“The trouble with these moving pictures and penny-dreadful representations of outlaw life is the glamour they throw about it. No mention is made of the hunted, hounded existence, when every man’s hand is turned against you; the nights filled with dread and the days of suffering. No mention is made of the end of it all, a violent death or prison cell." Cole Younger
Thomas Coleman Younger was born in 1844. His father, Henry Washington Younger was an ambitious businessman and his mother, Bursheba Fristoe, was a judge’s daughter. They were married in 1830. During their marriage the affluent couple was very much a part of Jackson County social circles. Henry’s business interests included a ferry line, a dry goods operation and a livery. He was elected mayor of Harrisonville and by 1856, he owned several thousand acres of land. He and Bursheba were also prolific when it came to children. They had nine daughters and five sons.
Cole was a high-spirited, outgoing boy who loved to hunt and fish. He and his siblings were popular at school. Education was very important to the Youngers and at the urging of his older brother, Richard, Cole applied to Chapel Hill College. Richard died from a sudden illness at age 22 and in 1861, Cole’s life took on a new direction, far from a college campus. One that would last the rest of his life and make a legend of him. Cole summed this up in his book by saying: “Political hatreds are always bitter, but none were ever more bitter than those which existed along the border line of Missouri and Kansas during my boyhood in Jackson county in the former state from 1850 to 1860. These hatreds were soon to make trouble for me of which I had never dreamed”.
It was the fall of 1861 and Cole and his younger brother, Jim, accompanied their two sisters to a dance in Harrisonville. Irvin Walley, a member of the militia stationed there, tried to force one of Cole’s sisters to dance with him. Cole came to her defense. Walley demanded to know where Quantrill was and called Cole a liar when he said he did not know Quantrill's location. They fought until other men at the party intervened.
Cole’s father was worried for his son’s safety after he heard about the fight and he sent Cole away. Walley came to the Younger home with his troops, hunting for Cole who was now accused of being a spy for Quantrill. In response, Cole armed himself, which put him in direct violation of Fremont’s orders that no man, not affiliated with a recognized militia group in Missouri, bear arms.
Thus, at seventeen, Cole Younger was now an outlaw
He joined up with his brother-in-law, John Jarrette, under Quantrill and became a Missouri guerrilla. During this era in his life, he met Frank James and they formed a life-long friendship.
During the war, Cole’s father was ambushed and murdered. When the war ended Henry’s estate was in shambles. Cole tried his hand at cattle ranching in Texas, which he loved but his brothers hated. For a while, he and Jim worked as census takers. Finally they returned to Missouri and joined Frank James and his younger brother, Jesse, to create what would become the most famous outlaw gang of all time. In his book, Cole stated "I have been shot between twenty and thirty times and am now carrying over a dozen bullets which have never been extracted..."
The blotched bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota landed thirty-two year old Cole in Stillwater prison for twenty-five years. During this time, Cole and his two brothers were model prisoners. Cole worked as the prison librarian, and later when a new prison hospital was built, he became the head nurse. In July of 1901, Cole and his brother, Jim, were released. Their kid brother, Bob, had died in prison.
Jim committed suicide after his release (some say due to a broken heart), and Cole returned to Missouri after he was granted a pardon by the state. The future held promise for the former outlaw, who would make the most of his fame.
Cole was reunited with his former comrade, Frank James, who had been acquitted of all crimes after his brother’s murder. Cole and Frank embarked upon a business venture, The Great Cole Younger and Frank James Wild West Show. Cole, who claimed he wanted to set the record straight, wrote an autobiography, titled The Story of Cole Younger by Himself. The book was published in 1903. He denies being involved in any crimes other than the Northfield Bank Robbery and always insisted Frank and Jesse James were not involved in that robbery.
In 1909, Cole, who loved the spotlight, put together a lecture tour called “What Life Has Taught Me” emphasizing living a good and decent life. He traveled the country speaking to audiences about what he felt were important lessons he had learned from his experiences. Cole may have been one of the first motivational speakers.
By 1915, his health was failing. He had no family, other than his sisters. Although he had always been a favorite with the ladies, he never married. His old friend, Frank James died on Feb 18, 1915 and it was said Cole retreated to his room when he was told the news and sat alone the rest of the day. A year later, on March 21st, Cole Younger passed away quietly in bed, and, a century later, Cole continues to live on in movies and books, including my own novella, Almost An Outlaw.
Sources and recommended books about Cole: The Outlaw Youngers by Marley Brant and The Story of Cole Younger by Cole Younger.