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Guns, watch of former Grand Forks doctor who shot Clell Miller on permanent display

Henry Wheeler exhibit at the Northfield Historical Society in Northfield, Minn. Submitted photo from the Northfield Historical Society 1 / 5
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.50 Caliber Smith Carbine rifle used by Wheeler to kill William "Clell" Miller. Submitted photo by Northfield Historical Society 3 / 5
Henry Wheeler exhibit at the Northfield Historical Society in Northfield, Minn. Submitted photo from the Northfield Historical Society 4 / 5
Henry Wheeler's pocket watch at the Northfield Historical Society in Northfield, Minn. Submitted photo from the Northfield Historical Society 5 / 5

The rifle used by Henry Wheeler, a pioneer physician in Grand Forks, to kill a member of the James-Younger Gang and injure another during the Northfield (Minn.) Bank Robbery in 1876 now is on permanent display in Northfield.

The Henry Wheeler Exhibit, which also includes other memorabilia, will be a highlight of this year's Defeat of Jesse James Days, which runs Wednesday through Sunday, in Northfield.

The Henry Wheeler Collection, which also includes a gold watch Wheeler received from the First National Bank after the robbery and a revolver he carried after the ordeal, are on permanent loan from Northfield collector Norman Oberto, president of Imperial Plastics, Lakeville, Minn., who purchased the collection last year from Grand Forks residents Gerald Groenewold and Connie Triplett.

"It's our new crown jewel," Northfield Historical Society Executive Director Hayes Scriven said. "What it symbolizes for us is that it helps to tell the town people's side of the story. The rifle used to shoot Clell Miller and Bob Younger is just that. For us to have that and have it on display is a great thing for our community."

Wheeler, who grew up in Northfield, was home on break from medical school at the University of Michigan on Sept. 7, 1876, when the James-Younger Gang rode into town on horseback to rob the First National Bank of Northfield.

Wheeler and other local residents responded with gunfire, with Wheeler borrowing a .50-caliber rifle from the owner of the Dampier Hotel. From an upstairs window, Wheeler killed outlaw Clell Miller and wounded Bob Younger.

Joseph Lee Heywood, acting cashier at the First National Bank, also was killed in the raid.

According to historical accounts, Wheeler joined a posse formed to chase the surviving bank robbers out of town. Before leaving, he left instructions to his friends and fellow medical students to try to obtain the bodies of the two dead outlaws for their medical school.

The story goes that the students had received tacit approval to dig up the bodies from their shallow graves in the Northfield Cemetery. Then, they put the bodies in barrels marked paint and were shipped to Ann Arbor, Mich.

On to Grand Forks

Wheeler earned his medical degree in 1877 and returned to Northfield, where he married his high school sweetheart, Addie Murray.

Within a month after his his wife and their infant daughter died on successive days in June 1881, Wheeler moved to Grand Forks, Dakota Territory, to establish a medical practice as a physician and surgeon.

He brought the famous rifle—and what he said were the skeletal remains of Clell Miller—to Grand Forks with him.

He served one term as a Grand Forks city alderman and was mayor from 1918 to 1920. He also was the first dean for the University of North Dakota School of Medicine.

He married twice while in Grand Forks. In 1883, he married Josephine Connell, a St. Cloud school teacher. She died in 1914.

He married again in 1922, to Mae M. McCulloch, with whom he had his only child, a son, Henry "Hank" Wheeler Jr.

At age 75, Wheeler died on April 14 1930, when his son was not quite 6 years old.

Trail of the gun

The .50-caliber Smith Carbine rifle is part of the Henry Wheeler Collection that is on permanent loan to the Northfield Historical Society.

Here is the trail of the historic gun, according to historian James A. Bailey (Wild West History Association Journal, October 2012) and the Northfield Historical Society, courtesy of Northfield author and historian Susan Hvistendahl and the Northfield Entertainment Guide:

The first owner was Edward Dampier, owner of the Dampier Hotel in Northfield, who had been issued the Civil War carbine when he enlisted in Minnesota's volunteer cavalier, Hatch's Independent Battalion, Company F, from 1864 to 1866.

After Dampier's death in 1889, it was inherited by his son, Charles Dampier, Wheeler's friend and a fellow medical student at the University of Michigan.

Wheeler borrowed the gun in 1923 to display in his Grand Forks office. Following Wheeler's death in 1930, his widow, Mae McCulloch Wheeler, gave it to their son, Henry "Hank" Wheeler.

