Identity of historical bones remains a mystery

Hayes Scriven, Northfield Historical Society executive director, helps move the skeleton so it can be studied.
Photo courtesy of James Bailey

Charlie Pitts rode into Northfield with Jesse James in 1876 to rob the First National Bank. A short while later he was killed in a shootout in southern Minnesota.

It was such a big deal that Pitts' dead body was put on public display, but it's not certain where the remains wound up after that.

Charlie Pitts
Charlie Pitts, whose real name was Samuel Wells, in a photo taken after his death. Pitts was a member of the James gang, and was shot five times and killed at Madelia, Minn., in September, 1876.
Photo courtesy of Northfield Historical Society Press

A skeleton that's said to be that of Charlie Pitts has been held by a couple of historical groups in southern Minnesota. Over the last year and a half, the skeleton was subjected to some high-tech analysis to determine if it was, in fact, the remains f Charlie Pitts.

The Northfield Historical Society has had the skeleton for more than 25 years. Before that, the bones were displayed at a museum in Shakopee, where they were labeled as the remains of Charlie Pitts.

Now, some new research says those bones do not belong to Charlie Pitts.

Jim Bailey and Kate Blue, two researchers from Minnesota State University in Mankato, began their examination of the bones in late 2007. Their findings were presented today at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Denver.

Samuel Wells
Samuel Wells went under the pseudonym Charlie Pitts when he rode with Jesse James. He was born in 1848 in Missouri.
Photo courtesy of the Wells family

Bailey said the team used carbon 14 testing to make the determination.

"There's a 97.5 percent chance that this person lived sometime in the 1700s," Bailey said. "So that really rules out the skeleton as being Charlie Pitts, since Charlie Pitts was killed in the 1870s."

Pitts rode into Northfield with Jesse James on Sept. 7, 1876. When town residents realized a robbery was underway, they started shooting. Two citizens and two outlaws were killed. Pitts and the rest of the James gang fled west through Mankato.

Two weeks later, Pitts was gunned down in another shootout southwest of Mankato near the town of LaSalle. Five bullets hit his body, including a fatal shot through the breastbone. There is a half-circle hole on the edge of the skeleton's breastbone, but the researchers couldn't determine if it was caused by a bullet.

Artist recreation
This reconstruction of the face of the skeleton was done by forensic artist Victoria Lywood.
Photo courtesy of Victoria Lywood

The Jesse James gang was so infamous that Pitts' body was transported to St. Paul and put on display at the State Capitol. After that, his remains passed through the hands of several doctors and finally disappeared.

The researchers also used DNA testing to determine whether the Northfield bones belonged to Charlie Pitts.

Charlie Pitts' real name was Samuel Wells. The researchers tracked down Joe Wells of Wickenburg, Ariz., a distant relative, who agreed to donate DNA.

Joe Wells' great-grandfather was the brother of Samuel Wells, aka Charlie Pitts. But Wells' DNA did not match the DNA extracted from the skeleton.

Artist drawing
Forensic artist Victoria Lywood created this drawing of what the face of the skeleton might have looked like.
Photo courtesy of Victoria Lywood

Joe Wells said he doubted all along that the bones belonged to the man who rode with Jesse James.

"To me, it was a good possibility that it wasn't him," Wells said. "It was just the way things happen through time. Much as we've heard the remains got moved around and what not, you kind of lose track of them."

Researcher Jim Bailey said he hopes to do further testing on the bones that will provide clues about the person's real identity.

The skeleton is headed back to the Northfield Historical Society, where Hayes Scriven is executive director. Scriven said he's not really surprised at the forensic findings. A previous analysis had already cast doubt on whether the bones belonged to Charlie Pitts.

But Scriven said he's not really disappointed either.

"It's actually really exciting," Scriven said. "It's what we're supposed to be doing as historians -- to figure out if this was Charlie or not, or if it was just a random lab skeleton. And for us to come away knowing that it's not Charlie is a good thing."

Scriven said the bones may never reveal their identity.

"To be quite honest, I don't think we'll ever know who it is, because of the fact that the DNA they found in the femur bone, in the leg bone, doesn't match the DNA that was in the tooth," he said.

Scriven said the Northfield Historical Society will probably assemble a display on the forensic investigation itself. The display will likely include a 3-D reconstruction of the face, which was built as part of the investigation.

As for the skeleton itself, Scriven said it will probably go back to its corner of the collections room, with its mystery intact, if not enhanced.