when a man has been in close confinement between walls for so long a time he doesn’t seem able to grasp the ideas of distance. I remember staring over at the Wisconsin hills that were all green and beautiful. I wanted to stay there until I could get used to the sensation, but of course couldn’t.

” ‘How does that make you feel” ‘ I asked my brother.

” ‘Feel as if I were about to fall off something high,’ he said.”

“But of course that will soon wear off. I want to get out of this prison because I have reached the limit of my capacity for taking punishment. We have been kindly and well treated, according to our merits as prisoners, but you people who live on the outside and talk so glibly of life imprisonment – why, not one of you has any conception of its meaning.

Jim Younger
Jim Younger was also a beaten man after his capture in 1876. (Photo courtesy of mnhs.org)

“It is burial without death. Only by exercising his will power in a systematic and never-ceasing struggle with the melancholy born of solitude, can a man evade insanity. I don’t mean violent, straight-jacket insanity, perhaps though some might come to that, but the dreadful haunting dread of mental failure suggested by introspection.

“I know nothing of mental science except such things as I have read while in jail, without the power to properly digest them, but it seems to me that this fear of becoming insane and the constant strain of trying not to is really the most torturing form of insanity.

“It may be functional, as the doctors say, and not organic, but unless the will of the sufferer is tremendously strong he endures the tortures of the damned.

DATES FROM THE FIRE.

“Have you never been outside but that once?” was asked.

“Yes – the night of the fire. Everything modern dates from the night of the fire.

“If we are paroled,” said Jim Younger, “we shall get in a quiet corner somewhere, so that the sights and sounds of the world will be visible and audible, but we have no desire to do aught else than labor quietly to the end of our days. This will afford us the opportunity we have been seeking for a long time – that of showing the world that we know how to live decently and honestly and hold trustworthy positions as men among men.

“I don’t think I shall be much disturbed by the mechanical and engineering advances that have occurred in the last 25 years,” said Jim, reflectively. “You see engineering is my hobby. I take the Scientific American and have had it for many years. Every issue of that paper I have studied carefully. When the first electrical cars were put in use I saw the cuts and wrestled with them and the descriptions given until I understood the principle. Now, of course, it will look odd to see a carriage running round without horses, or a big car traveling without mules or steam, but for years I have known that these things were, and pictures have familiarized me with their appearance. It will all be novel – very new and novel, but not incomprehensible.”

USED A TELEPHONE.

Cole Younger
Cole Younger cleaned up nicely for his first day at Stillwater prison. (Photo courtesy of mnhs.org)

“Well,” remarked Cole, “the telephone and Edison’s talking machines have always been my limit. Once when I was down in the office I had orders to telephone over to the warden’s house. That tickled me to death, because I had heard them talking at oen end of the line, and it was all I could do to keep my face straight at the spectacle of a fellow jabbering into a dumbbell – ‘wha-a-t! – yes – did he? – who said so! – all right – tell him to come down this afternoon.’

“I heard that and never forgot it. When they showed me how to ring for the warden I put my ear to the thing and waited. When the warden said ‘hello’ at the other end of that line it sounded so close at hand, and the whole thing seemed so absurdly impossible that I was rattled. I couldn’t reply for a minute or more.”

“Now they have lines from Minneapolis to New York, and you can talk just as easily as to the warden’s house,” said Jim, out of his superior knowledge.

“I heard about it,” replied Cole, “when I have a chance I’m going to try that if it costs a dollar.”

“To the man who has been in prison so long as I have,” said Jim, “access to all the modern books and magazines is a blessing not unmixed with pain. You see, every magazine story, every novel, every scientific treatise, everything printed, in fact, contains references to events and things in common, everyday use of which the prison reader comprehends nothing. He reads half-comprehendingly, and longs and longs for freedom, if only for a little time, that he may once more get in tune with the world and be at least able to read of it intelligently. Still, the man in prison who reads, must, I think, be held a good critic on some matters. Take the modern march of slang, for instance.

THE MARCH OF SLANG.

“I have noticed that a slang word appears first, perhaps, in a publication of the lower class. It has probably been accepted by certain classes of people before it reaches the papers at all. Now, here in the solitude of the prison library, I watch the evolution of that slang word. It crawls insidiously from the newspaper to the cheaper magazine, where it appears most likely in a story of the day. In a subsequent issue the editor of the magazine uses it editorially to express some idea. Next month I discover it in one of the heavier publications, quoted, most likely, but still there. From that time the position of the word is assured, because writers of ponderous leaders on electrical engineering in the Electrical Magazine are not without their weaknesses, and they, too, pick the word up.

“For people outside, the setting of such words as I refer to in conversation may remove the impression of their absurdity, but to a man in jail, with nothing but books to talk to, some of these phrases sound like infant babbling. And to tell the truth, great as my opportunities have been for reading of late years, I still tie to Dickens. He doesn’t clip his English, he doesn’t slang it, and his writings are full of heartbeats, I have laughed with him and wept with him. Great is Dickens.”

“Do you mean to say, you two, that the confinement here really made you fear insanity?”

MEN AFRAID OF THEMSELVES.

“God knows what it is that men fear who are shut up for life,” said the librarian. “I think it is that a man becomes afraid of himself — doubtful of his ability to sustain the awful routine of life under restraint. It is not the prison that hurts — it is a splendid institution. A well behaved man can live here in entire physical comfort, but the human mind requires a wider range of activity than that possible behind stone walls. The prisoner who desires to live out his sentence without mental deterioration must develop mental activities thought of outside a place like this.

Dead men
Brace yourself, dear reader: This photo of two members of the James gang, Clell Miller and William Stiles, was taken after they were killed in the failed Northfield bank robbery. (Photo courtesy of mnhs.org)

“For many years I have never permitted myself to harbor a bad thought about anyone. Mind, I do not say I have not had such thoughts. They flash into one’s mind and would take root and grow there if not at once cast out. My method has been, when so assailed by my evil genius, to deliberately force a train of thought on another and more pleasant subject. It is hard to do, but it can be done.”

“A long time ago, down in Missouri, I knew an old lady about 70 years old, whose husband was about 80, I should think. People used to say that in all their married life those two had never been angry at each other, nor uttered a cross word. One day I asked the old lady how that was.

” ‘James,’ ” she said, ‘when I married my mother said to me that I was marrying a man and not an angel. She warned me that if I desired to lead a happy life I must look always for the good in my husband and shut my eyes to the bad. Now, I have seen great good in him — I have never seen any bad, and we have never quarreled.’

“I believe in that old lady’s philosophy,” said Jim, “and I have looked for the brighter side of things ever since coming in here, otherwise I should have died long ago, a mania most likely. Both Cole and I have cultivated control until I think either of us could command our feelings in the most awful situation conceivable. Perhaps you can conceive that situation.”

Stillwater Prison, about 1900
Stillwater prison in its winter finery, in about 1900. (Photo courtesy of mnhs.org)

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