Investigators set out to determine whether old bones were the remains of an outlaw.
Charlie Pitts rode into Northfield with Jesse James and the rest of the James-Younger Gang on Sept. 7, 1876, to rob the First National Bank.
After the gang's legendary defeat there, he never returned -- at least, not alive.
For the last 25 years, the Northfield community thought they had brought Pitts back when the Northfield Historical Society got possession of his skeleton.
But in 2007, a group of researchers decided to use science to find out: Was this truly the remains of an infamous outlaw?
Jim Bailey, a professor at University of North Carolina in Wilmington, decided to assemble a gang of curious researchers to find out.
The mystery began after the Northfield shootout, in which two gang members and two townspeople were killed.
Pitts was wounded, but he narrowly escaped Northfield, only to be tracked down two weeks later at a swamp southwest of Mankato and killed in a shootout with a posse.
His body was briefly displayed at the State Capitol. When it went unclaimed, it passed to a succession of medical students and museums before winding up in Northfield again -- but there was suspicion that the bones might have gotten mixed up with others along the way.
A postmortem photograph, showing a gunshot wound in Pitts' chest, seemed to match up with a hole in the skeleton's breastbone. But the investigators weren't able to prove it conclusively.
Kate Blue, an anthropology professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, examined the hole but could not determine whether it was truly the result of a gunshot, Bailey said.
"It could have been fabricated," Bailey said. "But we couldn't tell for sure."
Victoria Lywood, a forensic artist from Canada, volunteered to produce a two-dimensional and a three-dimensional reconstruction from a CT scan, putting a face on the skeleton, while Bailey tracked down two distant relatives of Pitts for DNA comparison and had three separate labs conduct DNA testing, one of them being the Netherlands Forensic Institute. The result:
"They didn't match," Bailey said.
Not only did they not match the DNA of the descendants, but the bone fragments didn't match each other and it is possible that they came from males of two different ethnic groups based on the DNA markers, said Tom Reynolds, a forensic scientist at Fairfax Identity Laboratories.
The Netherlands laboratory also conducted carbon testing to figure out the age of the skeletal remains, Bailey said.
"It showed a 97.5 percent chance that the person lived in the 1700s, and only a 2.5 percent chance it was past that," Bailey said.
Charlie Pitts' real name was Samuel Wells. Joseph Wells Jr., a great-grand-nephew of the gunslinger, who was tracked down in Arizona and donated his DNA for the research, said he had his doubts about the remains all along.
"We never truly believed it was his remains, but thought there was a chance it might be him," Wells said in a phone interview from Wickenburg, Ariz. "We heard his remains got moved around a lot over time and probably got lost."
Wells said he is somewhat relieved that the DNA testing has settled the mystery once and for all.
Right now, the skeleton is still in Mankato, said Hayes Scriven, the executive director at the Northfield Historical Society. He said he wasn't much disappointed with the findings.
"The process has been rewarding," Scriven said. "In my mind, we have put to bed 99 percent of the story."
Scriven said the society will still display the remains and the findings of the study, including the 3D facial reconstruction.
Despite the findings, he's hopeful to have the skeleton on display for the Defeat of Jesse James Days celebration in Northfield, a festival held each September that commemorates the 1876 bank raid.
Vadim Lavrusik is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.