In spite of the popular indignation our crime had justly caused, from the day the iron gates closed behind us in 1876, there were always friends who hoped and planned for our ultimate release. Some of these were misguided, and did us more harm than good.
Among these were two former guerrillas, who committed small crimes that they might be sent to prison and there plot with us for our escape. One of them was only sent to the county jail, and the other served a year in Stillwater prison without ever seeing us.
Well meaning, too, but unfortunate, was the declaration of Missouri friends in Minnesota that they could raise $100,000 to get us out of Stillwater.
But as the years went by, the popular feeling against us not only subsided, but our absolute submission to the minutest details of prison discipline won for us the consideration, I might even say the high esteem of the prison officials who came in contact with us, and as the Northfield tragedy became more and more remote, those who favored our pardon became more numerous, and yearly numbered in their ranks more and more of the influential people of the state, who believed that our crime had been avenged, and that Jim and I, the only survivors of the tragedy, would be worthy citizens if restored to freedom.
My Missouri friends are surprised to find that I prize friendships in Minnesota, a state where I found so much trouble, but in spite of Northfield, and all its tragic memories, I have in Minnesota some of the best friends a man ever had on earth.
Every governor of Minnesota from as early as 1889 down to 1899 was petitioned for our pardon, but not one of them was satisfied of the advisability of a full pardon, and the parole system provided by the enlightened humanitarianism of the state for other convicts did not apply to lifers.
Under this system a convict whose prison record is good may be paroled on his good behavior after serving half of the term for which he was sentenced.
The reiterated requests for our pardon, coming from men the governors had confidence in, urging them to a pardon they were reluctant to grant, led to a feeling, which found expression finally in official circles, that the responsibility of the pardoning power should be divided by the creation of a board of pardons as existed in some other states.
It was at first proposed that the board should consist of the governor, attorney general and the warden of the prison, but before the bill passed, Senator Allen J. Greer secured the substitution for the chief justice for the warden, boasting, when the amendment was made:
“That ties the Youngers up for as long as Chief Justice Start lives.”
A unanimous vote of the board was required to grant a pardon, and as Chief Justice Start had lived in the vicinity of Northfield at the time of the raid in 1876, many people believed that he would never consent to our pardon.
In the legislature of 1889, our friends endeavored to have the parole system extended to life prisoners, and secured the introduction in the legislature of a bill to provide that life prisoners might be paroled when they had served such a period as would have entitled them to their release had they been sentenced to imprisonment for 35 years. The bill was drawn by George M. Bennett of Minneapolis, who had taken a great deal of interest in our case, and was introduced in the senate by Senator George P. Wilson, of Minneapolis. As the good time allowances on a 35-year sentence would cut it to between 23 and 24 years, we could have been paroled in a few months had this bill passed. Although there was one other inmate of the prison who might have come under its provisions, it was generally known as the “Youngers’ parole bill” and the feeling against it was largely identified with the feeling against us. I am told, however, since my release, that it would have passed at that session had it not been for the cry of “money” that was used. There never was a dollar used in Minnesota to secure our pardon, and before our release we had some of the best men and women in the state working in our behalf, without money and without price. But this outcry defeated the bill of 1899.
Still it did not discourage our friends on the outside.
At the next session of the legislature, 1901, there was finally passed the bill which permitted our conditional parole, the pardon board not being ready to grant us our full freedom. This bill provided for the parole of any life convict who had been confined for twenty years, on the unanimous consent of the board of pardons.
The bill was introduced in the house by Representative P. C. Deming of Minneapolis, and among those who worked for its passage was Representative Jay W. Phillips, who, as a boy, had been driven from the streets the day we entered Northfield. Senator Wilson, who had introduced the bill which failed in 1899, was again a staunch supporter and led the fight for us in the senate.
The board of prison managers promptly granted the parole the principal conditions of which were as follows:
“He shall not exhibit himself in any dime museum, circus theater, opera house, or any other place of public amusement or assembly where a charge is made for admission.”
“He shall on the twentieth day of each month write the warden of the state prison a report of himself, stating whether he had been constantly at work during the last month, and if not, why not; how much he has earned, and how much he has expended, together with a general statement as to his surroundings and prospects, which must be indorsed by his employer.”
“He shall in all respects conduct himself honestly, avoid evil associations, obey the law, and abstain from the use of intoxicating liquors.”
“He shall not go outside the state of Minnesota.”
The parole was unanimously concurred in by Messrs. B. F. Nelson, F. W. Temple, A. C. Weiss, E. W. Wing, and R. H. Bronson, of the prison board and urged by Warden Henry Wolfer.
The board of pardons, in indorsing our parole, said:
“We are satisfied that the petitioners in this case have by exceptionally good conduct in prison for a quarter of a century, and the evidence they have given of sincere reformation, earned the right to a parole, if any life prisoner can do so.”
And July 14, 1901, Jim and I went out into the world for the first time in within a few months of twenty-five years.
Rip Van Winkle himself was not so long away. St. Paul and Minneapolis which, when we were there in 1876, had less than 75,000 people all told, had grown to cities within whose limits were over 350,000. A dozen railroads ended in one or the other of these centers of business that we had known as little better than frontier towns.