Author's Ninth-Man Theory
Sheds New Light On Northfield Bank Raid
On July 19, 1913, a dead man walked into Los Angeles, monitoring actions of the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroad. This dead man, desperado Bill Stiles, a former member of the notorious Jesse James gang, had been killed in the dusty streets of Northfield, Minn., Sept. 7, 1876, during a robbery attempt. Or had he?
With the opening paragraph of his newest book, Burnsville historian and author John Koblas throws a wrench into traditional retellings of the Jesse James raid at Northfield.
"The Jesse James Northfield Raid: Confessions of the Ninth Man" introduces evidence that the legendary First National Bank heist was carried out by nine robbers, not eight. The eight-man theory has been widely accepted since publication of the first "definitive" account by Professor George Huntington in 1895 - "Robber and Hero: The Story on the Raid of the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota."
"That thing has always been the bible," Koblas said. "Any book that's been written since has been pretty much a retelling. Somebody raises any contradictions and people get upset, because this is the way it's always been."
Koblas, whose book was published last September by Northfield Press of St. Cloud, may have thought he was being confronted over his revisionist history a few months later while giving a lecture at the Stillwater library. Eight fellows wearing menacing Old West garb and holsters entered the room.
They were actually members of the Old West Society of Minnesota, an organization dedicated to preserving and re-enacting Old West history. After the lecture, the men grilled Koblas about his research.
The meeting was the genesis of a video re-enactment the Old West Society will begin shooting this spring, with Koblas as historical consultant. Scenes will be staged at Murphy's Landing in Shakopee, the Dakota City historical village in Farmington and several other southern Minnesota locations.
"If it comes off really well and I can do a good job of editing it and everybody gets involved, it certainly would be of the quality that one could present to the History Channel or Discovery Channel," said director Derk Hansen of Woodbury, one of about 150 Old West Society members. "And with John's idea about the ninth man, it's certainly something that nobody's touched."
Theories have always circulated that there were more than eight gangsters at Northfield, but substantiation has been flimsy.
"History tells us there were eight robbers," said Koblas, who, in addition to spending 16 years researching the Northfield raid, has written or edited six books on Minnesota literary giants Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. "I say there's a very, very strong possibility of a ninth man waiting at the edge of town, probably with fresh horses, but probably to guard the escape route."
That man, Koblas suggests, was Bill Stiles. Koblas' account, which he intended to be the most probing in the Jesse James/Northfield canon, is book-ended by chapters both positing and questioning the nine-man theory.
Captured in the robbery were three members of the James-Younger gang: Cole, Jim and Bob Younger. Two unidentified men believed to be Frank and Jesse James escaped. And three robbers were killed: Clell Miller, Charlie Pitts and Bill Chadwell, aka Bill Chadwick, aka Bill Stiles.
The identity of the third dead man, Chadwell/Chadwick/Stiles, is inconclusive, which lends credence to the theory that a ninth man who lived to tell about the raid surfaced years later in Los Angeles. One of many pieces of evidence Koblas uncovered is a report that Bill Stiles' father traveled from Grand Forks, N.D., to Northfield to identify his son's body. But he left town relieved that the man he was shown wasn't his son.
Bill Stiles, a Minnesota-born career criminal, underwent a religious conversion at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles in 1913. In 1931 he granted an interview to Ed Earl Repp, a writer of science fiction and sensational Old West stories.
Though Stiles complained that Repp's published account of the interview was embellished, it did make public Stiles' "confession" that he was the ninth man in the Northfield raid, waiting on the edge of town, unseen by witnesses.
Koblas began researching the robbery and the James-Younger gang in the early 1980s.
"Everywhere the boys were, I went," said Koblas, 58.
Gang members had showed up in several Minnesota cities - including Mankato, Faribault, Owatonna and Red Wing - while scouting for a bank to rob. According to Koblas, they were lured to Minnesota from the South by Stiles, whose description of Minnesotans as rubes made them seem easy marks for a robbery.
On the Set of "The Ninth Man" Documentary
l. to r. Derk Hansen (Director), Actor as Bill Stiles
and Author John J Koblas
The gang eventually decided on the Northfield bank because two hated Union Army generals kept their money there, said Koblas, whose book explores the social ramifications of an event that put Northfield on the national stage.
"They wanted to rob a bank full of Yankee gold," Koblas said. "It was a North-South thing. ... Some people actually called this raid on Northfield the last battle of the Civil War. The war had been over for 11 years."
Poking into newspaper and historical-society archives, Koblas found correspondence from people at the Union Rescue Mission, where the God-fearing Stiles had been hired as night watchman. The correspondence defended Stiles' frequently attacked claim that he was the ninth man. A Christian man, the defenders said, would never lie.
"Koblas is a bulldog of a researcher," wrote former Star Tribune book editor Dave Wood in one of several laudatory reviews of the book.
The Old West Society's Hansen, a former member of the Jesse James Gang re-enactment troupe, thinks the book will translate well to video.
"I even went so far as to get myself a quite complicated program creating an old film look with the flicker and the jumping frames and the lines and the dust," said Hansen, who has a video editing suite in his home. "And it looks quite well."