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The Murder of James S. Wait, 1919


Posted By: Reid R. Johnson (email)
Date: 3/11/2014 at 23:17:58

The Murder of James S. Wait, 1919
~compiled by Reid R. Johnson (rrj)

The shooting of James S. Wait on April 9, 1919, and his death resulting on April 27, 1919, the events that preceded it and the subsequent prosecutions, captured the attention of the citizens of Clayton, Delaware and Fayette counties and tore friends, neighbors and relatives apart, to say nothing of the sensation it created in the newspapers across the state of Iowa. Conspiracy, arson, murder and a Cain vs. Able, brother against brother situation are involved. Clayton county spent a tremendous amount of money in prosecuting the various trials for that time period, some $15,000. Below are some of the articles reporting the event and information on where to find the trial results and a summation of the testimony given during the trial. (rrj)

Surnames of the principals and named relations: Wait - Briggs - Cass - Wyant - Ives - Thurn.

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West Union Argo - Gazette, Wed., 19 February 1919.

Important Case From Clayton County Ended Yesterday Forenoon With a Directed Verdict.

The case of the State of Iowa vs. George Briggs and James Briggs, the case which was brought here from Clayton county on a change of venue, ended when Judge Springer directed a verdict for the defendants.

Three indictments were brought against the Briggs brothers, one of conspiracy to defraud the insurance company, one for burning the house, and another for burning the barn. The conspiracy case was tried in Clayton county and the Briggs brothers were convicted. A new trial was granted and the case brought to Fayette county on a change of venue.

The trial here was started last Monday, a jury impanelled, and the state's witnesses were being examined all last week until court adjourned Friday afternoon. The trial was resumed Monday afternoon, on the arrival of Judge Springer from his home in New Hampton, and at the close of the state's evidence the attorneys for the defense made a motion to direct a verdict. Tuesday morning the judge sustained this motion and the trial ended without the defense putting on a single witness.

The trial has attracted a great deal of attention, both in Clayton and Fayette counties. Large crowds have filled the court room here all through the trial.

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Des Moines Daily News, 19 April 1919.


Dubuque, Ia.- April 1?.- George Briggs is in jail at Elkader, having been arrested on a charge of shooting and seriously wounding James Wait, retired farmer, at Edgewood.

Waite's testimony at a recent trial of Briggs, charged with setting fire to buildings, is believed to have been the cause of the shooting.

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The Arlington News, 8 May 1919.


See the obituary of Wait, James S. died April 1919, on the Clayton Co. obituary board (link below) for census and burial information. Also FindAGrave.com for Wait and Thurn burials in Edgewood Cemetery, Delaware Co., Iowa, for more information.

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The Arlington News, Thur., 5 June 1919.

The preliminary hearing of George Briggs, charged with the murder of James S. Wait of Edgewood, was held last week, says the Elkader Register, closing Saturday morning, when Briggs was bound over to appear before the next session of the grand jury on the charge of murder in the first degree. Justice Fred Lenth presided over the hearing. County attorney W. W. Davidson is in charge of the prosecution and is assisted by D. D. Murphy & Son and V. T. Price. Attorneys Wheeler of Cedar Rapids and Estey of West Union appeared for Briggs.

It is reported that James Briggs, who was George Briggs co-defendant in the conspiracy trial some time ago, now appears as a witness against his brother, swearing that he had heard George threaten James Wait.- Fayette County Leader.

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Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, Monday, 10 November 1919.

George Briggs Goes To Trial Next Week At West Union On Capital Charge.

The entire state of Iowa as well as the two counties of Clayton and Fayette, will watch with more than passing interest the murder trial at West Union, of George Briggs, Jr., accused of the slaying of James Wait a prominent resident of Edgewood, Iowa, who was a material witness against Briggs in a recent arson case. It promises to be one of the most sensational trials in the states criminal annals. Arraigned on the side of the state are the county attorneys of Fayette and Clayton County's and private prosecutors, D. D. Murphy and his sons ,and Mr. Price of Elkader, and for the defense E. H. Esty of West Union, and the firm of Grimm, Wheeler and Elliott of Cedar Rapids. Mr. Wheeler will appear for the local law firm.

The case has its beginning on the 17th day of February, 1916, when a fire destroyed the farm house occupied by Briggs and his family near Little Porte, in Clayton county. On that night, James Briggs, a brother of George, was visiting at the home during the absence of Mrs. Briggs and her child. Everything was destroyed, including considerable personal property on which George carried worthwhile insurance in a Clayton insurance company. When he tried to collect the risk allowance he was refused and a law suit followed. Meanwhile, the state fire marshal began an investigation, resulting in indictments being returned against both Briggs boys. They were tried on a charge of conspiracy and other crimes in connection with the fire and convicted. The presiding judge however, granted a new trial on the ground that the evidence was insufficient. On a change of venue to Fayette county the men were acquitted with a direct verdict for the defendants.


