William N. “Will” Sargent
Cause of Death: Beaten, Thrown Down A Mine Shaft
Murder Scene and Date
Chicago Company Coal Mine
April 3, 1897
By Nancy Bowers
Written August 2017
The morning of Saturday, April 3, 1897 seemed like just a normal day to the miners reporting to work at the Chicago Company Coal Mine in Seymour, Iowa.
As the men were being lowered in the cage to go below ground, however, things took an ominous turn when the miners spotted the body of a man at the bottom of the shaft.
Although the man was badly beaten and bruised, he was still recognizable as a young peddler from Ottumwa who had worked the stores and streets of Seymour the day before.
According to the Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye Gazette, information found in the man’s clothing identified him as William N. “Will” Sargent, the 20-year-old son of J.P. Sargent, a well-known Des Moines clothing and dry goods merchant.
A large amount of money the victim was known to have been carrying was missing.
Will Sargent was last seen alive around 12:00 a.m. in the company of two tramps in the coal mine’s engine room just before he was to catch the midnight Milwaukee Road express train back to Ottumwa. By the time the body was found, the tramps had disappeared.
How Sargent came to be in the shaft was puzzling because it was enclosed by a tall grate that was locked and under round-the-clock security.
☛ Coroner’s Verdict ☚
Wayne County Coroner H.H. Gantz arrived from Humeston at 2:00 p.m. Saturday and immediately began an investigation into Sargent’s death. It appeared to local authorities that Sargent was beaten and robbed by the missing tramps and then thrown into the mine.
After hearing testimony, however, Gantz ruled that Will Sargent died after accidentally falling down the mine shaft when the grate was open and that no foul play was involved.
☛ The Insane Tramp ☚
On Saturday, April 10 — one week after Sargent’s body was discovered in the mine shaft — authorities arrested Chris Huffman, one of the tramps Will Sargent was seen with before he died.
He had fled Seymour and was taken into custody in Hedrick — 76 miles to the northeast — where he was held for mentally unstable behavior. While in the Hedrick jail, Huffman set a fire. Despite that act, he was released from custody.
According to the Dubuque Daily Times:
“[Huffman] was next seen in the woods west of Ottumwa running wild, barefoot and only half dressed. When caught and brought to Ottumwa he grew violently insane and thought he was going to be hanged, and talked of ‘the night he spent with Sargent at the bottom of the coal mine.’ It is believed that he was connected with Sargent’s death and that it robbed him of his reason.”
The Wapello County Insane Commission examined Huffman and judged him to be mentally incapacitated. He was sent to the insane asylum in Mount Pleasant.
With Huffman’s committal to the institution for the mentally ill, many considered the case of Will Sargent’s death closed. But can the statements of a certifiably insane man with hallucinations be trusted?
More questions come from the ravings of Huffman than answers. Did he kill Will Sargent during an insane episode — or did he imagine that he did? Did he somehow accidentally fall into the coal shaft with Sargent and believe he had killed him? If he was in the shaft with the body, how did he get back to the surface? Did he obsess that he’d be accused of killing Sargent and be hanged even though he had done nothing? Did he become unhinged at the sight of Sargent either accidentally falling into the coal mine or being killed and thrown there by the other tramp, who was never caught?
Chris Huffman was never arrested and tried for the murder of Will Sargent nor was any other person.
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Crazed By Crime,” Dubuque Daily Times, April 15, 1897, p. 6.
- ☛ “Here And There,” Humeston New Era, April 21, 18897, p. 4.
- ☛ “Killed By Tramps,” Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye Gazette, April 6 1897, p. 5.
- ☛ “Light On Sargent’s Death,” Alton Democrat, April 17, 1897, p. 7.
- ☛ “May Have Murdered Sargent,” Hull Index, April 16, 1897, p. 6.
- ☛ “A Murder Mystery,” Lime Springs Sun, April 9, 1897.
- ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Pella Advertiser, April 10, 1897, p. 6.
- ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Pocahontas County Sun, April 15, 1897, p. 2.