Just when you thought you knew the story of the James-Younger Gang's failed Northfield bank heist in 1876, along comes an old letter -- and a new twist in the tale.
The young medical student shot the bank robber dead. That's a fact. It's what happened to the outlaw's body afterward that is less clear. Just found: a new twist in the old grisly story of the infamous Northfield, Minn., bank robbery of 1876.
Henry Wheeler was home in Northfield on summer break from his medical studies on Sept. 7 that year when eight or more members of the James-Younger Gang rode into town on horseback to rob the First National Bank. Wheeler, 22, ran for a rifle. From a second-story window of the Dampier Hotel, he fatally shot Clell (McClelland) Miller, the bullet tearing a hole just below Miller's left shoulder.
In seven short minutes, the raid had gone horribly awry. 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.
Gawkers arrived by train the next day to view the two outlaws' bodies. 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.
Three days after the robbery, a Sunday, the bank cashier, a hero, was buried with all due respect. Miller and the other robber were buried in a paupers' corner of the Northfield Cemetery in the dark of night, with no mourners and no funeral service.
Behind the scenes, Wheeler had asked the police chief for the outlaws' bodies, explaining that his medical school, the University of Michigan, was short on spare cadavers. In those days, medical students often were expected to procure bodies to study.
According to the version usually told, authorities denied Wheeler the bodies, but, wink-wink, they let it be known that the outlaws' graves were shallow and no one would be guarding the cemetery. Sure enough, grave robbers set to work that night and exhumed the bodies. Wheeler and two Michigan classmates, also from Northfield, were the diggers. They shipped the exhumed bodies to Ann Arbor in kegs labeled "FRESH PAINT." The bodies served medicine as intended.
Later, Wheeler became a respected physician and kept Miller's skeleton in his office closet in Grand Forks, N.D. He loved to show off the bones, as well as his rifle, to friends and special patients. Eventually, the skeleton succumbed to a fire.
But a forgotten letter in the Minnesota Historical Society collections tells another chapter. Whether true or not -- and it's probably not -- the tale is certainly juicy.
Francis Butler wrote to a historian in 1962 that at the time of the infamous robbery, his father was a 10-year-old boy living on the family farm 5 miles northeast of Northfield. Undoubtedly, Butler wrote, his gregarious Irish grandfather, Patrick Butler, took his older sons into Northfield to view the dead outlaws. Francis' father later passed on the story about what happened when Wheeler asked the town fathers for one of the bodies.
"They considered this," Francis Butler wrote, "and allowed that since Wheeler had killed him, he was entitled to him."
However, officials did not want to outrage the public, so it was suggested that Miller's pine casket be filled with stones and that the body secretly be given to Wheeler.
It was Sept. 9 or 10, Butler wrote, and either Wheeler's vacation was not yet over or the weather was still too warm to ship the body by train to Ann Arbor. That raised the quandary of what to do with the body temporarily. A local farmer had a solution. He offered to put the bandit's body in his pickling box -- a long, lead-lined box in the back of his barn that was used to cure hogs slaughtered for salt pork during the winter. This was agreed to, and the farmer took appropriate care to disguise the temporary resting place.
Soon after, a young Swedish immigrant who had worked for the farmer that summer showed up to collect his wages. The farmer explained that no one -- repeat, no one -- was paid until the wheat crop was marketed. The young man was persistent. Again, he demanded his pay.
So the farmer took the hired man out to the barn. He pulled an old horse blanket off the top of the pickling box, pointed to Miller's decaying corpse and said, "That is the last man who asked me for his pay before he was entitled to it."
--Peg Meier is a retired Star Tribune reporter and author of two books republished this year by the Minnesota Historical Society Press: "Bring Warm Clothes" and "Too Hot, Went to Lake."