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By MARK EVANS
STE. GENEVIEVE HERALD
Oliver D. Harris, enjoying a peaceful, sunny Tuesday morning, visiting with Firmin J. Rozier prior to opening the Ste. Genevieve Savings Association Bank, apparently decided he needed to get to work when he saw a pair of men take a long look at the building, then start up the steps to the door.
Leaving Rozier, son of community leader and Harris’ boss, General Firmin A. Rozier, who was out of town for a meeting, Harris hurried inside to wait on the two men’s needs. What he got, instead, were a pair of guns pointed at his head, as an introduction to perhaps the most famous gang of outlaws in U.S. history.
The James Gang was in Ste. Genevieve.
The date was May 26, 1873 when the James-Younger Gang came calling in bright daylight.
“He started to go behind the counter, and when he had got about half way one of the men put two navy revolvers at his head and commanded him to open the safe,” according to a story in the New York Times. The local Ste. Genevieve Fair Play was more descriptive.
The two men, it mentioned, had said, ‘Good morning gentlemen,” to Harris and Rozier, before walking into the bank.
“As soon as they had reached the room in which the safe is situated each one drew a pistol and presented it to Mr. Harris’ head and said, ‘Open that safe, damn you, or I will blow your brains out,’” the Fair Play reported.
Rozier, still on the steps outside, overheard the threat and started to run to alert the townspeople. Two other men who had accompanied the first two, flourished guns and ordered Rozier to stop. He wisely hit the ground.
The Fair Play tried to get into Harris’ mindset.
“Placed under such circumstances as Mr. Harris was, it can easily be imagined that he was not long in making up his mind as to the best course to pursue, particularly when persuaded by such arguments as being hit over the head with the navy-sixes, so he opened the safe, the contents of which they soon possessed themselves of, and then taking Mr. Harris by the arm, they made him accompany them to where they had their horses hitched and wait until they mounted, when they started off at full speed, shooting off their pistols in every direction, not failing to send a few in the direction of Mr. Harris, who in order to save himself, had to take refuge behind a tree.”
According to the Times article, they made of with $3,600 in notes and about $200 in gold coins, as well as some other valuable papers.
The Times article adds a description of the robbers forcing a German resident to chase down one of their horses that had ran off, and that they also took Harris’ gold watch.
They reportedly shouted “Hurrah for Hildebrand,” referring to legendary regional ex-Confederate guerilla and robber Sam Hildebrand.
The Times article mentioned the location of the bank, which stood at Merchant and North Main (about where the pergola stands today) until its razing in 1934, and noted that, due to the heavy traffic in that part of town, “the audacity of the exploit will be understood.”
WERE THE JAMES BROTHERS HERE?
The robbery is listed among the James-Younger Gang’s recorded robberies as merely “four members” of the gang taking part. Over the years there has been some question as to whether Jesse and Frank James were among the four.
Author Gregory M. Franzwa was one who doubted this, noting in an email to this writer in the 1990s, that “Jesse was a vain character” and would likely have claimed publicity for the raid.
T.J. Stiles, in his book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, expressed a belief that the brothers were indeed here, along with the Younger brothers, Cole and Bob.
He said the St. Louis police soon identified the two pairs of brothers as the robbers.
“The evidence would never be publicly known, but the cool professionalism and raw daring of the crime pointed to the increasingly famous bandits,” Stiles said.
The makeup of each band sent out by the gang was somewhat fluid.
“The gang now had even less structure than a wartime band of bushwhackers,” Stiles wrote. “Given the long months that separated their raids, the crew took on a somewhat new shape with each robbery, drawing from a small pool of relatives and former guerrillas.”
Stiles noted that although Jesse James was the “public face” of the gang, “it would be a mistake simply to deem him the leader.”
In a 1993 Herald article on the 120th anniversary of the raid, William Preston Mangum II argued that it most likely was the James brothers, since the operation strongly resembled other robberies they had led, including making Harris follow them to where their horses were tied.