"Bandits Get $4,500 in Raid This Morning," read one of the headlines of the Marshall News Messenger newspaper on Jan. 3, 1933.
"Three gunmen, who spread roofing nails on the highway to prevent pursuit, escaped amid a fusillade of bullets after they held up and robbed the new Farmers and Merchants Bank in Russell today.
"It was not known whether any of the band were wounded. Violet Peterson, assistant cashier, was in the bank alone when two of the trio sauntered into it. One walked over to the cashier's window, presented a $1 bill, and asked for change. As Miss Peterson handed him the change, she was confronted by a pistol. 'Get down on that floor quick and don't make a sound,' one of the gunmen ordered. Another robber stood guard while the other started to ransack the till in the cash cage and the vault. While the holdup was in progress, E.C. Jones of Russell walked in. He was forced to lie alongside Miss Peterson. As they ran from the bank and got into the car driven by a third man, Jones arose. Meanwhile, Oscar Burchard, realizing that a bank robbery was taking place as he stood in his establishment across the street, hurried to the bank with a rifle. Burchard handed the rifle to Jones, who ran into the street and fired a volley of shots at the fleeing car. A mail carrier who saw the car 3 miles north and 2 miles west of Russell, said he had heard a machine, apparently the car occupied by the bandits, had been punctured by several bullets. An effort was made to pursue the band, but as the pursuers reached the outskirts of the village, they were thwarted as the tires of their car were punctured by roofing nails scattered by the raiders."
During the Depression of the 1930s it is believed that, with few exceptions, every bank in Lyon County was robbed at least once. Our county history books (including town histories) say little about these robberies, maybe because they probably were committed by locals rather than by marauding groups of bandits. Times were difficult, and sometimes people felt there was no other recourse than to rob for the money and goods that were needed by their families. There were times that even clothes hung out on the line to dry were stolen.
In addition to the robberies of banks, the Marshall Grocery Company store was robbed during the 1930s of approximately $30,000 worth of supplies. One astonishing robbery took place at Olson and Lowe, the men's clothing store in Marshall, where every suit of clothing was stolen in an overnight robbery.
As far as we know, the only famous bandit that visited Lyon County was Jesse James. And he did not come to rob the residents, but rather to find overnight accommodation or ask directions on his journey through the area. According to an article submitted by Mrs. Harold Hook, of Tracy, to the Centennial History of Lyon County, 1970, the Nils Rosvold family of Lucas Township received a visitor one evening in 1876. He was mounted on a splendid horse with ornate riding equipment and was heavily armed with rifles and pistols. The Rosvolds indicated that the man had a sinister aura about him, but he asked civilly enough for food and a night's lodging. The family avoided displeasing the stranger. He refused a bed but chose a place to sleep across from the kitchen door and carefully laid out his weapons close to hand. In the morning he was gone. About a year later the Rosvolds, after seeing newspaper pictures about the Northfield gang, were able to identify their visitor as Jesse James.
A couple of other incidents that took place in the area indicate that James may have passed through southwest Minnesota a couple of times. One incident involved a burial site in Section 22, again in Lucas Township. In 1876 three strangers camped on a hillside for several days and when they left, neighbors found a fresh grave. These neighbors believed that Frank and Jesse James were the strangers and that they stayed with their wounded comrade and buried him after his death. They believed this tied in with the time period after the Northfield raid in which the James brothers disappeared for several weeks to reappear in South Dakota.
It is also believed that the Burdette brothers, who were the first people to occupy the northeast quarter of Section 20, Lucas Township, once belonged to the Jesse James gang. As a boy in the 1870s, Tennis E. Anderson of Lucas Township used to herd cattle in the neighborhood of the Burdettes. He told of their beautiful horses and fancy saddles. In their sod dugout they had one bunk entirely covered with shotguns, rifles and revolvers. According to Anderson's account, the Burdettes had no interest in farming but spent their time hunting. On occasion they would pay Anderson one quarter (an extravagant amount) for retrieving ducks from the lake.
It is interesting to note that many of the villains of the 1870s came from fairly well-to-do, normal families. Some had fathers who were prosperous farmers (Bill Doolin); others came from ministerial backgrounds (Jesse and Frank James) or store owners (Butch Cassidy). At anywhere between the ages of 14-20, restlessness overtook them, and they headed West seeking adventure and excitement. Some started their crime sprees early, as soon as they linked up with already established gangs. Others worked as cowboys, deputies or marshals before turning to the more lucrative and exciting life of crime.
History continues to repeat itself. Today we read about gangs in our cities - and some in our rural area. The names of the gangs are different, and we now are given psychological and sociological reasons for the crime sprees they create, but it is true: "the more things change, the more they stay the same."
(Continued next week)