In 1973, Wheeler sold it to a friend, Charles R. Dickson, Grand Forks.

In 1980, Dickson sold the carbine to Gerald Groenewold, Grand Forks.

In November 2014, Groenewold sold the carbine, as well as Wheeler's .45-caliber revolver and his gold pocket watch to Norman Oberto, a Northfield sports memorabilia and car collector.

Oberto, in turn, offered it on permanent loan to the Northfield Historical Society.

The Henry Wheeler Exhibit

The Henry Wheeler Exhibit collection includes:

-- The .50-caliber Smith Carbine rifle Wheeler used to kill Clell Miller and wound Bob Young during the failed 1876 Northfield Bank Raid;

-- the gold pocket watch Wheeler was given by the First National Bank of Northfield for his role in the raid; and,

-- the .45-caliber revolver Wheeler carried with him for the rest of his life in fear the Miller family might retaliate.

For more information on the 2015 Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield, Minn., go to: www.djjd.org

The following is optional; or it could be used as a sidebar, or in the online version. Bones.

Wheeler's account

Here is the account (with some explanation, provided by Susan Hvistendahl, a Northfield author and historian, in brackets) that Wheeler wrote for the 50th anniversary of the raid, a carbon copy of which is found at the Northfield Historical Society, which was printed in the Northfield News on Sept. 10, 1926:

"At the time of the Northfield bank raid, Thursday, Sept. 7, 1876, I was a student in medicine and home in Northfield for my holidays. I was sitting on the sidewalk, in front of father's drug store, nearly opposite the bank about half past one or two in the afternoon, when I saw three men ride up the street, tie their horses, and go into the bank.

"I thought they were cattlemen ... (Then) two more men came riding up the street, and stopped in front of the bank. One of them dismounted, looked in thru the bank door, and then remained outside.

"I was beginning to get suspicious, rose from my chair and moved up the street until I was directly opposite the bank. J.S. Allen approached the bank and attempted to enter, but received a blow from the horseman, which sent him spinning down the street.

"'I shouted, 'Robbery! They are robbing the bank," with the result that the man in front of the bank turned immediately and fired at me, but the shot went over my head.

"'Get back, or I'll kill you,' he shouted.

(Hardware merchant J.S. Allen reportedly cried, 'Get your guns, boys,' they're robbing the bank!;")

"I ran into the drug store, thinking to get my gun, which I generally kept there, but I had lent it to someone who had returned it to the house. I made for the Dampier hotel, where I knew there was a gun, asked the clerk for ammunition, and he got me four cartridges from the storeroom.

"I ran upstairs to a bedroom on the third floor (which was the second floor of the hotel itself), facing the bank. As I approached the window, three more men on horseback came riding up across the bridge square, shooting. I shot at one of them (Jim Younger), but missed him. I reloaded. The man who had fired at me before had got into the saddle and was bending down adjusting the left stirrup. I got a rest for the gun in a corner of the window, aimed low and shot him (Clell Miller) through the chest.

"In the meantime, A.R. Manning had come up to the corner on the other side of the street, shot one of the horses, behind which some of the bandits were sheltering themselves, and had also shot one of the men (Bill Chadwell). Bob Younger had come out of the bank and was having a revolver duel with Manning. I took a shot at Bob, breaking his right elbow. My fourth cartridge had failed from the bed to the floor, breaking the tissue paper forming the cartridge, and the powder had escaped, so my ammunition was exhausted. I watched two bandits come out of the bank, mount their horses, and ride away with the others. At the time, the clerk came with more cartridges for me, but he was too late.

"When the excitement had died down, it was found that the robbers had made away with about $290 (that early estimate turned out to be only $26.70), which they took from the till on the counter, but Heywood had refused to open the safe, declaring there was a time lock on it, which he could not open. They shot him (John Lee Heywood, acting cashier) thru the head, killing him instantly, but were afraid to go into the vault."

Kevin Bonham

Kevin Bonham covers regional news, mostly from northeast North Dakota, for the Grand Forks Herald. A North Dakota native who grew up in Mandan and Dickinson, he has been a reporter or an editor with the Herald and Forum Communications for more than 30 years. Find his articles at: www.grandforksherald.com. He welcomes story ideas via email, kbonham@gfherald.com, or by phone, (701) 780-1110.  

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