Cole Younger purchased a couple of horses in St. Peter, Minn., in the late summer of 1876, just days before joining Frank and Jesse James on their infamously botched bank robbery in Northfield.
“We stayed long enough to break them and to train them for the hard riding to which we knew they would be submitted later on,” Younger recounted years later. While in St. Peter, he added, “I made the acquaintance of a little girl.”
Younger was a hardened 32, having spent his teen years as a Confederate guerilla fighter during the Civil War in his home state of Missouri before falling into what he called “outlawry.” The little girl was 6 but said she could ride a horse. So Younger scooped her up and “we rode up and down” before he asked her name.
Younger must have chuckled when she responded: “Horace Greeley Perry.”
Horace’s father, a St. Peter newspaper editor, had named her after his favorite journalist, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley. Some accounts say Tom Perry was expecting a son but kept the name Horace when his daughter arrived.
Younger joked about the “great name” with the “little tot,” who told him: “I won’t always be little. I’m going to be a great big girl, and be a newspaper man like my pa,” according to his 1903 autobiography, “The Story of Cole Younger, by Himself.”
He asked if she’d still be his friend when she grew up, “and she declared she would, a promise I was to remind her of years later under circumstances of which I did not dream then.”
After the Northfield bank robbery went awry on Sept. 7, 1876 — a teller and three of the bandits were killed — Younger was arrested, found guilty of murder and robbery, and sentenced to life at Stillwater state prison. There he and his two incarcerated brothers started a jailhouse newspaper, the Prison Mirror.
Jesse and Frank James escaped and insisted the rest of their lives that they’d never been in Minnesota, though historians generally agree they were in Northfield, where annual September reenactments and a museum still tell the story.
About a decade after the failed bank heist, a young woman visited the prison in Stillwater with a group one day. When she signed the register as Horace Greeley Perry, Younger took notice.
“I knew there could not be two women with such a name in the world,” he wrote, “and I reminded her of her promise … which she did not remember, although she had been told how she had made friends with the bold, bad man who afterwards robbed the bank at Northfield.”
Just as she had vowed, Perry followed her father and grandfather into the newspaper business and became one of Minnesota’s first female journalists. She sold papers on street corners as a kid, set type at 12 and eventually took over the St. Peter Journal in 1891 — competing with her father, who then edited the rival Tribune. Described in stories as “vivacious” and “a crackerjack,” Perry was in her 20s when she was said to be the only woman owning and editing a Minnesota newspaper.
“Miss Perry is a bright sample of what young womanhood can do in business, and her career as editor and publisher has been marked by wonderful success,” one 1898 account reported. “Editorial blood flows in her veins …. although in appearance [she is] a mere schoolgirl.”
Cole Younger was among her biggest fans — especially when she helped lobby for his release from Stillwater in 1901, a quarter-century after the Northfield bank job.
Younger called Perry “one of the brightest newspaper writers and one of the best and truest women and staunchest friends that a man ever knew.” Of all those fighting for his pardon, he said, “none exceeded in devotion the young woman who, as a little tot, had ridden, unknowingly, with the bandit who was so soon to be exiled for life from all his kin and friends.”
After Younger was pardoned, he and Frank James toured with a Wild West show and gave lectures. Perry worked as their publicity agent, according to True West magazine.
Perry married Mexican mining engineer Harry Eisenhart in 1906 while in her 30s and divorced him in 1922. Flowery stories in newspaper archives describe her far-flung adventures through Mexico and Guatemala, reporting from Idaho and California and befriending tribal chiefs from Oregon to upstate New York. Few photos or biographies of Perry exist, but genealogy sources say she died in Texas in 1958 at 89.
“She has never asked any favors because of her sex, but has always taken man’s work and has drawn a man’s pay,” the El Paso Herald reported in 1906. “She is … as self possessed and cool as any man who ever took an assignment, and more so than lots of them.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.