Friday, March 19, 2021

The James Gang, Corydon and a sesquicentennial

I'm always on the lookout for significant anniversaries and the upcoming sesquicentennial of the Jesse and Frank James gang's June 3, 1871, armed robbery of the Ocobock Brothers' bank on the north side of the square in Corydon, Chariton's neighbor to the south, certainly qualifies. (That's Jesse at left.)

Goodness only knows, Corydon has gotten a lot of mileage out of that robbery over the years. So I'm hoping the pandemic, now easing a little, will allow for some sort of bang-up celebration down thataway this year.

The bare bones of the story are these. Four masked and armed strangers rode up to the Ocobock bank at approximately 2 p.m. that long-ago Saturday; two remaining outside; two going inside and forcing the banker in charge to open the safe. Nearly the entire population of the town was gathered at the time at the Methodist church just northwest of the square to hear an address by Henry Clay Dean.

Mr. Dean, a Confederate sympathizer and noted Copperhead during the late war, was an acclaimed orator and author (who rarely bathed and even more rarely changed clothes, but that's a story for another day) whose home, Rebel's Cove, was located on the Chariton River in northern Missouri, just southeast of Exline in Appanoose County. Dean was promoting fund-raising efforts for the Missouri, Iowa & Nebraska Railroad, then expanding from Centerville to Corydon. But no one in his or her right mind, at the time, would have wanted to miss an appearance by the renowned/notorious Mr. Dean.

The robbers' haul most often is given as $6,000 in early reports, although it probably was closer to $5,200. The gang rode off into the sunset without incident, although once what had happened dawned on the men at the church, a posse soon was in hot pursuit. No one ever was captured, although gang member Clell Miller was arrested during March of 1872 at Kearney, Missouri, charged with the robbery, returned to Corydon for trial --- and acquitted. Frank and Jesse most certainly were among the robbers. The fourth man most often is identified as Cole Younger, although there is some doubt about that.

The story of the robbery made front pages from border to border and coast to coast, but there were no wire services (or live satellite feeds) back in those days, so most of the reports were picked up from newspapers near the scene of the crime and reprinted. Sadly, no reports from Corydon newspapers seem to have survived. Almost immediately, the basic story was embellished and myths, legends and tall tales became associated with it --- the amount of the take, for example, expanded in some accounts to as much as $40,000.

When I was growing up on the Lucas-Wayne county line, it sometimes seemed as if the James gang had camped the night before the robbery on every wooded hilltop in the region --- including one just southeast of Bethlehem that my dad would point out now and then.

The robbery was reported in The Chariton Democrat of Saturday, June 10, a week after it occurred. This report is interesting because it's one of very few published that can be traced to a specific person, Corydon merchant Samuel J. Hunt. Here it is:

The Corydon Bank Robbed in Broad Day-Light

$6,000 Stolen --- The Robbers Escape

On Saturday night we learned that the bank at Corydon had been robbed that day by parties supposed to hail from Missouri. It seems that it was a premeditated raid, and that the plans had been well laid. After committing the act, the robbers jumped upon their horses, and swinging their revolvers called upon all whom they saw to follow them if they dared. It also appears that they first tried to induce the county treasurer to go into his office, evidently with the purpose of robbing him, but they failed to make it work. A citizen of this place (Chariton) has received a private letter from Corydon from which we take the following extracts:

Our town has been greatly excited since Saturday about 2 o'clock p.m. Two men entered the bank (at each door, the front and rear), closed and locked them and with revolvers at the head of the banker, forced him to open the safe. They obtained $6,000 in currency and some revenue stamps. They found a package of government bonds, broke into the envelope and then threw it upon the floor and left it.

Two men were stationed in the street with revolvers drawn, but no man appeared and they were not interrupted, about everybody being at the church some distance away hearing  H.C. Dean speak. When the alarm was given at the church that the bank was robbed it was not believed for a few minutes.

There were several hundred men after the robbers at dusk, Saturday night. They were traced 26 miles from here, southwest about 7 miles south of Leon. $1,000 reward has been offered.

There were four men, three young, about twenty-three years old, one about forty or over. The oldest one was the largest, the others were about five feet eight inches and two had no whiskers, and had not been shaven for a week or more. The old man hand whiskers, sandy complexion and whiskers the same. The fourth man, a  young one, had chin shaved and perhaps lip also. Not gentlemanly exports, but rough in features, &c. (signed) S. J. Hunt


The Chicago Tribune's front-page report was published on Tuesday, June 13, but was a reprint from the Bethany, Missouri, Watchman of June 8, as follows:

A very bold and daring robbery was committed at Corydon, Wayne County, Iowa, on last Saturday, as we learn from parties who were in pursuit of the robbers.

