A Note from Cottonwood Corners

During the later part of the 1800s and the early part of the 1900s, the stealing of their cattle and horses was a problem which the settlers had to deal with regularly.  One of the early tricks which the rustlers practiced was to only take a portion of the livestock from the ranch.

If the rancher brought the theft to the attention of officials, the rustlers would later return and steal the entire herd.  Consequently, some of the ranchers expected to have some of their livestock regularly disappear from time to time.  The larger operations could deal with the loss of a few; however, for the small rancher, this was not possible.

Beginning in about 1903, a gang of outlaws located in the nearby area decided to give up on the rustling of cattle and horses.  Apparently the problem of getting the livestock out of the country and to a market was a problem which they no longer wanted to deal with.  Instead, they decided to rob banks.

The October 26, 1905 issue of The Frontier at O’Neill contained a story describing the large number of bank robberies in the area.  The paper reported the following:  “Federal authorities here stated today that they believe they will, within a short time, have gotten into the midst of and broken up a gang of bank robbers and dynamiters who, for the past two years, have been creating a reign of terror all over the northwest and who have, according to records, committed more bank robberies than any other crowd in the country.”

“This is the gang,” the paper disclosed, “responsible for the bank robberies last year in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota, in which territory there were more safes blown than in any other similar area in the United States.”

The States Attorney from Holt County (O’Neill) made a special trip to Lincoln to impress upon Governor Mickey the importance of extraditing the members of the gang from South Dakota when they were captured.  The gang was known to be hiding only a few miles just north of the Nebraska/South Dakota border near Naper.

Officials had information that the gang occupied a stone house on the prairie, in which there were no windows.  Within a few miles of this spot, in 1904, there were many bold bank robberies.

At Ewing, Nebraska, the safe was blown to bits; at Martinsburg, Nebraska, three robbers fought a pitched battle with local citizens at 3 a. m., the robbers later escaping.  At McLean, Nebraska, a similar battle occurred; at Naper, Nebraska, the entire front of the bank was blown out.  The sound of exploding dynamite was heard regularly in this corner of the four states (South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota) for months.  Not one robber was captured.

In 1905 the same sort of work continued locally.  At an early morning hour during the first week in October, residents of Springfield, South Dakota were made aware that a gang of “yeggmen” had blown the safe of the Bank of Springfield.  They secured $5.200, practically all the cash at the institution and escaped.

Hearing the explosion, the citizens fearing leaving the safety of their homes, waited several minutes before going outside.  The robbers escaped by means of a rig which they had stolen the night before from Dr. Greenfield of Avon.

With the help of his parents, a small boy crawled through a back window of his home across the street from the bank.  He went to warn the town officials and spread the alarm.  However, it was too late to enable them to capture the thieves or even to secure a good description of the culprits.

Before the safe was blown, local residents remember seeing three strangers strolling along Main Street.  It was remembered that one was short and stocky.

Surrounding towns were notified by telephone.  A reward of $250 for each member of the gang was offered.  Eventually four individuals were arrested for the robbery.  After a “sensational trial” in Tyndall, all were sentenced to prison for ten or more years.

In July of 1906, one of the robbers of the Springfield Bank attempted to escape from the penitentiary in Sioux Falls.  He concealed himself in one of a number of bales of old rags which were being shipped east on Illinois Central Railroad.  Had it not been for the fact the each bale was weighed when a load arrived at the designated location, he might have escaped.

When the bale in which he was concealed was weighed, it was discovered that it weighed over 100 pounds more than the other bales.  The ropes holding the bale together were cut and he was found inside.  He had nearly suffocated.

YEGGEMEN — At that time, the term “yeggmen” was used to describe individuals who were burglars who broke open bank safes.  The term “yegg” apparently began being used in the late 1800s as a noun for a beggar and as a verb meaning to beg.  The word “yegg” soon came to mean a burglar or a safecracker.  Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency may have embellished it.  They are probably responsible for popularizing the use of the terms “yegg” and “yeggmen” for a burglar or bank robber, especially one who roamed the country and cracked safes with explosives.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on December 28, 2022