Questions about Clell Miller's body remain after test on skeleton in Grand Forks halted
After reaching a dead-end in Grand Forks, forensic researchers trying to uncover the whereabouts of the skeletal remains of Clell Miller, the James Gang outlaw shot down in Northfield, Minn., are turning to the courts in his home state of Missouri.
While some believe his skeleton is owned by an unidentified resident in Grand Forks, others are convinced Miller's body was buried in at Muddy Fork Cemetery in Kearney, Mo.
It's possible that body is that of Miller, another Northfield robber or possibly some other cadaver returned by Wheeler to the family in 1876, according to forensic professor James Bailey.
In April, Bailey and a descendant of Miller asked officials in Clay County, Mo., to exhume the body to get a DNA sample that could be compared with that of one of Miller's living relatives. Tests done on the skeleton in Grand Forks have been inconclusive so far.
"If we can exhume the body and do the tests, we can answer the questions about the person in the grave," said Bailey, who taught at the University of Minnesota-Mankato, and is now retired in North Carolina.
A court order to exhume the body had not been granted as of early this week, according to a report in the Kansas City Star.
How the body of Clell Miller might have ended up in Grand Forks is a century-old story of both mystery and intrigue.
Dr. Henry Wheeler, a prominent pioneer physician in Grand Forks and the city's onetime mayor, always claimed he owned the skeleton of Clell Miller. He kept it in his office at the corner of DeMers Avenue and Third Street. Sometimes he would show off his prized possession to close friends and relatives.
That he gunned down a member of Jesse James' gang during the infamous botched bank robbery attempt in 1876 is established. At the time, Wheeler was a University of Michigan medical student at home in Northfield for the summer.
Wheeler claimed that he and a fellow student dug up the bodies of Miller and William Stiles, also known as William Chadwell, and transported them to Michigan, where the cadavers were used for study by medical students.
Later, Miller's family in Missouri learned where the body was and traveled to Michigan to retrieve and take it home to be buried in a family cemetery plot.
Wheeler said he actually substituted the body of Stiles or another cadaver and kept Miller's remains, taking his gunfight prize to Grand Forks when he started his practice here.
Wheeler allegedly kept the skeleton until the mid-1920s, when he reportedly gave it to the local International Order of Oddfellows Lodge. The skeleton later was sold at an auction in the 1980s.
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 System, 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. He sent bone samples to a forensics laboratory in Virginia. However, the lab informed him in late January that it was unable to obtain material for a DNA sample.
Bailey then contacted the unidentified Grand Forks resident again, asking to obtain a tooth, which he said could provide a better sample. However, the man declined.
"He said he tried to remove one of the teeth. He said if he continued, he might damage the skeleton," Bailey said. "If we could have gotten a DNA sample out of the skeleton in Grand Forks, we could have possibly ruled it out. We could not rule it out, so what happened to the body remains in question."
So, Bailey and his forensics research team members, who are donating their time to the cause, will wait to see if authorities in Missouri grant the request to exhume the body there.
"I hope we'll be able to move forward on it," Bailey said. "If we can't, I'm not sure what strategy we would use. We would try to continue to work on the Grand Forks skeleton. But unless the person reconsiders and gives us access to get a tooth, we could be at a standstill.
"It would be a shame, because technology is at a point where those questions could be answered."