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Grand Forks Mayor Henry Wheeler


Dr. Henry Wheeler, M.D., was famous in Grand Forks for three reasons. First, his medical practice began in the early 1880s and he healed many; second, he became mayor, elected for his first term in 1918, and, on this date in 1920, the Grand Forks Herald announced that Dr. Wheeler had been re-elected. And third, all who knew Mayor Wheeler acknowledged a well-known fact – he was a hero who had helped thwart bank robber Jesse James in 1876.

September 7th, 1876, started out as a regular day in Northfield, Minnesota, as people were going about their business with no thoughts of anything unfortunate happening. However, the First National Bank of Northfield allegedly had a $75,000 deposit from ex-Mississippi Governor Adelbert Ames, who had recently moved to town.

This large amount of money drew the attention of the James Gang – Jesse and brother Frank; the Younger Brothers – Bob, Cole, and Jim; and Charlie Pitts, Clel Miller, and Bill Chadwell (AKA Bill Stiles).

Henry Wheeler, home from the University of Michigan Medical School, was visiting his family, just sitting on the front porch of his father’s drugstore, directly across the street from the bank, when he noticed the “peculiar actions” of three men who tied up their horses and entered the bank. When two other riders came and blocked the bank-doors, stopping a customer from entering, Wheeler shouted: “They’re robbing the bank!”

The robbers yelled death threats at Wheeler, whereupon he ran to the Dampier Hotel, took an old army rifle and three cartridges from the hotel desk, and assumed a firing position at an upstairs window. Other outraged Northfield citizens reacted, grabbing weapons, as three more of the gang arrived.

Chaos erupted in the street, as Cole Younger and Clel Miller panicked, telling the robbers to hurry up. Shots rang out. Henry Wheeler wounded Jim Younger; reloaded; then Wheeler shot Clel Miller dead. Wheeler aimed and shot Bob Younger in the elbow.

Another citizen shot and killed robber Bill Chadwell before the James Gang fled. Two Northfield citizens also died that day, the bank teller who refused to open the safe, and a Swedish bystander. A posse caught all the gang except for Frank and Jesse James.

Wheeler returned to medical school, earned his degree, and the famous sharpshooter arrived in Grand Forks in 1881 to complete his destiny as physician and mayor.

Dakota Datebook written by Madeline Atwood and Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Mayor Wheeler Is Returned Winner In Spirited Contest Developed During Blizzard,” Grand Forks Herald , March 17, 1920, p. 1.

Cole Younger, “The Northfield Raid,” Warren [MN] Sheaf , July 15, 1897, p. 3.

“Raid By Robbers,” Worthington Advance , September 14, 1876, p. 1.

“The Story of the Youngers,” Minneapolis Tribune , July 5, 1897, p. 7.

“Praying For Pardon,” St. Paul Globe , July 4, 1897.

“Dr. Wheeler’s Story,” The Record , vol. 3, no. 1, (July 1897), p. 24