KEARNEY — In life, Clell Miller was a gun-toting, Confederate bushwacker raised in Clay County. He was later an outlaw with Jesse James and was gunned down during a botched holdup in 1876 in Northfield, Minn.
In death, Miller has become a source of mystery and intrigue.
For years, Miller's family believed the body buried at Muddy Fork Cemetery in Kearney was Clell Miller. But a medical student who gunned down Miller on Sept. 7, 1876, claimed that he kept the outlaw's skeleton.
Now Miller's relatives and a group of forensic researchers would like to know for sure who lies buried in Kearney.
In April, they approached Mary H. Dudley, the medical examiner for Jackson and Clay counties, to petition Clay County authorities to exhume Miller's body.
"For some people it is important to know that he is there," said Ruth Fitzgerald, whose great-grandfather was Miller's cousin. "I guess it would settle some people down and stop some of the rumors."
Miller, whose full first name has been rendered Clelland or McClelland, was buried in Minnesota shortly after he was shot and killed. His remains and those of a fellow James gang member were later exhumed and given to Henry Wheeler, a local medical student who killed Miller during the famous shootout between the gang and town residents.
Months after the shooting, a body presumed to be Miller was claimed by family members and brought back to Missouri, where it was buried in the Muddy Fork Cemetery.
Dudley has the authority to investigate suspicious deaths, but it is up to Clay County Prosecutor Daniel White to seek an order from the circuit court for exhumation.
In correspondence obtained by The Kansas CityStar through a Missouri Open Records request, Dudley told White, "given the cause of death resulted from violent circumstances and the positive identification has not been established, I support the exhumation and forensic examination."
Exhuming outlaws is nothing new for Clay County. In 1995, researchers dug up remains from Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kearney to substantiate that they belonged to Jesse James. It was determined that they did, though not everyone was convinced.
White said he is skeptical about the Clell Miller effort, and he needs more information before seeking a court order to have the remains examined.
"There is a mechanism which this office used during the exhumation of Jesse James in the 1990s," he said. "Since the exhumation of 19th century outlaws is something that doesn't happen very often, we will need to review the statutes to ensure they haven't changed."
In 1965, Fitzgerald was a senior at MU when she started researching the life of Clell Miller. While relatives occasionally spoke about Miller, his life and how he died was not a source of family pride, said Fitzgerald, who lives in Virginia.
"They were embarrassed by him," she said. "I don't go around announcing to people that I am related to him. It wasn't something you brought up very much."
Fitzgerald said Miller was raised in Kearney and was a teenager when he joined "Bloody" Bill Anderson's guerillas for a short period during the Civil War. On Oct. 26, 1864, Miller was captured by Union soldiers during a skirmish in which Anderson was killed. Miller was sent to a prison in St. Louis. He was released in April 1865.
Years later, Miller joined the Jesse James-Cole Younger gang.
In 1876, Miller and fellow gang member William Caldwell were shot to death during the attempted bank robbery in Northfield.
The men were buried in the local cemetery. But subsequently, Henry Wheeler dug up the bodies and had them shipped to Michigan, where he attended medical school. The remains were used in an anatomy class, Fitzgerald and another researcher said.
Family members learned of what happened and retrieved what was thought to be Miller's body and brought it back to Missouri, where it was buried in Kearney, Fitzgerald said.
A few years later, Wheeler established a medical practice in Grand Forks, N.D. He maintained that he kept Clell Miller's skeleton. Wheeler donated the skeleton to the Odd Fellows Lodge when he retired in 1923.
About 20 years ago, the skeleton was discovered inside the lodge when the building was sold. A lodge member said the skeleton had belonged to Wheeler.
Fitzgerald said in her letter to Dudley that it is uncertain if the remains buried in Kearney had belonged to either Miller or Caldwell.
James Bailey, a retired Minnesota State University-Mankato law enforcement professor, has researched since 2007 various aspects of the 1876 bank robbery. Bailey approached Fitzgerald about exhuming Miller's remains.
Bailey declined to comment. But in emails to Dudley obtained by The Star, Bailey said that he would use a DNA sample from the remains and compare it to a sample he recently received from a Miller relative.
Fitzgerald said she looked forward to finally putting the matter to rest.
"If it is him, well isn't that nice. It proves that he is there," she said. "If it is someone else, I would like to put up a little plaque there that says, 'Clell isn't here.'"
But White said exhuming the remains may not be worth the trouble.
"Clell Miller was a criminal who died at the hands of angry armed citizens. He literally got what he deserved," White said. "I really don't want to waste any of the county's resources in bringing additional notoriety to outlaws."