Throwback Thursday – When the Jesse James Outlaw Gang Came to Town

Southern Kentucky is no stranger to Jesse James legends and lore. While some tales have been stretched a bit tall, there’s one from nearby Russellville that’s quite real. Re-enacted with a gunfight and chase every year at the Logan County Tobacco Festival, this is the story of a bank robbery. 

It was March 20, 1868, at the Old Southern Bank on the square. The Confederate bandit Cole Younger disguised himself as a Texas cattleman called Colburn. He enlisted help of brothers Frank and Jesse James, cousins George and Oll Shepherd, John Jarrette, Dick Liddil, Arthur McCoy and Jim White. The James-Younger gang hung around town for a week, as “cattleman Colburn” cased the bank and offered its president, Mr. Long, a counterfeit high-dollar bill for change. It was about two in the afternoon when Mr. Long, a clerk in the bank named Barclay, and a local farmer called Simmons, were held up at gunpoint by Cole Younger, while others filled their saddlebags with over nine thousand dollars from the cash boxes and about five thousand in gold and silver coins from the open wall safe. The rest of the gang kept watch outside while firing shots at shocked citizens.

Mr. Long found the courage to fight while the gang was getting its fill. A Cole Younger bullet grazed his head, but he still ran out to tell the town what was happening inside. The gang hopped on their horses and fled, with a 40-man posse in hot pursuit. The posse lost the trail five miles later. In a couple days, the Nashville Banner newspaper reported the gang was sighted just over the L&N railroad line in Mitchellsville, Tenn.

The James-Younger gang was the most wanted and publicized gang of outlaws in the American West, active for 20 years from 1861 to 1881. Southern Kentucky legends say the gang fled the opposite direction that day, hiding out in Lost River Cave and others in the Mammoth Cave system to nurse their injuries. The bank still operates on the square, now a BB&T. Jesse James hideout tales became tourist traps and good old-fashioned legends.