University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department


Homer C. Wiggins Collection

1913, 1915, 1943

Manuscript Collection Number: 345
Accessioned: Purchase, 1996.
Extent: 11 items (.1 linear ft.)
Content: Deposition, letter, newspaper clippings.
Access: The collection is open for research.
Processed: September 1997 by Arthur Siegel

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Table of Contents


Historical Note

Homer C. Wiggins (ca. 1893-1913), a native of Wilmington, Delaware, was a troubled youth whose delinquent activity made him well-known to that city's police department. He spent a number of years in reform school, and roughly three years in the New Castle County Workhouse which released him in 1912. Afterwards he went to Philadelphia where he was engaged in a variety of criminal activities, particularly petty theft. On June 26, 1912 he shot and killed a police officer while resisting arrest. Wiggins was sentenced to twenty years in the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia, but managed to escape with another inmate on August 18, 1913. He and his cohort returned to Wilmington and robbed a car barn of the Wilmington and Philadelphia Traction Company on September 10, making off with over $1800 in cash. After drifting for a few weeks, occasionally disguised with a wig and whiskers, he eventually settled in a house on Shipley and Fourth streets in Wilmington where he spent the last five days of his life. The police finally determined his whereabouts on September 28th and attempted to arrest him. A shootout ensued, popularly referred to as the "Battle of Baxter's Corner," and in the early morning of the 29th Wiggins took his own life, opting to die rather than be captured and sent back to prison.

The police, who at first were hailed by the public and the press as heroes for bringing down such a dangerous man, soon found themselves sharply criticized as the facts of the case were revealed. Despite the fact that Wiggins had been well-known to many of the officers on the force, that his residence at Shipley Street was only a few blocks from the station, and that he walked the streets of the city often undisguised, the police took almost three weeks to track him down. A lack of communication within the police department, poor exercise of judgement in making decisions, and the failure to obtain and pursue all the facts pertaining to the case were serious issues that had to be addressed. The Wilmington police department had been plagued by these problems in the past, but the sensational nature of the Wiggins case brought them to light and prompted a thorough investigation by the Board of Police Commissioners.

The investigation, headed by commissioners William H. Bowers, Thomas N. Stayton, and I. Pusey Wickersham, as well as City Solicitor William O. Hastings, lasted from early October through early November 1913 and was covered extensively by the Wilmington newspapers throughout that period. The spotlight was focused primarily on Police Chief George Black, who was accused of failing to provide "intelligent direction" in the case, and the testimony of witnesses taken between October 13th and October 21st bore this out. Of particular importance was a controversy over a recently-taken photograph of Wiggins which was in the possession of Police Chief Black but which had not been circulated among the other officers. The officers knew Wiggins only from an outdated photo, and most testified that if they had been readily familiarized with the recent one they probably would have found Wiggins sooner. Nevertheless, despite a harsh recommendation by Wickersham to have several officers suspended without pay and to demand the resignation of Black, the Board of Commissioners ultimately found the police blameless in their handling of the case and took no disciplinary actions.

Source:

Wilmington Morning News, September 10, 1913; September 29 - November 8, 1913.


Scope and Content Note

The Homer C. Wiggins Collection concerns the story of juvenile criminal and escaped convict Homer C. Wiggins, who was killed in a 1913 "shootout" by Wilmington, Delaware, police. The collection documents Wiggins's death, as well as the sensational press coverage and resulting investigation of that event, and includes news clippings, a transcript of the testimony before the Board of Police Commissioners, and a letter to the president of the Board. The eleven items in the collection date from 1913, with the exception of one 1915 news article and another newspaper clipping recounting the event, which dates from 1943.

Folders 1-4 contain the transcribed testimony, several blank sheets, and the binder which originally held all of these parts together. The testimony itself is divided into three sections: the first contains witnesses depositioned on October 13th and 14th, the second contains those depositioned on the 15th and 16th, and the third contains those depositioned on the 21st. There is also an index of witnesses which lists them in order of testimony and provides page references. About forty witnesses are questioned, including police officers and individuals who had some contact with Wiggins over the course of the previous six weeks.

Folder 5 contains Commissioner Wickersham's undated letter and the envelope in which it was sent. The letter brings the disparate elements of the testimony together in a concise summary of events from Wiggins' early career through the investigation itself. He then offers conclusions about the case which, in his mind, implicate certain officers - most notably Police Chief Black - in failing to do their duty. He admitted that his recommendations were harsh, but that they were necessary in order to remedy what he considered to be the evils of the police department. This letter and the discussion within the Board which it fostered were reported in the Wilmington Morning News on November 8, 1913 when a decision was finally reached, but the letter itself, though undated, must have been written several days earlier.

The collection also contains newspaper clippings relating to the case which date from 1913, 1915, and 1943, though the bulk dates are October 12 and 19, 1913. Aside from general information given about the course of the investigation, there are several cartoons depicting the troubles of the Wilmington police department as well as a couple of satirical poems published by the editor of the Sunday Morning Star, Jerome B. Bell. The 1915 article in The Sun is not directly related to the case itself, but is the end result of an investigation by Raymond B. Fosdick, former Commissioner of the Accounts of the city of New York, into the nature of police forces in various European cities. The article is relevant, however, in that through comparison it highlights the corruption of the American police system, and assesses various methods of crime-solving, generally not used in the United States, which could have helped to solve the Wiggins case more swiftly.


Contents List

Folder -- Contents

     Transcript of witness testimony
     A total of 608 pages, typed by law stenographer Charles G. Guyer, whose stamp is
     affixed to the front page of all three sections.  It was originally bound, but has
     subsequently come apart, as there are now a number of loose folios - including the
     index to the transcript and several sheets of lined paper.

F1   Testimony of October 13th and 14th, 1913   
     (pp. 1-287)

F2   Testimony of October 15th and 16th, 1913   
     (pp. 288-518)

F3   Testimony of October 21st, 1913 and index  
     (pp. 519-608, and 4 sheets)

F4   Binder and lined sheets

F5   Letter of I.P. Wickersham
     Typed letter, n.d. (16 pp.)
      There are pencil notes in the margins, mostly page references, that refer back to
     the testimony and which may have been written by one of the other Board
     members.  There are frequent misspellings and corrections made to the text, and
     his facts do not always coincide with those given in the testimony.  Also included
     is the envelope.  "Adjutant General - I. Pusey Wickersham" is addressed on the
     front, with "The Morning News" in bold, red lettering on the top left-hand side.

F6   Newspapers, 1913-1943
     9 items (Removed to Oversize)

     The Journal-Every Evening (Wilmington)
      May 1, 1943.                                                                2 items

     The New York Sun
      February 21, 1915.                                                          2 items

     The Sunday Morning Star (Wilmington)
      October 12, 1913.                                                           2 items 
      October 19, 1913.                                                           3 items

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