From that time on a feud feeling between different parties and factions in the two counties existed, and on the night of April 9, 1919, Mr. Wait, who had been one of the vigorous prosecuting witnesses against the Briggs boys, was shot and fatally wounded. About 1 a.m. he was summoned by a rap on his front door. As he opened it, he was shot down by a man standing on the porch just outside the screen. The bullet entered his body near the collar bone and took a freak course over the shoulder and down the back. It severed his spinal column and he died a short time later,

On his death bed it is alleged he said, "I don't know who could have done such a mean thing, unless it was the Briggs boys." One of the principal contentions of the defense will be that the dying man further said: "I'm not quite sure which one of them it was, but it seems to me that it was a man of small build." George is more than six feet tall while James is the runt of the family, about 5 feet 6 inches.

The state is expected to use as it's trump card, the statement of James who, it is said, turned state's evidence when suspicion looked his way. It is said that James will testify that George came to him before the shooting and made the suggestion. The defense will attempt to refute this testimony with an affidavit from James that no such thing ever occurred. It will also tend to show that the brother's confession was never ventured until after a certified check for $2000. had been offered for the conviction of the guilty party. It's a case of a brother turning on a brother to save his own neck and at the same time earn a small fortune, the defense will contend.

Ever since a few days following the murder when George was arrested, he has been in confinement in the jail at Elkader. His wife has divorced him.

Following the murder the state obtained blood hounds and took them to the porch where the man stood that fired the fatal shot. They picked up a scent but failed to develop it materially. Finally, when suspicion pointed to George Briggs, the hounds were taken to his home but they ignored him. That fact will be another trump for the defense.

The Briggs family, which numbers the aged parents and about eight children, stand staunchly by George with the exception of James.

The examination of prospective veniremen begins next Monday.

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Fayette County Leader, 27 Nov. 1919. Under the board of supervisors proceedings.

Notes payment of money for being trial witnesses to George, James and Charles Briggs.

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For a summation of the actual testimony during the trial, and the trial conclusion & verdict, the reader should go to the Fayette co. IAGenWeb home page:
http://iagenweb.org/fayette From the home page, select News Stand, select West Union Gazette, select 1919, select November, select the 20th, and read the articles on pages 1, 2 and 6. When finished return here for more information. (rrj)

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Monticello Express, 6 May 1920.

George Briggs, who was acquitted here last fall on a charge of murdering James Wait of Edgewood, is now on trial at West Union on an old accusation of arson. He is charged with having set fire to the buildings on the Putnam farm in Clayton county a few years ago. The case being held in obeyance until the murder charge was disposed of.

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Fayette County Leader, Thur., 20 May 1920. From the West Union papers.

George Briggs was very promptly acquitted Thursday afternoon when the jury got to his case after a ten days trial. He was charged with arson, this being the third time he has been tried on charges growing out of the burning of his house and barn in Clayton county. Two of these trials were held here, also he was tried here for the murder of James Wait, so this was his third trip to West Union to face a jury. Of the four cases, the one at Elkader resulted in a conviction which was nullified in supreme court, while acquittals have resulted from all three trials here, so the net result of the four long trials is to yield nothing to the prosecution. While another arson indictment stands against the defendant, it is very likely that the prosecutions will cease, as the four cases have cost Clayton county about $15000., with nothing to show for the effort and expense.

The case went to the jury a few minutes after 4 o'clock, the first ballot in the jury room showed eleven to one in the defendant's favor, and in less than an hour the jurors were back in the court room with a verdict of acquittal.

The prosecution was conducted by County Attorney W. W. Davidson of Clayton county, County Attorney W. W. Comstock of Fayette county, and V. T. Price of Elkader. Mr. Briggs was represented, as in all his cases tried here, by Charles Wheeler of Cedar Rapids and E. H. Estey of West Union. The state's case was rested wholly on circumstantial evidence.

_____ _____ _____

Additional info.:

Beyond this point I can find no further prosecutions of the Briggs brothers. Nor can I find that any other person was arrested, prosecuted or convicted of the James S. Wait murder.

For census and burial information for James S. Wait see his obituary on the Clayton county obituary board (link below)

The names of the immediate family members of the Briggs brothers, taken from many different articles, are:
George, Sr., father.
George, Jr., son.
Frank, son.
James, son.
Charles, son
Alice, daughter.

Using that information:

1910 Federal Census, Milo, Delaware Co., Iowa (Note the census taker listed middle initials before given names.).

W. George Briggs, Age 56, Married for 32 years, born VT, Parents born VT, Farmer.
A. Estella Briggs, Age 52, Children born 11, Children living 11, Married 32 years, Born IA, Father born PA, Mother born Canada.
R. George Briggs, age 21, son, single, born IA.
R. James Briggs, age 19, son, single, born IA.
L. John Briggs, age 17, son, single, born IA.
E. Charles Briggs, age 16, son, single, born IA.
?. Elibeth Briggs, age 12, daughter, single, born IA.
R. Frank Briggs, age 11, son, single, born IA.
M. Alice Briggs, age 7, daughter, single, born IA.

This family also appears on the 1920 Federal Census of Honey Creek twp., Delaware Co., Iowa. (minus James, John and Elibeth.).

This appears to be the family of George and James Briggs of the above articles.

Also check FindAGrave.com for Briggs burials in Spring Hill cemetery, Delaware Co., Iowa, for more information. Also in Fremont cemetery, Clarke Co., Iowa.

_____ _____ _____

Contributor is not related to any of the persons mentioned. Submitted for the historical record.

James S. Wait Obituary

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