Clay County officials ask permission to exhume outlaw’s body

Efforts to determine whether 19th century outlaw Clell Miller really is buried in a Kearney cemetery moved forward Friday when the Clay County prosecutor sought a court order to have the grave’s remains exhumed.

Prosecutor Daniel White said there was no timetable for a hearing on the request, but if the petition is approved, the exhumation and examination could occur this fall.

Miller rode alongside outlaws Jesse James and Cole Younger. The Missouri native was gunned down Sept. 7, 1876, in a botched daytime robbery in Northfield, Minn.

For decades, family members believed his remains had been brought back to Missouri and interred in the Muddy Fork Cemetery.

But a medical student who shot Miller to death claimed that he had kept the robber’s skeleton — and even displayed a skeleton in his North Dakota office as the bank robber he’d shot and killed.

The skeleton resurfaced two years ago, found by a researcher who had been hunting the weapon used to kill Miller.

In April, Miller’s relatives and a group of forensic researchers asked Jackson County Medical Examiner Mary H. Dudley, who also does work for Clay County, to petition Clay County authorities to exhume the body.

One of the researchers, James Bailey, said Friday he was pleased with White’s decision to seek the court’s permission.

“It is going to really help answer some unanswered questions,” said Bailey, who is a retired law enforcement professor at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

Bailey has researched various aspects of the 1876 bank robbery since 2007. He approached one of Miller’s relatives, Ruth Coder Fitzgerald, about examining the remains.

If a judge grants permission to exhume the body, Bailey said he and several anthropology experts would assist Dudley in gathering samples, examining them and reburying the remains.

Recently, researchers scanned the skull of the skeleton recovered two years ago and superimposed it over Miller’s postmortem photo to see if they matched. The exercise suggested “the skull could be that of Miller,” according to a report Bailey co-authored. Researchers were unable to obtain DNA from the skeleton.

White asked Dudley to provide details on how exhuming and testing the remains would be handled.

In letter written in July, Dudley assured White that the remains “will be handled with respect and dignity.”

Although it’s unclear what shape the 19th century casket will be in, Dudley told White that she is optimistic that she will be able to recover DNA.

Researchers will try to get DNA from one of Miller’s bones first, and if that fails, they will try to extract it from a tooth, Dudley said in her letter to White.

If possible, the remains would be reburied the same day, she said. A local minister has been invited to perform a memorial service, she said. There will no cost to the county.

It likely will take several months to get DNA results, Dudley said.

Relatives said Miller was raised in Kearney and briefly joined “Bloody” Bill Anderson’s guerillas in the Civil War. Miller joined the James-Younger gang years later.

In 1876, Miller and fellow gang member William Chadwell were shot to death by townspeople in the attempted bank robbery in Northfield.

The men were buried in a Minnesota cemetery. But later, Henry Wheeler, who had killed Miller, had the remains dug up and shipped to Michigan, where Wheeler attended medical school. The remains were used in an anatomy class, Bailey said.

Months after the shooting, family members claimed a body presumed to be Miller and took it back to Missouri, where it was buried in the Muddy Fork Cemetery near Missouri 33.

Years later, Wheeler began his medical practice in Grand Forks, N.D., and maintained that he had kept Miller’s skeleton. Wheeler donated the skeleton to an Odd Fellows Lodge when he retired in 1923. It was spotted 20 years ago, when the lodge building was sold. Two years ago, the researcher found it.

Being able to examine the remains buried in Clay County should put the issue to rest, Bailey said.