Herald JournalHerald Journal, August 30, 2004

Outlaws have connections to Howard Lake, Wright Co.

By Lynda Jensen

The notorious Jesse James gang of Old West fame has a number of modern day and old time connections to the local area.

The gang featured one member, Charlie Pitts, who is played by Old West re-enactor Jeff Amland of Howard Lake in a documentary featured last month on public television “The Jesse James Northfield Raid, Confessions of the Ninth Man.”

The film was based on a book written by Jack Koblas of Burnsville, who visited Howard Lake as part of a book signing Thursday.

Amland’s performance includes a death scene, when Pitts is killed during a shootout in the film at a slough 30 miles from Mankato.

Interestingly enough, the ninth man referred to in the documentary was Bill Stiles of Monticello, who was known to be part of the James gang.

Stiles took part in the failed bank robbery made in the town of Northfield in 1876.

He is one of the few gang members with Minnesota connections, since most of the gang was from Missouri, including Frank and Jesse James, and the Younger brothers, Bob, Cole and Jim.

In fact, it was thought Stiles was killed in the Northfield raid, since an outlaw named Bill Chadwell was one of two gang members killed during the attempted robbery. Chadwell and Stiles were thought to be the same person.

However, decades later, Stiles came forward, saying that he was actually posted outside of Northfield during the robbery as a lookout for the gang’s getaway.

“That makes sense,” Koblas commented, since it was common practice for the gang to prefer a local man for this purpose; however, he cautioned that it’s not proven that Stiles was actually the ninth man.

Many others say that Koblas’ research and his book proves that Stiles was the ninth man, but Koblas maintains that this is not true. “We don’t know for sure,” he said.

Koblas noted that Stiles’ father came from Grand Forks to identify the body and walked away smiling, and saying “That isn’t my son.”

He has done a great deal of research for all of his 22 books about the Old West.

The James gang made about a dozen robberies of both banks and trains during a 10-year spree from 1866 to 1876, Koblas said.

Two of the Younger brothers died in Minnesota, one from consumption (tuberculosis), which took the life of Bob while he was in Stillwater, and Jim committing suicide in 1902 in St. Paul.

The death of Jim was sad because he planned to marry a lady friend who worked for the Pioneer Press, Koblas said.

Paroled prisoners were not allowed to make legal contracts; in fact they were technically thought of as being dead, he said.

When Jim was told this, he went back to his hotel room and shot himself. He was in his mid 50s.

The James and Younger brothers weren’t so much bad men as victims of geography, since they grew up in the Civil War during the Missouri-Kansas border war, Koblas said.

“They would have made nice farm kids . . . except Jesse (James). He was a psychopath,” he said.

They witnessed unspeakable violence against their families from the hands of Union soldiers, even though the Younger boys’ father was pro-union.

Frank James actually joined the Confederate Army, Koblas noted.

The early violence made them bitter and willing to look at other options, he noted.

Old West books, DVDs available

Those who are interested in seeing a re-enactment of the Northfield robbery, including Jeff Amland’s performance, may purchase copies of the documentary or the book it is based on, both of the same name.

Two more documentaries are underway based on Koblas’ books, including “Robbers of the Rails, The Sontag Boys of Minnesota,” due out next year and based on Koblas’ book of the same name, and “Bad Boys and Bullets,” which is also based on Koblas’ writing and research.

The Sontag boys are from the Mankato area, when Minnesota was considered frontier land.Re-enactor Rob Utz, who visited Howard Lake Thursday as part of Koblas’ book signing, plays a poet who tracks down and interviews the Sontag boys.

Other books written by Koblas include Faithful Unto Death, Jess James Ate Here, When the Heavens Fell - the Youngers in Stillwater Prison, The Great Cole Younger’s Frank James Historical Wild West Show, and Bushwhacker! Cole Younger and the Kansas Missouri Border War.

To order, stop at Inspired by Nature, go online to www.mnriv.com/koblas.html, or call (952) 894-7958.

To look up information about the Bad Boys and Bullets film, go to www.badboysbullets.com

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