“Executed by the State of Iowa, 1935”

One of the recent prompts was “Black Sheep” and I am certain we have more than one in our ancestry.  One can’t choose their ancestors, good or bad, but all of them had a story and their stories need to be told.  The “Black Sheep” I chose to research is Patrick William Griffin.  His mother was Susan Jane Lyons, the sister of George Lyons, my great-grandfather making Patrick Griffin my 1st cousin 2X removed.  So why did I pick Patrick?  When I found his death certificate on Ancestry.com, I was shocked – the cause of death was “Death by hanging by State of Iowa!”   The Nature of Injury portion of the certificate just stated “Legal execution.”  Now this is not an usual way to die and I knew I had to find out more.  What happened and how did one come to such an untimely end at age 37?

Griffin death cert 2 001

Patrick’s mother, Susan Jane Lyons, was the daughter of Joseph Cloud Lyons and Mary Lavalett Dudley and she was born 07 March of 1855 in Pulaski County, Virginia.  On September 11 of 1890, Susan, at aged 36,  married John Griffin.  John was born in Michigan in either 1854 or 1849 to Maurice Griffin and Elizabeth Cunningham.  John’s parents were both born in Ireland, County Mayo, married there and immigrated to Michigan, later moving to Minnesota.

Patrick was born on January 7th of 1898 in Michigan.  When I found their 1900 Federal Census records, I was surprised to find that Patrick wasn’t their first child although he was the only child listed.  The Census listed that Susan had borne 4 children but only one- Patrick- was living. The family lived in Gladeville, Wise, Virginia where John was a “Day Laborer”.  They owned their home and had a mortgage.  From my other research, I see they lived in the same area as Susan’s parents at that time.  In 1902, another son was born and named Raymond Griffin.  By 1905, the Iowa State Census listed John, Susan, Pat and Ray Griffin living in Emmetsburg, Palo Alto County, Iowa.  That was quite a move- they moved from Virginia to Iowa in that 5 year period.

By 1910, the family moved again to Fern Valley, Palo Alto, Iowa and this Census stated that Susan had borne 6 children and only 2 were living.  It must have been a strain on the family to lose 4 children, but more tragedy was to come.  In 1914, John Griffin passed away.  Patrick was 16 and Ray was 12 when their father died.   The 1915 State Census for Iowa showed widow Susan and the 2 teenage boys living in Walnut, Palo Alto, Iowa and Susan was already 60 years old.  Patrick was employed as a painter and earned $300 in 1914.  He had an 8th grade education.  The family was listed as Catholic – not surprising as their father John was Irish.

By 1918, Patrick had to register for the World War I Draft at age 20.  His occupation was listed as “Thresher” and probably found work on a farm.  His personal information listed him as medium build and height with brown eyes and dark hair.  The 1920 Federal Census listed them still in Walnut and Patrick, 22, and Ray, 18, are laborers.  By 1925, Patrick moved out and lived in Graettinger, Iowa according to the Iowa State Census.  He was single and could read and write.  Ray stayed with his mother and they also moved to Graettinger and took in boarders to get by.   Susan, now age 76, was found in the 1930 Federal Census as a Lodger with the Eastman Family in Waterloo, Black Hawk County, Iowa.  No 1930 Census data has yet been found for Patrick Griffin.

The country was in the throes of the Great Depression by now and work was very hard to find.  Bread lines and soup kitchens were all over.  This was a bad time in our history.  If a man couldn’t get a job or support his family, what could he do?  How many turned to crime in desperation?  Did this happen to Patrick?  Of course it would be no excuse for the crime he did do but did it contribute?  We will never know.  Here’s what happened.

On Friday, December 16 of 1932, Iowa Deputy Sheriff William Dilworth of Black Hawk got a call when decorating a Christmas tree for his 6 year old daughter.  He was sent to a home belonging to Mrs. Frank Graves about 1/2 mile from town.  Deputy H. M. Mitchell accompanied him.  They were to talk to Patrick Griffin and Elmer Brewer about a statutory rape case.  The two had just come into town from Chicago.  Upon entering the shack where the two were hold up, Deputy Dilworth was shot in the head by Elmer Brewer and died instantly.  Patrick Griffin shot twice at Deputy Mitchell and the deputy was able to get away and drive to a nearby inn for help and was sent to the hospital.  Elmer and Pat took off into the woods despite the bitter cold.  The City Detective, Hugh Crumrine,  aided by R. V. Stealy who happened to be out in the woods hunting rabbits nearby, tracked and captured Brewer and Griffin who were about frozen and readily gave themselves up.  They were taken to the Black Hawk County jail.  They confessed their crime and stated they fled to Chicago after committing a robbery in Kansas, buying a new car and driving to the area.  They thought the deputies were coming to get them in connection to the robbery.

