1935: Pat Griffin and Elmer Brewer

On this date in 1935, the first double hanging* in the state of Iowa took place at Fort Madison.

Waterloo, Iowa, police heading out to query Elmer Brewer “in connection with alleged misconduct of Brewer with juvenile girls” alarmed Brewer and his friend Patrick Griffin, who assumed they were coming to arrest them for a robbery.

The two killed Deputy Sheriff William Fay Dilworth in a shootout.

Long forgotten, Griffin’s rodeo avocation, his friendship with the classmate who was to be his Catholic confessor, his offer to give all his earnings to the victim’s family were his sentence commuted to hard labor.

Just a lost file from the police blotter, moldering in a musty corner of a local archives. Although the glacial progress of the legal proceedings will look more familiar to modern eyes.

Thus closes a case which has been more or less in the courts since December 16, 1932. Attorney James Fay of Emmetsburg and Attorney John McCartney of Waterloo made valiant efforts to save the lives of the two men, but to no avail. Following their conviction of the murder in the district court in Waterloo on January 5, 1933, they were sentenced to be hanged on January 26, 1934. In May, 1933, an appeal was filed with the state supreme court, thus automatically staying the execution. The supreme court denied the appeal. On June 24, 1934, Attorneys Fay and McCartney petitioned the supreme court for a rehearing. This was denied January 10, 1935. A plea for commutation of the sentences to life imprisonment was denied by Governor Clyde Herring on February 1 and the chief executive set April 5, 1935, as the execution date. Continuing farther with their efforts the attorneys sought a writ of habeas corpus from District Judge John Craig of Fort Madison, but their request was denied. The refusal opened another loophole for the attorneys to ask a review of Judge Craig’s action. Again refused, the lawyers announced that they would go to the United States supreme court where they would ask the court for a writ of habeas corpus. In order to allow time for this step Governor Herring granted the convicted slayers a 60-day stay of execution but at the same time he announced that it was the last reprieve that could be expected from him. Illness of defense attorneys, it was said, prevented them from prosecuting their appeal to the supreme court. Monday Mr. Fay appealed to Federal District Court Judge Charles A. Dewey for a stay order and a writ of habeas corpus, but Judge Dewey refused to interfere. In Des Moines Tuesday a last minute effort to save the men was made in an appeal to Governor Herring, but the appeal for a commutation of sentence was denied.

A family member has compiled old clippings about this case — from which, both the excerpt above and the illustration — here.

* According to Iowans Against the Death Penalty. There had been a previous double execution when Iowa was a territory, and a triple execution in 1918.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *