Wapello County in Iowa
Wapello County in Iowa
Ottumwa in Wapello CountyOttumwa in Wapello County

James Lewis Chamberlain


James Lewis Chamberlain
41 YOA
Beneath Wabash Railroad Trestle
Ottumwa, Iowa
Wapello County
May 25, 1893

Case Summary compiled by Jody Ewing

James Chamberlain, a carpenter who lived on Ottumwa’s south side, was found lying in mud and water in the Des Moines River beneath the Wabash Railroad trestle in the city’s old Richmond section on Thursday, May 25, 1893.

Chamberlain, 41, suffered blunt force trauma injuries to his head after having been hit with a heavy object.

Though still conscious when discovered by authorities, Chamberlain died from the skull fracture four days later on May 29, 1893.

A source familiar with the case who did not wish to be publicly identified contacted Iowa Cold Cases in July 2012 to provide additional information on this case. According to the source, a tall, light complexioned black female and a black male (names on file with Iowa Cold Cases) witnessed their respective family members in the company of Chamberlain that day, and subsequently witnessed their fatal attack on Chamberlain.

Wabash Railroad bridge in OttumwaCourtesy photo Iowa GenWeb Project, Wapello County
James Chamberlain’s body was discovered beneath this railroad bridge in Ottumwa, Iowa in 1893. Volunteers at the Iowa GenWeb project have contributed a number of historical photos and postcards from the era. 

The two covered up and concealed the murder for years, the source said.

A Cedar Rapids Weekly Gazette article dated June 8, 1893 stated there was no clue to the murderer that amounted to anything more than a strong suspicion, and that the affair was “shrouded in the deepest mystery.”

The Gazette said similarities existed between Chamberlain’s murder and that of David Sutton, also of Ottumwa. Sutton, 43, was shot in the head and found behind a meat market on Ottumwa’s east side three months earlier on February 15, 1893. Both men’s murders remain unsolved.

About James Chamberlain

James Lewis Chamberlain was born in Fremont, Ohio, on April 3, 1852, to John and Mary (Eyre) Chamberlain.

Courtesy Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, June 8, 1893

Courtesy Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, June 8, 1893

He married Charity Allen Riggs on Aug. 10, 1876, in Henry County, Iowa.

The couple had eight children: Mary Effie, Edgar Irving, Paul Thetis, Mark Othel, Clara Goldie, Sylvia Grace, John, and James Arthur. Mary Effie, born in 1877, died as an infant.

Following her husband’s death, Mrs. Chamberlain became despondent and died a few years later, leaving her seven remaining children to be scattered among relatives and friends. According to an entry for James Lewis Chamberlain on familysearch.org, most of the children seldom saw one another again.

The youngest child completely disappeared around age 18, and the eldest was only 15 when his father died.

Charity Chamberlain (born June 13, 1854) died in Ottumwa June 15, 1898, at age 44.

Information Needed

If you have any information about James Chamberlain’s unsolved murder, please contact the Ottumwa Police Department at 641-684-5555.

  • Anonymous Source, correspondence to Iowa Cold Cases, July 28, 2012
  • Ottumwa Police Department
  • The Iowa GenWeb Project, Wapello County
  • James Lewis Chamberlain (1852 – 1893) Find a Grave Memorial
  • He Was Murdered,” The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, June 8, 1893
  • “The Murder of Dave Sutton,” The Burlington Hawk-Eye, February 18, 1893
  • Family of James or John Lewis CHAMBERLAIN and Charity RIGGS, eyrehistory.net
  • Pedigree Resource File,” database, FamilySearch, entry for James Lewis /Chamberlain/.
  • “Iowa, County Marriages, 1838-1934,” index, FamilySearch, James L. Chamberlain and Charity Riggs, 10 Aug 1876; citing Henry, Iowa, United States, county courthouses, Iowa.
  • “Iowa, County Births, 1880-1935,” index, FamilySearch, Jas. S. Chamberlain in entry for Silvia Chamberlain, 10 Nov 1889; citing v 2 p 191, Ottumwa, Wapello, Iowa, United States; county district courts, Iowa; FHL microfilm 979,674.
  • “Iowa State Census, 1885,” index and images, FamilySearch, James L Chamberlain, Mount Pleasant, Center, Henry, Iowa; citing p. , State Historical Society, Des Moines; FHL microfilm.
  • “United States Census, 1880,” index and images, FamilySearch, James Chamberlain, Mt. Pleasant, Henry, Iowa, United States; citing enumeration district 95, sheet 324B, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 0344; FHL microfilm 1,254,344.
  • “United States Census, 1870,” index and images, FamilySearch, James Chamberlain in household of John Chamberlain, Iowa, United States; citing p. 33, family 266, NARA microfilm publication M593 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 545,894.


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