Editor’s Note: This history story was the winner of the Bruce Gurner Award – Local History Writing Contest.
Special To The Herald
The dawn revealed the axe-battered body of a prominent citizen of Water Valley, Mississippi, and the mutilated body of his wife. Why had this peaceful couple been slain? Who were the mad murderers?
May 5,1931, marked the beginning of a series of shocking discoveries at the home of Mr. and Mrs. W.B. Wagner. The discovery in the home of one of North Mississippi’s most prominent families would send shock waves through the peaceful town of Water Valley, Mississippi.
On the morning of May 5th, the Wagner’s cook, Callie Wiggins, went to the home to prepare breakfast for the couple. When she entered the home, she saw turned over furniture and blood on the floor. Callie ran out of the house and called the neighbors for help, and they called the sheriff.
When Sheriff C. T. Doyle and City Marshall Leonard Redwine arrived on the scene, they knew immediately a serious crime had been committed. Bloody footprints were on the floors and furniture was overturned indicating a fierce battle had gone on. The biggest clue, however, was the obvious weapon: a bloodstained axe. Neither Mr. Wagner, nor his wife, could be found.
Meanwhile, a crowd of neighbors and townspeople were gathering. As the investigation was progressing inside, two of the neighbors yelled out that they had found a body buried in a shallow grave in the garden behind the house. They began digging and soon uncovered the mutilated body of Mr. Wagner. His skull had been crushed to a pulp behind his left ear. His forehead had been bashed in, and a huge gash marked his face from the right forehead downward across the left cheek. There was no sign of Mrs. Wagner and no clue as to her fate.
On inspection of the garage, the sheriff saw a bloody handprint on the light bulb that was hanging in the small enclosure. There was blood on the seat of the Chevrolet sedan. The sheriff and his deputies could not fathom why the brutal killers would take Mrs. Wagner away from the house and not bury her with Mr. Wagner.
Sheriff Doyle immediately closed off the town in case the murderer or murderers tried to escape. They began to assemble a list of suspects. The bloody axe in the house was left untouched in case fingerprints were left on its handle. Mr. Wagner was the President of the Bank of Water Valley and owner of Wagner Department Store and as such an influential person, he was sure to have enemies.
A frantic search of the countryside was in progress for Mrs. Wagner. Soon a messenger reported they had found Mrs. Wagner and she was dead. Two volunteer searchers, C.A. Hervey and Robert Pearce, found her body about two miles up the road in a ravine.
It was a grisley scene. The slain banker’s wife lay at the bottom of a deep gully where she had been tossed. Because of her size, they figured it took two killers to do this deed. Sand had been heaped on her face and when that was removed they found bruises and lacerations about her head, but the fatal wound was her slashed throat. The horrible death of this lady led the sheriff to believe the motive was revenge. What could possibly cause such burning hatred?
The first person interviewed was Callie Wiggins, the cook. She told them that the only person she saw that morning was Sam Green Whitaker, the 18-year-old houseboy and chauffeur. He told Callie there was no need to go in because the Wagners were not at home. How could he know this if he had not been in the house?
This was the first real clue, and they brought Sam in for questioning. They noticed a red splotch on one of Sam’s shoes during the interrogation, but only when they found dried blood under his fingernails did the young man admit to having killed the Wagners. Mr. Wagner slapped him for stealing a shotgun and told him he would be whipped the next day.
Sam Whitaker told them his little sister, Adelle Whitaker, and Emmett Shaw were his accomplices. Emmett Shaw was serving time on a chain gang for petty theft, but he was a trustee and was not locked up at night. Emmett had worked for Mr. Wagner but had been fired for stealing. At first, he denied his part in the killings, but with all the evidence and Adelle Whitaker’s testimony, he finally admitted his guilt. Adelle was 15 years old and happened upon her brother and Emmett when they were burying Mr. Wagner. She was not a part of the plot. Sam Whitaker told the investigators he and Emmett plotted their revenge and went to the house the night of May 4,1931, to kill them both. He also told them he first hit Mrs. Mamie Wagner in the head with the axe and she fell to the floor. Meanwhile, Mr. Wagner was coming in the door, so they bashed him in the head with the axe. Sam and Emmett took Mrs. Wagner up the road a few miles and dumped her in a gully. The two heard her groan and knew she was not dead. Sam climbed down the ravine and slashed her throat to, “put her out of her misery”.
The extremely brutal nature of the killings had the town in a dangerous mood. The sheriff wisely took the defendants to be housed in the stronger jail in Greenwood until the trial date. On the way, Sam told them that the first blow to Mrs. Wagner had knocked her across the dining table and got the table cloth bloody. He also told them where he had hidden the bloody cloth that proved to be a valuable piece of evidence as it was found in the clothes hamper, right where he said he put it that night.
The prisoners were not returned to Water Valley until after their indictments by the Grand Jury. Sam Whitaker and Emmett Shaw were both indicted for first-degree murder.
Their trials began on June 10,1931. Judge Greek Rice presided and a young lawyer, Kermit Cofer, was the court appointed counsel for the defendants. Angry citizens of Water Valley and the surrounding towns packed the heavily guarded courtroom, but there was no disorder to mar the solemn legal procedures. The jury found the defendants guilty after eleven minutes of deliberation, and charged that the two men must die for their horrible crimes. They were hanged in the Water Valley jail on Friday, July 17 1931. Adelle Whitaker was found guilty on the charge of being an accessory-after-the-fact. Her punishment for helping to conceal the crimes was fixed at five years in the Mississippi State Prison at Parchman.
The old jail building still stands today as does the Wagner house located on Wagner Street. Rumor has it that the house is haunted! The young attorney, Kermit Cofer, practiced law hi Water Valley for many years. He later became a Chancery Court Judge and finished his career as Justice on the Supreme Court of Mississippi.
As in any gruesome case, there were rumors of another person or persons involvement at the time of this crime, but nothing was ever proven.
The hanging of Sam Green Whitaker and Emmett Shaw were the last time anyone was legally hung in Water Valley. This crime is still remembered as the most brutal and heinous crime ever committed in Water Valley.
Two graves in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Water Valley show that William Buford Wagner was born in 1871 and died in 1931, and Mamie Herron Wagner was born in 1867 and died in 1931. He was sixty, and she was sixty-four. Although this is a part of the history of Water Valley, it is a sad and notorious part of its history.