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The James-Younger Robbery in Columbia

Inside job or not, it didn't go according to plan...

BETWEEN 8 and 9 a.m. on April 29, 1872 five men rode into the public square of Columbia, Kentucky. Three of the men dismounted in front of the Bank of Columbia. Two entered while the third stood just outside the bank's door. The two still on horseback rode slowly around the square.

There were five local people in the bank when the two men entered. Judge Jas. Garnett, president of the bank, Major T.C. Winfrey, W.H. Hudson, and James T. Page were sitting in chairs, close to the door, talking. R.A.C. Martin, the cashier, was behind the counter in the rear of the bank, getting ready for the day's business.

One of the men who had entered moved to the counter. Then, both men pulled pistols. Seeing the guns, Judge Garnett yelled, "Bank robbers!" The outlaw who had remained up front (later identified as Cole Younger) turned on the judge with the intention of hitting him over the head with his pistol. Hudson seized a chair and hit Younger on the hand holding the gun. Judge Garnett tried to take the gun away from the outlaw. The pistol went off, hitting the judge on the arm. It later had to be amputated.

The other outlaw (later learned to be Frank James) turned to see what the commotion was about up front, temporarily taking his eyes off Martin who was still behind the counter. Martin used this chance to go for a pistol that was in a drawer under the counter.

Returning his attention to the cashier, James saw him going for the gun. The outlaw mortally wounded Martin, a bullet hitting him just below the armpit and ranging downward into his body.

Winfrey and Page took advantage of the confusion and escaped through the front door. Seeing their hasty exit, the two mounted outlaws and the one beside the door started firing at anything that moved. Page made it to cover safely but Winfrey was slightly injured when he started through the door of Kemp's Drug Store and a bullet hit the door facing and sent splinters into his face.

Inside the bank Judge Garnett and Hudson had been grappling with Younger. They finally managed to throw him to the floor and escape. The whole incident did not take over a few seconds but in that time one citizen had been mortally wounded and another had lost use of his arm forever.

A few people were on the square at the time. Obviously the three robbers were only trying to scare everyone off the street, for if they had been trying to harm anyone their shooting would have been much more accurate.

As shown by the trail of blood in the bank, Cole Younger and Frank James dragged the wounded Martin from the counter back to the vault (where the body was found by the first people to enter the bank after the robbery). Martin either died before he could open the vault--or wouldn't. The robbers left him there, where he died shortly after.

The gang could only take the money left out for the day's business. Conflicting accounts place it somewhere between $600 and $1500.

Frank, Cole, and the man who had been positioned outside the door mounted their horses and all five outlaws rode out of town.



SOMETIME before the robbery the gang had been seen in Monticello and Glasgow, Kentucky. They may have intended to rob one of these banks but for unknown reasons decided against it. They moved on toward Columbia where for several days before the robbery they had been living with families in Adair and neighboring Russell County.

A man fitting the description of Frank James had been staying with the family of one of the more prominent farmers in Adair County. Frank had become quite friendly with the grandmother after showing great interest in her Bible and copy of Pilgrim's Progress. The latter he borrowed and, as indicated by the bookmark, had almost finished reading it when he returned it to her.

After the robbery the gang rode out on Burkesville Street and stayed on it until they came to Pettit's Fork; turning up this small creek, they followed it past Conover's Mill.

The robbers encountered William Conover as he walked past a gate that led to his farm. Jesse James (who was identified by a description given by Conover) told him to open the gate. Conover asked in a very disrespectful way why he didn't do it himself. All at once he found himself looking into the barrels of five cocked pistols. The surprised Conover opened the gate, bowed low, and told them to "pass right through." From that day until his death he was known as "Open-the-Gate" Bill Conover.

Conover had started home when he met a posse chasing the band of outlaws. Hurrying home for his gun and horse, he joined them. the outlaws lost the posse when they circled north into Taylor County and were last seen going into the hills of Nelson County.

Although I am convinced the James-Younger Gang robbed the Columbia Bank, a few old-timers around Columbia claim that it was an inside job. But if this was so they would have gotten the money out of the vault instead of settling for the money that had been left out for the day's transactions.

Another theory is that it was a group of moonshiners from the mountains of Tennessee. This can also be disproved for three reasons: (1) Even with the difficulties suffered by the bandits, the robbery was reportedly done in too professional a manner to have been pulled by a group of amateurs; (2) When the robbers left town they started south then turned north--if they had been from Tennessee they would have kept going south; (3) Descriptions given Captain Bligh, Louisville Chief of Detectives, by Garnett, Winfrey, Page, Hudson, and Conover matched those of Frank and Jesse James and Cole Younger.

People have also argued about the identity of the fourth and fifth outlaws. Some say it was two of Cole Younger's brothers or cousins; other say one was Clell Miller. But no one can be sure who they were.

A picture of R.A.C. Martin hangs in the Bank of Columbia in remebrance of his supreme sacrifice, and partial success, in trying to stop the robbery.


The above was transcribed from an article title "The James-Younger Robbery in Columbia" by Brian Turner in True West magazine, February 1982.

Created on ... September 26, 2001