One hot summer day in 1926, Dr. Henry Mason Wheeler came into Deer River to do errands and dropped his watch off to be cleaned at Hans Anderson’s Jewelry Shop.
Dr. Wheeler lived in Grand Forks, North Dakota but loved the woods and lakes. So, he bought a summer place on Sand Lake, north of Deer River. He was a distinguished surgeon in Grand Forks where he settled after years of travel on the railways as the physician for Great Northern. During his retirement years he and his family spent long summers here and many residents from Sand Lake remember Doc Wheeler’s willingness to lend a hand when medical attention was needed by a family in the area.
When Hans put the gold pocket watch back together and gave it a final shine, he decided he would ask the Doc what the inscription on the back of the watch meant. It was neatly engraved, “Presented to H.M. Wheeler, Sept. 7, 1876, by First National Bank, Northfield, Minnesota.”
Hans questioned him on the significance of the watch and, with a bit of coaxing, learned that Henry was involved in preventing the robbery of the Northfield Bank by the Jesse James and Younger Gang. In fact, he was credited for shooting and killing one of the lookouts, Clell Miller. Henry had been attending medical school in Michigan but was in Northfield for the summer, helping at his father’s pharmacy, until the beginning of the fall term. He was bright and quick on his feet, two qualities that served him well on that Friday afternoon.
Brief Description of What Happened
Eight members of the James and Younger Gang attempted to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, but the citizens of the town fought back and the plan was foiled. In the end, two of the gang, Bill Chadwell and Clell Miller were killed as were a bank employee and one citizen. The shot and wounded gang members were Frank James, Charlie Pitts, Jim Younger, Bob Younger and Cole Younger. The latter was shot five times.
Jesse James, Frank James and Bob Younger were the ones who entered the bank, pulled their guns and aimed at three bank employees. Jesse announced, “We’re robbing this bank. Don’t any of you holler. We’ve got forty men outside.” He asked each man in turn if he was the cashier and they repeatedly denied that they were.
Finally, one explained that there was a chronometer (time lock) on the safe and it could not be opened for any reason. However, if the robbers had inspected the safe before the melee broke out, they would have discovered that while there was a chronometer on the safe it had not been set and could have easily been opened.
Meanwhile outside the bank, J. S. Allen who owned a hardware store, and nineteen-year-old Henry M. Wheeler who was on his way to his father’s pharmacy noticed Cole and Clell standing outside the bank and became suspicious. Allen approached, but Clell grabbed his wrist forcibly stopping him from entering the building. Nevertheless, Allen was able to look through a window and see what was going on inside. Clell whispered to him to keep his “God-damned mouth shut!” For some reason, Clell chose not to push Allen inside the bank where he could be well guarded but shoved him away from the building presuming, he would simply go on his way and remain silent about the gang’s activities. Clell’s plan backfired.
Allen walked merely a few feet before he began running and shouting “Get your guns boys! They’re robbing the bank!” Wheeler also began running and shouting, “Robbery! Robbery!” Clell immediately pulled one of his pistols and aimed it at Wheeler. He fired but the bullet went just a little above Wheeler’s head.
Several of the look-out gang members mounted their horses and began charging up the street shooting their guns to the sky and yelling “Get in, Get in”. At first, it seemed that the gang was actually overtaking the citizens, but the situation quickly reversed. The citizens ran to their homes or places of business to grab their derringers, pistols, shotguns, and rifles. At his store, Allen began loading and handing out whatever guns he could to every passerby. The citizens then ran to various places in town including rooftops, porches, and upper windows. They randomly opened fire on the five outlaws on the street.
In a matter of seconds, Division Street became a shooting gallery with bullets flying and zipping in every direction from every possible location. Wheeler, meanwhile, ran to the Dampier Hotel located across the street from the bank. He went to the top floor with an old Army carbine and three slugs. He placed himself in a strategic position at a window overlooking the siege. With one slug he shot and killed Clell Miller, and with another he shot and maimed Bob Younger as he exited the bank.
“For his distinguished service, the doctor was presented by the citizens of Northfield with a handsomely engraved solid gold watch, which he carried throughout the remainder of his life and which has been admired by many local citizens.” [obituary Deer River News 4-17-1930]
“Under the Black Flag”
The July 22, 1926 Deer River News article about Hans Anderson and the watch also mentioned that the show Jesse James – Under the Black Flag starring Jesse James, Jr. had played at the Deer River Lyceum the previous Wednesday. The Lyceum’s description stated, “The only authorized version of the life and adventures of that picturesque outlaw. ONE DAY ONLY. 2 SHOWS, THE FIRST AT 7:30, THE SECOND AT 9. Admission 15 and 35 cents.”
Jesse James Jr. was indeed the actor. He was only a year old when his father was involved in the robbery attempt and seven when his father, a fugitive, was killed. During his growing up years, he used an alias, Tim Edward or Tim Howard. He became a lawyer in Los Angeles. In 1920 he was approached to do a series of films about his famous father, which were released as Jesse James as the Outlaw and Jesse James Under the Black Flag in 1921. Unfortunately, both films were financial failures, and since he had invested heavily it took a toll on his family.
A Cadaver Mystery
One very interesting tidbit of information following the shoot out came from W. David Beach, Grand Historian of North Dakota 2000. Beach stated in an address he gave about Dr. Henry Mason Wheeler: “Henry later explained to the Sheriff that he was in medical school and needed to provide a cadaver to his school for examination so that he could graduate. He asked for a body of one of the outlaws but was turned down. The Sheriff said to him that he would not break the law, but “I will see that the outlaws are buried plenty shallow.” A few days later Henry shipped a barrel labeled ‘pickles’ to himself at school. It smelled strongly of formaldehyde.”