Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Y is for Cole Younger

Thomas Coleman “Cole” Younger grew up on a wealthy farm in Missouri. When the Civil War started, he joined the rebel bushwhacker band of William Clarke Quantrill. In those chaotic days, his father was murdered by a Union militia, and this gave him a burning hatred of the North.

When the South lost he found he couldn't put the war behind him and was a founding member of the James–Younger gang with fellow bushwhackers Frank and Jesse James and other ex-rebels. He participated in the gang's first robbery, that of the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri, in 1866. Cole went on to a successful life in crime, sometimes teaming up with the James brothers and sometimes working with his two brothers, Jim and Bob, or other outlaws. The "gang's" membership was always fluid.

Cole hit stagecoaches, trains, and banks, and his activity included Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Iowa, and West Virginia. He had a reputation for being practical and level-headed, which put him at odds with the impulsive and showy Jesse James. The gang came to disaster during the robbery of a bank at Northfield, Minnesota in 1876. During the shootout and ensuing chase, three robbers were killed and everyone else wounded. Only the James brothers escaped. Cole and his brothers were captured and sentenced to life in prison.

After serving 25 years, Cole was released. For a while he was a traveling tombstone salesman, then he co-managed a Wild West show with Frank James, and also took time to lecture on the subject of how crime doesn’t pay. In 1903 he wrote the book The Story of Cole Younger by Himself: An Auto-biography of the Missouri Guerrilla, Confederate Cavalry Officer, and Western Outlaw, a remarkable piece of self-puffery that's fun to read but shouldn't be taken as anything close to history.

Here's a weird bit of trivia: in the 1957 movie The True Story of Jesse James, Gilligan's Island Skipper Alan Hale, Jr., plays Cole Younger. Having that actor forever associated in my mind as the Skipper made his appearance in this western more than a little distracting! Here's another bit of trivia, the actor's father, Alan Hale, Senior, who looked much like his son, played Little John in two versions of Robin Hood: the 1938 Errol Flynn version and the silent 1922 version.

There, I've managed to link Jesse James and Gilligan's Island. My life is complete.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia. The entry for Cole Younger in Wikipedia is peppered with errors. Read a book about him instead.


  1. I just read about him on Shannon's site!

  2. Hi Sean .. amazing that he survived 25 years inside - and then got writing etc .. fascinating man he must have been ... pity he lost 25 years - but c'est la vie ..

    Cheers Hilary


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