IN 1901, TWO BROTHERS walked out from behind the walls of Stillwater State Prison and blinked in the sunlight; they were free men for the first time in more than two decades. Cole and Jim Younger had once been among the country’s most notorious outlaws, members of the gang that had helped Jesse James commit one of the most celebrated failed bank robberies in American history: the September 1876 assault on the First National Bank in Northfield. But by the time the brothers left prison as parolees, hundreds of citizens had clamored for their freedom. The Pioneer Press called their parole a “blessed” act of mercy.
The Youngers hadn’t always been so popular: A quarter century before, the brothers had arrived at the penitentiary sick, scarred, and loathed. The Northfield robbery had left two innocent men dead. After the fleeing brothers had been surrounded near Madelia (Frank and Jesse James fled in a different direction and escaped), Cole was shot 11 times, Jim suffered a fractured jaw (a bullet was lodged near his salivary gland), and another brother, Bob, was shot in his right lung. When they were sentenced to prison, the Pioneer Press cheered: “The three Missouri bandits and cut-throats, Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger, made their last appearance in St. Paul yesterday—at least it is hoped that we may never look upon their ugly mugs again.”
So how did the Youngers manage to shake off their infamy, to go from being reviled criminals to respected—and respectable—citizens?
Many portraits depict the Youngers as unrepentant and socially maladjusted incorrigibles—men with cold hearts and set ways. (The new Brad Pitt movie, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is expected to follow the old formula.) Once in prison, however, the brothers dismantled any such expectations. Bob immersed himself in books about medicine and worked as an accounting clerk. Jim took up theosophy, the study of humanity’s efforts to gain closeness with God, and eventually served as the prison’s chief librarian. Cole spent many hours in the prison’s wood shop, creating sculptures. He also assisted sick patients as a hospital nurse and was known as an articulate speaker, fond of quoting Shakespeare in conversation. All three brothers helped found the Prison Mirror, today the oldest continuously operated prison newspaper in the country. Prison officials considered them model inmates.
The Youngers showed their trustworthiness during an 1884 fire that almost destroyed the prison. During the confusion of a nighttime evacuation, the head guard passed the brothers an iron bar, an ax, and a revolver, and asked them to move a group of female inmates to safety. “I can say without fear of contradiction,” Cole declared, “that had it been in our minds to do so we could have escaped from the prison that night, but we had determined to pay the penalty that had been exacted, and if we were ever to return to liberty it would be with the consent and approval of the authorities and the public.”
By the time Bob died in prison from tuberculosis in 1889, efforts to restore the brothers’ liberty were already underway. The most influential worker for their release from prison was U.S. senator Stephen Elkins from West Virginia. Years earlier, when Elkins was a Union soldier during the Civil War, Cole had helped him escape from probable death at the hands of Quantrill’s Raiders, a pro-Southern guerilla group. Three decades later, Elkins lobbied tirelessly on the brothers’ behalf. But a succession of Minnesota governors, counter-lobbied by citizens from Northfield and Madelia, refused to grant pardons to Cole and Jim.
In 1901, however, the state legislature created a new Board of Pardons empowered to consider paroles or pardons for life-term prisoners who had served more than 25 years. The Youngers were among the first to receive consideration. “As the years went by, the popular feeling against us not only subsided, but our absolute obedience to the minutest detail of the prison discipline won us the consideration, and I might even say the esteem, of the prison officials,” Cole later remembered.
The board turned down the brothers’ applications for outright pardons, but did grant them paroles with specific limitations. The board wanted to supervise their movements; Cole and Jim had to remain in Minnesota, and any jobs they took were subject to board approval. (Cole objected, noting that this condition “prevented me from joining my friends and relatives in Missouri, and kept me in a state where a great many people did not really care for my society, although so many were very kind and cordial to me.”) In 1901, Cole and Jim left Stillwater as conditionally free men. “The parole of the Youngers is one of those acts of mercy which is twice blessed,” the Pioneer Press editorialized. “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. It will be approved by public sentiment throughout the state…. [The Youngers] are 10 times better men than are most of those whose unrelenting vindictiveness would have denied to their declining years the poor solace of being prisoners on parole.”
Jim, then 53, found the sight of carriages traveling without the power of horses, mules, or steam as strange. His devoted reading of Scientific American as a prisoner, though, kept the shock to a minimum. Cole, 57, loved watching people talk on the telephone. “I believe there is agility enough in my old bones to let me turn just one somersault,” he said. “I feel like a 10-year-old boy.” His first act as a parolee was to have dinner at the Stillwater farm of the mother of the doctor he had worked with in prison. “It was in the evening and as we drove out to the farm, we came upon a rise of land, which overlooks a valley,” the physician recalled. “The sun was just setting and the scene was grand. Cole suddenly asked me to stop. When I complied he sat silently for a moment, then slowly said, ‘This is the first time I’ve seen the sun set in 25 years.’”
Cole presumably felt less meditative as he and Jim settled into their first jobs on parole: They both found employment as traveling tombstone salesmen for the Peter N. Peterson Granite Company. Earning $60 a month, they traveled by buggy throughout the countryside bearing sample pictures of gravestones.
Neither discussed the irony of convicted murderers passing their days in this manner. “The farmers were delighted to have such distinguished callers and asked them to stay for dinner,” wrote one of Cole’s biographers, “but this—as Cole put it—didn’t sell stones.” Jim suffered the additional indignity of being seriously injured when his horse lurched and he fell from his buggy, and he eventually went to work in a St. Paul cigar store. “Even there he felt that he was employed rather as an exhibit than as a salesman,” a friend remembered. “He brooded over it.”
Soon, Jim’s life as a parolee became unbearable. The worst blow came in 1902, when Board of Pardons officials told him he could not marry Alix Muller, a fellow theosophist and the daughter of a Minnesota legislator, who had often visited him in prison. In a room in St. Paul’s Reardon Hotel, Jim shot himself.
Cole adapted better to life after prison. After abandoning tombstones, he briefly worked as a grocery store clerk and as a household supervisor for St. Paul’s police chief, and he may have entertained an offer to serve as a Minneapolis police officer. In 1903, when the state granted him a conditional pardon, he quickly left Minnesota for Missouri.
His last 13 years were eventful. He published an autobiography, managed a Wild West show with Frank James—another dinosaur like himself—got religion, and gave lectures (in apparent defiance of his pardon agreement). He vowed never to return to Minnesota. Cole ended his years, reflecting on his life and puffing a pipe, sitting on his front porch in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. “I’ve just simply made my peace with God, and the rest of my days I just want to live a quiet, simple Christian life,” he told reporters. At the age of 72, Cole died at home, surrounded by relatives. They buried him in a graveyard next to Bob and Jim.
Jack El-Hai is a frequent contributor to Minnesota Monthly. He is the author of The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness.