In 1872, the Jesse James gang paid a violent visit to Columbia, KY
By James Hines • Illustrations by Jackie Larkins
R. A. C. Martin liked his job as cashier of the Deposit Bank of Columbia, Kentucky. He took his responsibilities seriously, often remarking that he would never surrender the bank’s funds to a robber, that he would die to defend the money entrusted to his care.
On the morning of April 29, 1872, Martin began his day as he usually did by unlocking the vault and opening the safe, taking out money for the cash drawer. Then he closed and relocked the safe before opening for business.
Not many people were astir in the small town when five men rode into the public square that morning. Three of the men dismounted and entered the bank. The other two remained in their saddles, riding slowly around the square and watching the bank’s entrance.
Martin was busy at the cashier’s desk in the rear of the bank. Four other men sat and talked at a large round table near the front door. They were: Judge James Garnett, president of the bank, Major T. C. Winfrey, James T. Page, and W. H. Hudson.
One of the strangers approached Martin, another approached Judge Garnett, and the third walked toward Hudson. When the strangers pulled out Colt .45s Judge Garnett cried out, “Robbers! Bank robbers!”
The man who had approached Judge Garnett moved toward him, gun in hand. Hudson seized a chair and struck out at the gunman, who dodged, his finger on the trigger. With remarkable quickness of thought, Judge Garnett struck the man’s hand just as the gun went off; the bullet hit his hand, causing an injury that years later necessitated the amputation of the hand.
As the third robber glanced toward the commotion, Martin went for the gun he kept in a desk drawer. But the robber, later identified as Frank James, returned his attention to the cashier in time to shoot Martin.
Hudson and Judge Garnett grappled with the large man who had shot the judge. That gunman was later identified as Cole Younger. Winfrey and Page took advantage of the confusion to run outside and spread the alarm. Seeing them run out of the bank followed by one of the robbers, the two mounted bandits began shooting at anything that moved. Page made it to safety but Winfrey was slightly wounded when he started through the door of Kemp’s Drug Store and a bullet hit the doorframe, sending splinters into his face.
Inside the bank, Judge Garnett and Hudson finally managed to throw Younger to the floor and escape. The other two remaining robbers took what money they found in the cash drawer, less than $1,500, but were unable to get into the locked safe. They apparently dragged the unconscious and bleeding Martin to the safe, intending to force him to open it—not realizing he was mortally wounded.
A trail of blood led from the cashier’s desk to the safe, where townspeople found Martin’s body after the robbery.
Out on the street, the three robbers jumped on their horses and headed out of town amid a fusillade of gunfire. Hearing the cries of “Bank robbers!” a young man named Montgomery Craven, working in the hardware store, grabbed the gun kept in a drawer and ran outside, taking cover behind a barrel. He shot at the bandits, but missed his targets.
Several days before the robbery and murder, the five strangers rode into Columbia on fine horses and stayed at the home of Green B. Acres. They represented themselves as livestock buyers and were very amenable as they rode about the community, apparently seeking cattle to purchase. In reality they were learning the lay of the land, so they would know the best routes out of town for a quick getaway.
No suspicion, then or later, was attached to Acres. He was as astonished as everyone else when he discovered that he had unwittingly hosted five members of the infamous James outlaw gang.
After the robbery, the gang rode out Burkesville Street and continued to Petite’s Fork; turning up the creek, they followed it past Conover’s Mill. Arriving at a gate that led onto another road, they encountered William Conover.
The heavily bearded leader of the gang, later identified from Conover’s description as Jesse James, ordered him to open the gate.
Conover stiffened. “Open it yourself,” he said in a disagreeable way. He suddenly found himself looking into the barrels of five Colt .45 revolvers. Conover opened the gate wide, bowed low, and said, “Right this way, gentlemen!” For the rest of his life he was known as “Open the Gate” Bill Conover.
Meanwhile, back in Columbia, indignation rose over the murder of a beloved citizen. A posse quickly formed under the leadership of Captain J. R. Hindman, later a lieutenant governor of the Commonwealth. But the pursuit failed: the bandits covered their tracks well.
Every effort was made to apprehend and bring the bandits to justice. The bank offered a $2,500 reward for the murderers of Martin, but no one was ever arrested for the crime.
The original bank building burned to the ground in 1916. A new building was erected and the bank, now named the Bank of Columbia, is still in business on the square in Columbia.
The safe that Martin refused to open was eventually replaced with a newer model. For many years a part of the old safe stood at the blacksmith shop of John Conover on Jamestown Street, where it was used as a cooling tub.
A picture of R. A. C. Martin hangs in the bank, in memory of his supreme sacrifice and partial success in foiling the bank robbery.
As for the robbers, it is thought that besides the James brothers and Cole Younger, the other two were Bob and James Younger, brothers of Cole. The money they took from the Columbia bank was one of the smallest amounts they collected in any robbery.
The James Gang met their Waterloo in September 1876, when they took on the bank in Northfield, Minnesota. The townspeople united and stood up against them, and all the gang members were killed, wounded, or captured except Jesse and Frank James.
The three Younger boys were captured at Northfield. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to life imprisonment. After serving 25 years they were pardoned with the exception of Bob, who died from tuberculosis while still in prison.
One year after his release, James Younger shot himself, despondent, they say, over an unrequited love affair.
Cole lived until 1916, when he died at Lee’s Summit, Missouri. His body held 17 bullets at his death.
After the unsuccessful robbery attempt in Northfield, the James brothers moved with their families to Nashville, Tennessee. They hid out there, living under assumed names for five years before returning to Missouri.
Frank James died from a heart attack at his mother’s old home farm in Clay County, Missouri, in 1915. Both Frank James and Cole Younger traveled about the country lecturing on the “crime does not pay” theme for many years.
Jesse and his family moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1881, where he was known as Tom Howard. With most of his gang dead or in prison, he recruited brothers Charlie and Bob Ford to help him rob yet another bank. They were in his home planning the robbery when Jesse turned to straighten a picture on the wall. Bob Ford shot him in the back of the head. The date was April 3, 1882.
When the Ford brothers tried to collect the $10,000 reward for killing him they were arrested, but were immediately pardoned by the governor of the state.
Charlie committed suicide in a vacant lot in Kansas City two years later—supposedly in remorse over his part in the killing.
Bob, according to the words of a song, was the “dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard and laid poor Jesse in his grave.” He went west and bought a cheap honky-tonk in Creed, Colorado, where he himself was killed by a man named Ed O. Kelly in 1892.
Thus ended the careers of some of the world’s most infamous outlaws.