When a convicted criminal is given a life sentence in prison, sometimes — depending where the court is located — that could mean as little as seven years or as many as 30 years. Rarely does a life sentence actually mean the rest of a convict’s life.
But in the case of Bob Younger, the Stillwater Prison was the last place he knew before completing his life sentence for his part of the Northfield bank robbery.
The Younger’s, Cole, Jim and Bob, rode in a gang with another set of brothers — Frank and Jesse James. After the failed September 1876 attempt to rob the Northfield bank, the James boys escaped capture, but the Younger’s were captured and sentenced to life imprisonment at the Stillwater Prison.
During the gunfight in a slough near Madelia, Minn., where the Younger’s were captured, the three brothers badly wounded, with Bob Younger taking a bullet in the chest. Although over time the wound healed, it would lead to a disease called consumption, or today known as tuberculosis.
After the Stillwater Prison doors closed behind him, Bob Yuonger and his brothers first worked at making tubs and buckets, but later, for a short time, Bob was put to work painting walls. It was felt painting would help him rehabilitate his arm after another bullet ripped through his elbow during the capture at Madelia. This proved much too painful and Bob Younger was transferred to making straw elevators in the thresher factory with his brothers.
The Youngers were highly educated and took full advantage of the prison library. Cole Younger loved history and read many of the classics, Jim Younger read theology, metaphysics and literature while Bob Younger read medical journals and similar periodicals.
The internment into prison daily life became tedious for the Youngers. There were some exciting times for the brothers, including a couple major fires in January 1884 and the establishment of the prison newspaper, The Prison Mirror. Through this, the Youngers put in their time hoping someday for a chance at freedom.
As time passed, health problems plagued Bob Younger. In the late 1880s, Bob became good friends with deputy warden Jacob Westby. Because he spent so much time with Bob Younger, Westby noticed that Bob was often tired and looked pale. When pressed with the question of his health, Bob admitted he did not feel well and had been prone to lung congestion since his injury at the slough. Doctors confirmed the worst of fears for the youngest Younger, he had phthisis, or consumption. We know it today as pulmonary tuberculosis. Bob Younger did not have much time to live.
By the end of May 1889, Bob Younger agreed to stay in the prison hospital where his brother Cole, a hospital trustee, could spend more time with him. An effort was made to get Bob pardoned by the Minnesota governor so he could spend his last days at his Missouri home. In July, the governor denied the request. A reporter for the Stillwater Gazette dropped in and asked about it. Bob Younger responded, “We will only have to try again, you know,”
The reporter was moved by Bob Younger’s brave fight for life, saying, “in the grip of a disease which he knows must be fatal he fights every inch of the terrible road between him and death and keeps bravely up where a less determined man would long since have given up in despair.”
About 6 p.m. Sept. 16, 1889, Bob Younger called for his brothers and his sister, Henretta, known as “Retta” visiting from Missouri, to come and be with him. He knew the end was near and also asked that his friend, Westby stay. Bob Younger asked to be lifted up to see the sky out his window and when he died that his soul might rest a moment on the hill outside his cell. At 10:30 p.m., Bob Younger, the youngest brother of the notorious family, closed his eyes and died.
Bob Younger’s body was brought to his hometown of Lee’s Summit, Mo. More than 800 people turned out for his funeral at the Baptist Church, according to the local newspapers.
Brent Peterson is executive director of the Washington County Historical Society in Stillwater.