It’s a story that’s almost too good to be true. You may know the first part — Jesse James and other gang members attempted in 1876 to rob a bank in Northfield, only to fail. Researchers are still piecing together the rest of the story, 136 years later.
The third act may include digging up the grave of Clell Miller, one of the gang members.
Earlier this year, James A. Bailey, professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and his colleagues B.G. Brogdon and Brandon Nichols tried to determine whether a skeleton located in North Dakota belonged to one of these would-be bank robbers by using CT images. Although not a match for gang member William “Bill” Chadwell, it seemed possible that the skeleton was the remains of Clell Miller. However, Miller’s family buried a body they believed to be his in Muddy Fork Cemetery in Kearney, Mo.
Hayes Scriven, executive director of the Northfield Historical Society, said that they have heard from people who knew that Wheeler kept these bodies, but did not have documented evidence.
“If we find out that it’s not Miller in the grave and it’s someone else, or it’s a compilation of people, or it’s William Chadwell, that’s a big deal historically,” said Scriven.
He believes that it could also bring Miller’s family some closure. Scriven said that regardless of Miller’s questionable past, his body should get the same respect as any other.
After the researchers presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences earlier this year, Bailey began to discuss the possibility of exhumation with Dr. Doug Scott, an archeologist who teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Scott researched the legal aspects.
In order to exhume a body in Missouri, the next of kin must write a letter to the the medical examiner, including the reasoning behind it. The family did just that. Then the project needs approval from the medical examiner, the county prosecutor and finally, a judge.
The process won’t move forward until some questions are answered, according to Spokesman Jim Roberts of the Clay County Prosecuting Attorney’s office.
They want to ensure that it won’t create expenses for the county and that there will be some security at the grave site. Roberts said that they don’t want anyone falling into a hole or taking anything from the site. County officials already have an idea of what the process would be like.
“About 17 years ago, we went through something like this with the exhumation of Jesse James,” said Roberts.
Mitochondrial DNA indicated that the body buried in his grave was an offspring of a James family member, so it possible that it was Jesse James’ remains.
“Having had that experience we know a little bit about what you have to go through,” said Roberts.
They also want to ensure that if it turns out that the buried body is not Miller’s, that the remains are properly taken care of at no cost to the county.
Scriven said that because people are donating their time to this exhumation project, there should be no concerns over the costs. The Northfield Historical Society has not officially supported the project yet — the board is set to meet on Monday — but if it does, it would likely be in the form of staff and volunteer support and serving as a purveyor of information.
Roberts said that they also need to make sure that statutes that might impact this case haven’t changed since 1995.
“We believe that the questions have largely been addressed, but we have not gotten an official inquiry from the medical examiner’s office,” said Roberts.
If it gets past the prosecutor, the case would still have to go before a judge for approval.
If an exhumation is approved, it would depend on the condition of the remains whether scientists can get a good DNA sample.
“Every exhumation is different and every body is different,” said Tom Reynolds, Executive Vice President and co-founder of Fairfax Identity Labs. “It depends on a lot of different things.”
The company also conducted DNA testing in the Charlie Pitts case several years ago. Reynolds said that while they were successful in retrieving DNA in that case, they have had difficulty getting DNA from remains that were only a decade old. Whether or not they can find DNA evidence depends on the environmental impact on the bones and the decomposition of the body.
Scriven isn’t too worried about the possibility that they might not be able to get DNA from the body.
“I wouldn’t be disappointed, because we’ve done everything that we possibly can,” he said.
The lab has had much experience in this field. Reynolds said that they have had high rates of success on fragments from victims of the twin tower collapse on Sept. 11, 2001.
“We have all of the tools that we need to do this and we’re excited to work on a historical case like this,” he said.
In that previous Northfield-related case, researchers determined that the parts were not likely to have come from Pitts.
“That’s the reason you do DNA testing on this, because the DNA testing never lies,” said Reynolds. “It speaks the truth.”
If the Miller exhumation gets approval and they can successfully retrieve DNA, Reynolds said that they will compare samples with relatives.
Should the exhumation be approved, the proposed date is Oct. 3.
Jacqueline A. Pavek covers business, nonprofits, arts and culture for the Northfield News. She can be reached at 507-645-1117. Follow her on Twitter @JackiePavek.