The Real Charlie Pitts-Samuel Wells

Even though there is no documentation of “Charlie Pitts” ever riding with Quantrill, he was deeply involved with Quantrill’s former guerrillas and experienced his own wartime atrocities at the hands of Jayhawkers. He no doubt fought alongside his older brother, Charles Edwin Wells, a Confederate soldier who was known to engage in guerrilla warfare such as the 1863 Lawrence, Kansas raid. Also, Samuel was a cousin to guerrilla George Shepherd and a lifelong friend of guerrilla Cole Younger.

Most folks who knew of “Charlie Pitts”, the outlaw who participated in the 1876 Northfield, Minnesota bank robbery with the James – Younger gang, also knew that he was killed a few days later in a hail of gunfire by a posse who cornered him and the Younger brothers on the outskirts of Madelia, Minnesota.

But unless one has read Cole Younger’s autobiography, “The Story of Cole Younger” by “Himself”, one would not know what Cole said to “Charlie” just before he died.

As it was becoming evident that the men weren’t going to escape, Cole told “Charlie” “if you want to go out and surrender, go on.” But “Charlie” responded, “I’ll not go. I can die as well as you can.” And that, he did. “Pitts”, said Cole, “shot through the heart, lay dead.”

Cole, Jim and Bob got captured and hauled off to jail. “Charlie’s” unclaimed body was hauled off to St Paul where Surgeon General Dr John Henry Murphy had him embalmed for the purpose of scientific studies. “Charlie’s” life at age 28, a husband and father of two children, was over.
Although he never acquired the fame of his cohorts during his outlaw days, more citizens became obsessed with wondering who he really was and where he came from after his death. The truth was Samuel Wells was his real name and Charlie Pitts was an alias.  Reportedly, young Samuel adopted the alias “Charlie” from his older brother, Charles Edwin and just picked the name Pitts by chance.

In addition to family documents, Samuel’s true identity is verified by additional sources: author Bill O’Neal confirms Samuel’s identity in his book, “Encyclopedia of Gun Fighters” where he describes Samuel as a train and bank robber. He notes that, “Sam Wells, who regularly uses the alias “Charlie Pitts”, was a member of the James-Younger gang”.

William H. Wallace, Prosecuting Attorney of Jackson County wrote in his autobiography: “Writings of Wm. H. Wallace”, “Wells is usually referred to in accounts of robbery as “Charlie Pitts”, but his true name was Sam. I was raised in the same neighborhood with him and knew him well”.

Samuel was born in 1848 to George Washington “Wash” and Margaret Umbarger Wells in Lee’s Summit, MO. He was the 4th child of eight siblings that included five boys and three girls. The Wells were neighbors and close friends of Henry and Bursheba Younger whose family included sons, Cole, Jim and Bob Younger–once Samuel’s play buddies who, ironically in adulthood, bid him farewell to Outlaw Heaven.

Samuel didn’t start out taking the wrong fork in the road. His family was well respected as farmers in the community who led an enjoyable and peaceful life until the mid 1800’s when the Border War between Kansas Jayhawkers and the MO Bushwhackers escalated - literally changing southerner’s lives forever. At the young age of eight Samuel’s childhood innocence quickly transformed into a struggle of survival as he witnessed the horrors of warfare.

Responding to a call to arms to fight for their cause was nothing new to the Wells ancestry. The family originally migrated from England to Maryland in the early 1700’s. Samuel’s gr grandfather, Richard Wells and eight of his sons fought in the Revolutionary War in Captain Edmund Baxter’s company. One son who survived was Zachariah, Samuel’s grandfather - also a notable patriot who fought as a victorious private in the battle of Kings Mountain.

The Wells family, caught right in the middle of another historic war, fell victim to Kansas Jayhawkers who burned their home and ran their livestock off.

By the time the Border War blended into the Civil War Samuel was seasoned to warfare. He was a “man” at age 14 when his father, George, age 45, was shot and killed by Union soldiers on August 18, 1862 during the battle of White Oak Creek near the Wells’ homestead. Thanks to Quantrill and his band the Union was defeated. Samuel and his older brother Charles, one month shy of turning 17, were suddenly the men of the family and became soldiers on the spot.

