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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales from Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

The James-Younger Gang Robs the Ste. Genevieve Savings Bank - Probably

Jesse James a few years after the Ste. Genevieve Savings Bank robbery.
Library of Congress
Jesse James a few years after the Ste. Genevieve Savings Bank robbery.

The morning of May 27, 1873, began as a quiet, peaceful day in Ste. Genevieve. The Ste. Genevieve Savings Bank cashier, Dudley Harris, and young Firmin Rozier arrived to open at 10 a.m. Concurrently, four men rode into town, hitched their horses, and headed toward the bank. Two stopped outside, while the other two started into the building with Harris and Rozier. (A fifth man likely watched the road at the edge of town.) As all the men entered the bank, one drew a pistol, pointed it at Harris’ head and said, “Open that safe, …, or I will blow your brains out.” Rozier immediately jumped up and began to run to give the alarm. One of the men outside told him to halt or he would kill him, then fired. However, Rozier tripped just at that time, so the bullet missed, and he made his escape.

Meanwhile Harris quickly opened the safe. The men emptied it of $3500 and a box with $100 in gold and valuable papers, took Harris’s pocket watch, and pulled him out with them. He was made to wait until they mounted up, then rode away at full speed. They fired their pistols in all directions, and Harris sought safety behind a tree. One account stated the riders yelled, “Hurrah for Sam Hildebrand! Catch the horse thieves if you can!”-- a reference to Civil War bushwhacker Samuel Hildebrand.

Harris and Rozier’s alarm caused those in earshot to rush for arms and horses, and parties were soon in hot pursuit. The lead party, consisting of the Marshall, Deputy Sheriff, and Charles Valle soon caught up with the men, who had stopped nearby to divide the money. The robbers began firing, and the pursuers beat a hasty retreat. The gang re-mounted and sped away, not to be seen again.

Additional accounts in newspapers began to add some details absent from the first accounts, such as stating that Rozier had been shot. Another story was the thieves met a German man on the road and gave the box with valuable papers to him, stating he could claim a reward if he returned them to the bank. Likely none of this was true.

As time passed and more details leaked out, it appeared that the perpetrators of the Ste. Genevieve bank robbery were none other than the James-Younger gang. The gang, known for its ability to move over a wide area, would rob a train in Adair, Iowa two months later, and the Gads Hill store and train eight months later.

However, there remains some question about who exactly DID rob the Ste. Genevieve bank. One James H. Reed claimed to be the lead actor in both the Gads Hill train and the Ste. Genevieve Bank robberies when authorities apprehended him in Texas in August 1874. However, he was killed at the time of his capture and had no more to say on the matter. Additionally, Cole Younger claimed not to have participated—which does not rule out the remainder of the gang performing the deed. Gang members Frank and Jesse James, John or Cole Younger, and Kit Dalton likely participated.

The tale of the Ste. Genevieve bank robbery exemplifies the problems with tracing the trail of the James-Younger gang. The gang committed some of their crimes and evidence corroborates that. Others are questionable to varying degrees.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.