capture of brewer and griffin 001

griffin picture 001
Patrick Griffin

There is a wealth of newspaper articles that I researched on Newspapers.com about the pair.  They give lengthy details about the capture, the trials and the executions of Elmer Brewer and Patrick Griffin.  In January of 1933,  Elmer Brewer was convicted of first degree murder of Deputy Dilworth.  “Patrick Griffin was found guilty of first degree murder in a verdict returned at 2:43 p.m. Thursday in Black Hawk district court.  The jurors recommended the death penalty…Altho evidence established that Brewer’s shot was the cause of Dilworth’s death, the jury held Griffin equally guilty of the murder…The jury, which deliberated only four hours, including lunch time, included 10 men and 2 women.” (The Courier, Waterloo, Iowa, 05 Jan 1933, page 1)

Both were given the death sentence and sent to the state penitentiary at Fort Madison to await execution.  Appeals were made to the State Supreme Court and Governor Herring but all were denied  and only served to delay the execution that was originally set for January of 1934.

Brewer and Griffin to pen 001

Two of Griffin’s childhood friends stood by him as he mounted the gallows on June 5th of 1935.  One was Rev. Leo McEvoy, pastor of Ruthven, Iowa Catholic Church who also administered the last rites.  The other was Attorney James Fay of Emmetsburg, Iowa who was also Griffin’s lawyer.  Patrick’s brother Ray also stood by him.  Their mother Susan had passed away in October of 1934 in the Black Hawk County Home at age 82.  It was probably a blessing that she did not live to see her son hanged.

march to the gallows 001

Patrick William Griffin, age 37, was laid to rest in Saint Jacobs Cemetery, Graettinger, Palo Alto County, Iowa.  May he rest in peace.


Virginia, Births and Christenings, 1853-1917, Database, FamilySearch, Mary L. Lyons in entry for Susan J Lyons, 07 Mar 1855; citing Pulaski County, Virginia, reference 13, FHL microfilm 2,046,959.

Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940, Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.

State Historical Society of Iowa: Des Moines, Iowa; Iowa Death Records; Reference Number: 101821054.

Microfilm of Iowa State Censuses, 1856, 1885, 1895, 1905, 1915, 1925 as well as special censuses from 1836-1897 obtained from State Historical Society of Iowa via Heritage Quest.

Certificate of Death for Susan Griffin, Waterloo, Black Hawk County, State of Iowa, Registered No. 397, October 2, 1934.

United States Federal Census 1900; Gladeville District, Wise, Virginia; Page 18; Enumeration District: 0124; FHL microfilm 1,241,732.

United States Federal Census 1910; Fern Valley, Palo Alto, Iowa; Roll: T624_417; Page: 1A; Enumeration District: 0176; FHL microfilm 1,374,430.

United States Federal Census 1920; Walnut, Palo Alto, Iowa; Roll: T625_505; Page: 1A; Enumeration District: 200.

United States Federal Census 1930 for Waterloo, Black Hawk County, Iowa for Susan Griffin;  Ancestry.com.; Ancestry Operations, Inc.; Provo, UT, USA. 2009.

United States, Selective Service System.  World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918; Washington D.C. NARA: M 1509; Registration State: Iowa; Registration County: Palo Alto; Roll: 1643218.

Find A Grave, Findagrave.com; Patrick William Griffin, Memorial # 114182649.

Newspapers.com:  Des Moines Tribune, Des Moines, Iowa:  05 June 1935, Wed., p. 4 and 17 Dec 1932, Sat., p. 1.;  The Courier, Waterloo, Iowa: 04 Jan 1933, p. 2 and 05 Jan 1933, p. 1 and 17 Jan 1933, p. 3 and 05 June 1935, p. l;  The Daily Times: 05 June 1935, pp. 1, 2.









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