Aug 10, 1887
The first issue of the “Prison Mirror,” the newspaper of the Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater, is published. Bank robber Cole Younger was associate editor.*
“The three Youngers – Cole, Jim and Bob – were part of the foiled bank robbery in Northfield on Sept. 7, 1876. During the robbery, the bank’s head cashier and a townsman were shot and killed. Several of the robbers were eventually killed, but two got away. It is believed that the elusive pair was Frank and Jesse James. But the Youngers were captured after a lively shoot-out with the law in a swampy area near Madelia.
The Youngers were charged with first-degree murder; they pled guilty and received life sentences at the Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater.
The brothers arrived at the prison on Nov. 22, 1876. They were addressed by Warden John Abbott Reed who assigned them numbers: Cole was inmate 699, Jim was number 700, and Bob was number 701. They were then processed like every other new convict and introduced to their new home.
The cultural side of prison life
The convicts also had access to a prison library, which Cole Younger oversaw. The library had about 6,000 volumes at the convicts’ disposal. Each inmate was given a library catalogue and was permitted to withdraw two books a week. If an inmate mutilated a book, however, he was denied further library privileges.
Music was a part of prison life, as the lockup had a band and orchestra. The inmate band was led by a citizen music teacher from outside the walls, and the instruments were paid for out of fees received from visitors, each of whom paid 25 cents to tour the prison. The band would play during drill time and on Sundays.
The Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater also had an institutional newspaper launched with funds raised – incredibly enough – by the inmates themselves. The Prison Mirror began publication in August 1887 with $200 seed money, $50 of it donated by the Youngers. In the first edition, Cole was given the “honorary” title of “Printer’s Devil.” By the second edition, he was assistant editor. By edition three, the editor had been paroled and Cole toiled on in anonymity, no longer receiving any editorial credit in the future editions.
Cole would occasionally submit items to be published in the Mirror, and he was mentioned in the paper periodically for his prison shenanigans.
The Prison Mirror is still published, and remains the oldest continuously published prison newspaper in the United States.
Warden Henry Wolfer took over command of the Stillwater Prison in 1892, and brought a radical new approach to prison management. Rather than punishing hardened criminals, Wolfer instead instituted ways to reform the convicts and try to mold them into useful citizens upon release. He did this by instituting educational classes so convicts could learn to read and write. He also allowed more “drill time,” or time outside in the yard. With these and other innovations, Wolfer quickly became known as the country’s leading prison expert.
Wolfer also saw that the old prison needed to be replaced. The limestone walls were crumbling, and the swamps were taking over the prison yard. Through Wolfer’s efforts, money was set aside for a new prison by the state legislature in 1905 and 1907. It was Henry Wolfer that helped design the state prison that is now in operation in Bayport.
It was during the construction of the new prison that W.C. Heilbron wrote his book, “Convict Life.” In 1910, a former Stillwater prison convict named John Carter wrote an article for Century Magazine entitled, “Prison Life as I found it.” This article seemed to be a response to Heilbron’s book. Carter didn’t portray the “modern prison” as rosy as Heilbron, but did give the warden credit for reforms. In his lengthy article, Carter suggested several things to make prison life more bearable for the inmates, such as allowing inmates to talk to each other and having a baseball field available for their use.
A few months later, Wolfer responded to the article through an open letter in the magazine. Wolfer said he found Carter’s suggestions credible, and “with the completion of our new prison, we shall be able to correct most, if not all, of the defects mentioned by Mr. Carter.”
In 1914, the last of the convicts were moved out of the old prison in Stillwater and moved to the new quarters in Bayport. The Bayport prison is now 82 years old, and to Wolfer’s credit, the institution is still being used as a “modern prison.”
It was Warden Henry Wolfer who started the national reform movement in America’s prisons. It is not known whether Wolfer would have allowed the weight rooms and cable television found in prisons today.
William Heilbron’s “Convict Life,” written nearly 90 years ago, gives us a peek into what it was like to be behind the limestone walls of Stillwater Prison. The book is being re-published by the Stillwater-based Valley History Press. The new issue tells the whole interesting story in 190 pages. It is filled with photographs and information that will truly put the reader in the cellblock of the old state prison. The book also includes a chapter written by one of the most notorious outlaws to ever spend time behind the Stillwater walls: Cole Younger.”
Jan. 15, 1844
Mar. 21, 1916
“Post Civil War Outlaw. Today, Cole Younger’s days of outlawry evokes romance and even chivalry in American folklore. However, the romantic, loveable character portrayed is far from the truth. Cole was instead a heartless cold blooded murderer of not only peace officers and bank tellers but women and children. Cole first killed at 17, was wanted dead or alive at 18 and is credited with killing dozens including innocent bystanders. He was born near Lee’s Summit as Thomas Coleman Younger, the son of a prosperous livery and dry goods business owner into a family of 14 children. His father was robbed and killed by members of the Kansas Militia. Spurred on by many injustices attributed to federal authorities, he joined William Clarke Quantrill as a member of his Confederate raiders during the Civil War, participating in many daring and bloody exploits, including the infamous Lawrence, Kansas, massacre. He was 18 at the time, selected because he owned a revolver. Younger left Quantrill’s renegades and joined the regular Confederate Army attaining the rank of Captain and led his own company while serving in Louisiana and later California. At the close of the war, Cole returned home and went to work on his mother’s farm. He soon became a desperado, robbing banks, trains, stagecoaches and people with Jesse Woodson James at times then a gang of his own, a family affair, with many of his brothers. Cole Younger was friends with Myra Shirley (Bell Starr) who he knew from childhood and during flights from lawmen would sometimes hide out at the Shirley family farm. Bell would turn to crime herself. A fateful attempt in 1876 to rob the Northfield, Minnesota bank, severely wounded, Younger was captured, tried and sentenced to twenty five years in state prison at Stillwater, Minnesota. There he became a hero helping to protect women convicts during a disastrous fire. He founded the “Prison Mirror,” a newspaper intended to shed a ray of light upon the lives of those behind bars. Paroled and able to obtain a pardon at age 59, his first job was at the Peterson Granite Company in Stillwater making tombstones. He later teamed up with his old comrade Frank James to form a Wild West show. Finding religion, he went on the Chataqua lecture circuit speaking on the evils of crime and drink. He wrote and had published a badly embellished autobiography of his criminal past. With old age creeping ever closer, Cole purchased a house in Lee’s Summit enjoying the good life while sitting on his porch reading his ever present bible and talking with neighbors, reporters and friends. Impressionable youngsters began calling him “Uncle Cole.” His health steadily declined. He died peacefully in his own bed from Heart and kidney failure at the most unrealistic age of 72. His closely examined remains determined 14 bullets were still embedded in his body. After a well attended funeral at the Lee’s Summit Baptist church where he attended regularly, the last member of the James-Younger Gang was buried in the town cemetery next to his brothers Jim and Bob and their mother. There’s not much left of the old prison at Stillwater which was closed in 1914. During its time it held many notorious prisoners beside the Younger Brothers. The Warden’s house a 1853 stone building remains and is now a museum as well as a few workhouse buildings. This is where Bernard Casey worked as a prison guard, before becoming a dencecelebrated beatified priest, befriending Cole Younger with his counseling influencing him to lay aside his bitterness and lead a model life while incarcerated which he continued in his post prison life. Many plaques were erected marking locations of the Cole Younger gang robberies put up by proud gleeful towns in Missouri and Kansas. The house constructed by his father remains standing to this day. 8,000 acre Robbers Cave State Park located in Wilburton, OK is a popular tourist destination and contains the cave purported to be a hiding place of the James-Younger gang.”
Lord, how can a victim of a crime forgive? How can a perpetrator of a heinous crime find peace, meaning to life, and a new identity? How can he forgive himself? It must be by the power of your blood! It must be through Your miracle of grace; Your example of freely given unmerited favor!
The life of Cole Younger is a powerful example of a man who once was led by his most base desires, and learned a new trade and a new path. Thank you for his life! Thank you for his faithfulness in establishing the “Prison Mirror”!
Our prison system seems to be an inevitable necessity in this fallen world. Those without self control must be restrained from hurting themselves and others. Victims need a sense of safety, others protection from sworn vengeance, and so we continue to “lock’em up, and throw away the key”.
But what of the spirits of both the offender and the offended? The offender seems to have the most to gain through forgiveness at first glance. If he is pardoned by the victim, or their family, he could still be in shackles, but his spirit is free.
But what does the victim gain by forgiveness? To once again breech the dyke holding back oceans of pain? To lose a loved one, or innocence, or a sense of justice, and again become vulnerable? This seems inhuman! Yet, Father, this is you command to us;
“Love your enemy?!”
Father, will You give us this gift, this miracle of forgiveness? Will You wipe the slate clean in the state of Minnesota between the perpetrators of crime, and their victims? This is especially difficult for those who received a terrible, unprovoked blow! Yet, Your standards remain the same?! Will you free the victims of crime from any self-made dungeons of unforgiveness stemming from the beginning of the prison system in Minnesota, through the present, and into the future? Will You give us Your ideas about justice?
Will You uphold the “Prison Mirror” and other ways that the incarcerated can form a new identity? Will You demonstrate Your power and restore faith and honor to the lives of all victims of Minnesotan crime? Will You free the land where the prisons lie, their grounds, gates, and bars from the poison of bitterness, fear, anger, rage, and discontent? When we offend our brother, we have offended his Creator! I ask this unmerited favor from You. Feed us so we don’t covet here in Minnesota! Feed us life so we are content, and crime is not attractive! Spiritus, have mercy!
*P.T.H. cites timeline formerly at this URL: mnhs.org/about/dipity_timeline.htm
The Minnesota Historical Society Web site, http://www.mnhs.org , is fantastic! Check it out! Images are from https://images.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl; again, an amazing resource!