Shot All to Hell “Shot All to Hell – Jesse James, The Northfield Raid and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape” by Mark Lee Gardner

William Morrow, $27.99, 309 pp.

Mark Lee Gardner discusses his new book “Shot All to Hell” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8 at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW.

By David Steinberg

Billy the Kid and Jesse James are probably the most written-about – and talked-about – outlaws of the 19th century American West.

Mark Lee Gardner is among those historians writing about them.

But what sets Gardner apart from the pack is his “you-are-there” style of writing. He puts the reader in the moment, in the action.

So you feel like you’re in the same Santa Fe jail cell with Billy the Kid when he’s penning letters asking to meet with New Mexico Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace. A cell in a jail that Gardner described as “a dismal, one-story building on Water Street…”

Gardner’s 2010 book was “To Hell on a Fast Horse – Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West.”

Now Gardner is back with a “you-are-there” book about that other famous outlaw – Jesse James.

His new book is titled “Shot All to Hell – Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape.”

Read it and you feel the suspense as you’re riding a horse in the James-Younger gang. You’re casing the town of Northfield, Minn., on the way to robbing the First National Bank in September 1876.

Northfield’s citizens soon suspected these horsemen weren’t a bunch of smiling strangers. Hearing of a bank robbery in progress, many of the citizens grabbed their guns and rifles and began firing at the robbers. In the brief gun battle, two outlaws and two citizens were killed. The gang fled.

The keys to their escape, Gardner said, were the gang’s experience as bushwhackers on the run and the mistakes made by the posses and the sheriffs. Bushwhackers were Confederate sympathizers who engaged in guerrilla warfare during the Civil War.

“Often, I think, when (the lawmen) got close they were intimidated. The outlaws had never been defeated,” Gardner said. “When they got close they never wanted to be that close.”

Mark Lee Gardner ap1-1The author had been drawn to the myth of Jesse James from an early age.
Gardner grew up in Breckenridge, Mo., which he called “the heart of Jesse James country, the heart of bushwhacker country. …  So when I was finished with Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, I wanted to get back to my roots,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Cascade, Colo.

James, he said, robbed his first bank in Gallatin, Mo., 12 miles from Breckenridge, which is 60 miles from St. Joseph, Mo., where James was killed.
James and his cohorts weren’t the Robin Hoods many believed they were, Gardner said.

The thousands of dollars they got from robbing banks and trains they spent fast and on themselves, he said.

“In a way, in the back of their minds, people who didn’t have that kind of money were glad somebody was hitting these rich companies,” Gardner said. “But what they were ignoring was that the men killed, and killed in cold blood.”

And they killed people who were innocent victims.

“We forget the victims of the mayhem,” Gardner said. “We have this overriding fascination with outlaws. We can’t get enough of them, I guess.”

Today the town of Northfield continues to remember the raid and shootout with a re-enactment.

“It’s got to be in the top three historical re-enactments in the country. They’ve been doing it for decades,” he said. “As a historian writing about it, I was totally entranced. It’s hard for historians to get a sense of scale.”

There’s also a related re-enactment of the capture of the Younger brothers on the banks of the Watonwan River.

At Bookworks on Thursday, Aug. 8, Gardner will also sing two 19th century ballads, “Jesse James” and “Cole Younger,” which he said were popular with cowboys. Both songs are sympathetic to the outlaws.

Then on Friday, Aug. 9, Gardner will perform in concert of cowboy music with Rex Rideout at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe. Gardner plays banjo and guitar, Rideout fiddle and mandolin.

Gardner said he’s working on his next book, which is about Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. Research on it will bring him back to New Mexico.