Family history notes that throughout the war, their sister, Velari made money belts for the boys and there was always a fresh horse available for them. After the war Samuel and Charles took different paths - Charles settled down in Kansas, married, had children and became a successful businessman and respectable citizen. But Samuel’s adrenaline never slowed, nor could he forgive or forget the destruction and heartache caused by the North. He was unsettled and still craved revenge.

In 1867, at age 19, he married Virginia “Jenny” Fisher in Jackson county, MO. Two marriage dates are documented; one for October 15, 1867 by the International Genealogy Index Jackson County, MO and November 1, 1867 by Federal Records Center, Independence, MO. They had two children: Mary Ophelia and a son, Billy born in 1876 - the year Samuel got killed. Sadly, Billy died at age two.
But being harnessed to slow-paced family life was easier said then done. Still haunted by the past he continued the path of revenge. When he left his family for the Minnesota stint in 1876 “Jenny” told him “ if you take up with the Youngers and the Jameses - don’t bother to come back”. He didn’t – not because he didn’t want to, but because he was stopped by a bullet to the chest, courtesy of Sheriff James Glispin. He was killed on his feet holding his Schofield revolver, which is on display at the Northfield Historical Society in Minnesota.

There was no R.I.P. for Samuel – instead, he continued to do a lot of traveling with publicity he’d never imagine. In those days if a body went unclaimed it was automatically turned over to a physician. Dr Murphy did the honors. He preserved Samuel’s body in a barrel of brine in the back room of his office. A year he later gave it to his nephew, Henry Hoyt, a medical student who needed a cadaver for training purposes.

“Pitts was a fine specimen of physical manhood and I decided to retain and mount his skeleton for use in my office after my graduation”, Hoyt noted. Believing that soaking the dissected bones under water was the best bleaching process, Samuel’s skeleton was stuffed into a small box and sank in the middle of Lake Como in St. Paul, MN. After graduation Hoyt left the area, but without Samuel. In 1878 (1) a resident, August Robertson, spearing for muskrats in the frozen lake, struck Samuel’s box. Authorities initially thought they had a homicide case until Dr. Murphy showed up to solve the mystery. Samuel’s bones went back to Murphy’s office, then later traveled to the East coast for “Show and Tell” in a physician’s Chicago office. From there, the paper trail vanishes.
For decades a skeleton displayed in the Stagecoach Museum in Shakopee, MN was publicized to be that of Charlie Pitts aka Sam Wells. In July of 1981 it was transported to the Northfield Historical Society in MN where it remained in question. Finally, in 2008 Dr James Bailey, professor at Minnesota State University in Mankato, had the DNA extracted from the skeleton that was compared to that of great- grandnephew, Joe H. Wells of Arizona. Results proved the skeleton’s DNA did not match that of Wells, concluding once and for all that “Mr. Bones” was not “Charlie”.

Samuel’s early death prevented him from knowing his two grandsons; Samuel Alamander Jones, his namesake, and Coleman, named after Cole Younger because of the family’s close relationship, were born to daughter Mary “Tumpy” Ophelia Wells Jones. Two granddaughters died young. Samuel’s lineage stops with his great-granddaughter, Joan (JoAnn) Faye Jones Thomas, still living, but his name continues with her adopted son named Samuel who named his son Samuel.

Joan also adopted a girl, Judy Thomas Gesaman who grew up around her grandfather Samuel Jones. She was age 10 when, for the first time, she saw the death photo of “Charlie Pitts” displayed in Dodge City, Kansas. She excitedly exclaimed: “Mom! That looks just like Grandpa”! That’s when she learned that the man who went by the name of “Charlie Pitt’s”, was her great, great-grandfather.

Historians are still searching for the whereabouts of “Charlie’s” skeleton, but Samuel Wells’ spirit remains at home with family. References: A Frontier Docor by Henry F. Hoyt.

© Shirleymae Wells– 2010 quantrillsguerrillas.com. "Permission should be requested and agreed to before using this copyrighted essay." Below you can comparethe ultra-rare family image to one of the various shots taken during the aftermafth of the Northfield Raid.





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