. . . Summer 2002
Jesse James and his henchmen figure in many books, 35 films and countless historical articles, but the failed robbery in Northfield is the most celebrated Western episode of banditry in American history; an entire movie, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), is devoted to it. And one of the heroes of the day was U-M medical student Henry M. Wheeler. The events developed like this:
After a decade of train and bank robbery, most often met with little or no resistance, every law enforcement agency in the Missouri border region was hunting the gang, so its leaders Jesse James and Cole Younger decided to branch to the north. They selected the southern Minnesota town of Northfield's First National Bank, knowing that it kept at least $200,000 in its safe.
Eight mounted men wearing dusters
On Sept. 7, the gang's eight men rode into town astride fine horses and wearing handsome suits covered by the long cattle-buyers' coats known as dusters. The horsemen split into three groups. Three dismounted and entered the bank, Jesse, Bob Younger and Charley Pitts. Two, Cole Younger and Clell Miller, remained near the entrance. And Frank James, Jim Younger and William Stiles aka Bill Chadwell kept mounted at the far end of the street.
Even though no one had ever robbed Northfield's bank, the strangers' maneuvers alarmed the townspeople. One of them was 22-year-old Henry Mason Wheeler (1877 MD), who was home for summer vacation from medical studies in Ann Arbor, helping out in his father's drug store. According to a history published in 1895, Robber and Hero: The Story of the Northfield Bank Raid, by George Huntington, as the gang rode into town, Wheeler was leaning back in a chair in front of the store, chatting with friends.
"Regarding the movements of the strangers as suspicious," Huntington wrote, Wheeler rose and "followed and watched them, and had already shouted an alarm when he was driven from the street at the point of a pistol."
'Get out of here, Dingus!'
When Clell Miller ordered Wheeler and passersby to leave the bank's entrance, some citizens approached the bank, brandishing firearms, shovels, picks and boards. Jesse and his sidekicks in the bank looked out, saw the defenders gathering and soon heard shooting break out. James jabbed his pistol into cashier Joseph Lee Heywood's ribs and ordered him to open the safe. Heywood said he couldn't and wouldn't. Suddenly, Cole Younger burst through the door and said, "Forget that'n! Get the hell out of here, Dingus!"
Jesse knocked the cashier to the floor and made for the door, but that wasn't enough punishment for Charley Pitts, who fatally shot Heywood through the brain as the three robbers escaped to the street. Outside, a recent Swedish immigrant who didn't understand English was shot when he didn't promptly obey the outlaws' orders to flee. These were the town's only two fatalities.
As the battle raged on the street, Wheeler ran into the Dampier hotel that kept an old Civil War rifle on hand. He grabbed some ammunition, made his way to an upstairs window and took aim at the marauders.
Wheeler's deadly aim
"How promptly he secured a weapon, and with what deadly execution he used it, has been duly related," the historian noted, for after an initial miss, Wheeler blasted Clell Miller out of the saddle with a mortal wound to the head. Wheeler fired again and drilled Bob Younger through the elbow.
Had the gun been better and the ammunition more abundant, he would
no doubt have given still more emphatic proof that a doctor may upon
occasion make himself more useful in giving wounds than in healing them.
One, at least, of those he gave that day was so far unprofessional as
to leave no chance for the surgeon's services.
Other Northfielders shot at the James gang as it zigzagged on horseback down the street. The remnants of the gang finally rode out of town after a seven-minute gun battle. Stiles/Chadwell lay dying in the street. All three Youngers required medical attention. Pitts suffered wounds that would kill him within two weeks. Frank and Jesse James had only been winged.