About 2 o'clock on Saturday, June 3, whilst the larger portion of the citizens of Corydon were attending a railroad meeting, four men on horseback rode up the Corydon Bank, and while three of them dismounted the fourth held the  horses. The three men then passed into the building, and there being but one man in, the cashier of the bank, they presented their revolvers and commanded the cashier to open the safe and keep quiet, which he did. One of the robbers held his revolver cocked and within a few inches of the Cashier's head, while the other two assisted themselves to whatever money they could get, supposed to be between $6,000 and $7,000. They then immediately passed out of the bank, mounted their horses and started south, yelling like savages and shouting, "Here goes the Corydon bank!"

As soon as the news began to radiate, a number of the citizens started in pursuit of the robbers, who came through our city (Bethany) about 10 o'clock Sunday night, the pursuers being less than an hour behind them.

About 12 o'clock Sunday night, Sheriff Baker and Deputy Sheriff Graham, of this city, started in pursuit of the robbers, and followed them  about 10 miles, and then lost trail, owing to the fact, as it has since been ascertained, of the fugitives going into the brush to camp. Deputy Sheriff Graham followed on after them, on Monday, with quite a  number of others, and traced them to Pattonsburg, Daviess County. Some six or seven miles south of Pattonsburg, six of the  pursuers came onto the robbers and had a little engagement with them, the  robbers taking shelter in an old stable. Several rounds were fired by both parties, resulting in mortally wounding one of the robbers and killing Mr. Cooper's horse (note --- this is an apparent error, no one was killed). Our fellow townsman, Noah Chasebolt, was in the fight and is said to have done good work. Some 10 miles beyond this place where the skirmish occurred, the pursuing party found the wounded man in the brush alive, but speechless. He died shortly afterward.

The other robbers are still making strenuous efforts to escape, but are hotly pursued, and it is to be hoped they may be all taken dead or alive. From the description of the parties, it is believed that two of the robbers were the James boys, who robbed the Gallatin Bank about a year ago.


And here's a report from the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph of Saturday, June 21, as reprinted from an undated report in the Lineville (Iowa) Index:

The county seat of this county was visited by four men on Saturday night, who committed the boldest and most daring robbery ever committed in the West, robbing Ocobock Brothers' bank of $6,000, at the hour of two o'clock in the afternoon, and making their escape from a multitude of men who had assembled at that place to hear a speech in the interest of the Mo., I. and Nebraska Railroad by Henry Clay Dean.

For several days previous to the robbery four strange and suspicious characters had been seen in and about Corydon, whose business no one knew. Having heard that Mr. Dean was to address the people of Corydon on Saturday last, they armed themselves with four navy revolvers, and rode to Corydon, taking advantage of the large number of men in town who were at that hour collected at the Methodist Episcopal Church to hear Mr. Dean, the church being situated some distance from the square.

the robbers rode into town and  up to the front door of the bank. Mr. Ocobock, the junior member of the  firm, was seated in the back room of the bank. They quietly and coolly approached him, each presenting a revolver, and said --- "Get up, walk easy, don't say a d--d word, and unlock that safe." Mr. Ocobock, appreciating the situation went to the safe, and it seems found it difficult to hit the combination, either through excitement or from some other cause, when one of the robbers drew back his revolver and, in a commanding voice, demanded him to "open that safe within five seconds." The safe was unlocked by Mr. Ocobock, when one of the parties grabbed for the money and got it, crammed it into a pair of saddle-bags, which they had brought along for that purpose, and bid the banker "good day," mounting their horses and dashing through town and right by the church occupied by at least 600 men, defiantly flourishing their revolvers, inviting the already-alarmed crowd to "come on," and yelling at the top of their voices, "Hurrah for John Wilkes Booth" and "Take us if you can." One of them flourished a revolver and informed the crowd that that as "the tool that killed Abe Lincoln." Thus successfully committing their hellish deed and making their escape.

The Board of Supervisors of the county is in session, and has generously offered the liberal reward of $4,000 for the arrest of the parties, which we hope will be sufficient incentive to their capture.


The James-Younger Gang returned to Iowa on July 1, 1873, to rob a Rock Island train west of Adair, then met its fate while attempting to rob a bank in Northfield, Minn., on Sept. 7, 1876.

Clell Miller, acquitted in Corydon, was shot dead in Northfield on Sept. 7. Cole Younger was seriously wounded, captured and sentenced to life in prison in Minnesota. He was paroled in 1901 and lived peaceably until his death in Lee's Summit, Missouri, on March 21, 1916. Jesse James escaped but was shot dead by Robert Ford in St. Joseph, Missouri, on April 3, 1881. Frank James also escaped, but eventually surrendered to the Missouri governor, got off very lightly and lived peaceably until his death at age 72 on Feb. 18, 1915.


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