Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications Co., Published March 24 2012
Forensic scientists study mystery of skeleton
He kept it in his office at the corner of DeMers Avenue and Third Street. Sometimes he would show off the prized possession to close friends and relatives.
That he gunned down a member of Jesse James’ gang during an attempted bank robbery in Northfield, Minn., in 1876 is established. That the skeleton in his closet actually belonged to Miller has never been conclusively proven.
Forensic scientists hope to change that.
In a presentation last month to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Atlanta, James Bailey, a retired professor, explained a process called cranial superimposition that was used to match the skull with a photograph taken of Miller shortly after his death.
Additional study and testing is needed to confirm that the skull is indeed Miller’s, Bailey said, But, based on craniofacial superimposition analyzed by three independent sources, he said the matches were “remarkable.”
Collaborating with Gil Brogdon and Brandon Nichols, forensic radiologists from Mobile, Ala., Bailey used Miller’s case to familiarize the forensic science community with the technique and how it is used in historical cases.
In the summer of 1876, the 22-year-old Wheeler was home in Northfield on break from medical school at the University of Michigan when the James-Younger Gang tried to rob the First National Bank.
“In seven short minutes, the raid had gone horribly awry,” author Peg Meier wrote in a 2009 Minneapolis Star-Tribune account. “Miller and another desperado were dead in the street. The bank’s acting cashier refused to open the safe and lay dying on the bank floor. A Swedish immigrant who didn’t understand much English failed to follow the robbers’ orders and was shot; he died four days later. The remaining members of the gang fled town, including Jesse James and Cole Younger.”
According to published reports, Bailey was perched in a second-story window of the Dampier Hotel when he shot Miller, the bullet striking Miller just below the left shoulder.
Historical accounts differ on Miller’s birth date, either Dec. 15, 1849 or Jan. 9, 1850 in Kearney, Mo. He would have been 26 when he died.
Anslem Manning, a local hardware merchant, is believed to have shot and killed the other outlaw, Bill Chadwell, also known as William Stiles.
“Gawkers arrived by train the next day to view the two outlaws’ bodies,” Meier wrote. “A Northfield photographer propped up the corpses and snapped pictures, probably using toothpicks to keep their eyes open, a common crime-photo practice in the late 1800s. In less than a month, the photographer sold 50,000 gruesome pictures, at $2 a dozen.”
The cashier killed in the robbery attempt was given a hero’s burial. Miller and Chadwell were buried late at night in a paupers’ corner of the Northfield Cemetery.
Bailey, a professor emeritus of law enforcement at the University of Minnesota-Mankato, originally became interested in the Northfield raid while he was teaching in Mankato. Now retired, he lives in North Carolina and teaches part-time at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.
His research interests include personal identification, gunshot residue, firearms and tool mark analysis, forensic photography, fingerprint identification and crime scene investigation. He routinely collaborates with forensic scientists, law enforcement officials and educators on research projects of mutual interest.
In 2009, he and Mary Blue, a UM-Mankato anthropology professor, studied a skeleton said to be that of Charlie Pitts, a member of the James-Younger Gang involved in the Northfield robbery. He was killed near Mankato by a sheriff’s posse after fleeing the failed raid.
Bailey and Blue determined the skeleton was not Pitts’.
In early 2010, Bailey started researching Wheeler and his connection with the Northfield raid. He contacted a Grand Forks resident about a skeleton that had been purchased at an auction of items from the old Oddfellows Lodge in the mid-1980s.
Wheeler reportedly donated the skeleton to the Oddfellows when he retired in the mid-1920s. The original Oddfellows Lodge was in the building now occupied by the Urban Stampede, while the later one was torn down to make way for an addition to Central High School.
Wheeler, who was born in Newport, N.H., June 23, 1854, died Jan. 31, 1929 in Grand Forks.
In November 2010, Bailey traveled to Grand Forks to examine the skeleton, which was taken to Altru Health Systems, where a CT scan was performed to establish key reference points on the skull. Then, a postmortem photograph was superimposed over the CT scan to see how many of those reference points matched.
Bailey returned to Grand Forks in August 2011 to conduct additional study.
While the stories vary somewhat, they agree that, after the Northfield raid, Wheeler quietly had asked authorities for the outlaws’ bodies. The University of Michigan medical school was short on cadavers, he explained. In those days, it was common for medical students to provide bodies for study.
In the most common version of the story, Bailey said, authorities denied Wheeler the bodies but hinted that the shallow graves would not be guarded overnight. Wheeler and two fellow Michigan classmates then dug up the bodies and shipped them to the university in kegs labeled “fresh paint.”
According to Bailey’s research, Miller’s family found out his body was at the University of Michigan. They sent his brother Edward and a lawyer there to retrieve the body, shipping it to Missouri, where the Millers lived, and buried it.
“There’s some question as to whether or not the family actually viewed the body,” Bailey said.
Wheeler later claimed that he kept the body and gave Edward Miller an anatomical double.
When Wheeler moved to Grand Forks to start a medical practice, he brought the skeleton along, keeping it in his office, originally at 2.5 S. Third St., the blue building on the corner of DeMers Avenue and Third Street. He later moved next door to 4.5 S. Third St.
Some accounts say the skeleton that Wheeler brought to Grand Forks burned in a fire. Others say the skeleton Wheeler had in Grand Forks actually was that of Stiles.
Bailey is encouraged by his findings, so far, saying he will continue to conduct research on the skeletal remains of Miller and other members of the James-Younger Gang.
Meanwhile, the latest developments have intrigued people at the Northfield Historical Society, which has built a tourism industry out of the 1876 raid.
“This is not a definitive finding, but it certainly brings us a step closer to finding the skeletons of those two outlaws,” said Executive Director Hays Scriven. “It’s looking good. It’s plausible. But you have to wonder, what’s next. If Dr. Bailey actually verifies that it belongs to Clell Miller, it begs the question as to who is buried in Miller’s grave in Missouri.”
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Kevin Bonham is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald