The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Seeking Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain by Jim Hall was published by History Press on Sept. 12, 2016. You can order your copy at History Press, Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
The story begins at Edenhurst, the farmhouse belonging to Henry and Mamie Baxley in Fauquier County, Va. It is late on a hot summer night in 1932. The couple and their infant son are asleep when Shedrick Thompson, who works for them and lives next door, enters the house. Thompson knocks Henry Baxley unconscious and abducts Mamie Baxley, forcing her down the dirt driveway to a rocky field across the road. There he beats, robs and rapes her, leaving her for dead, before fleeing into the mountains.
The Baxleys are hospitalized, while neighbors mobilize to find Thompson. Hundreds of armed men comb the mountain paths from Buck Mountain west to Rattlesnake Mountain. Thompson remains at large for almost two months, but finally a farmhand checking a fence line spots a black man hanging from an apple tree. It is in a thicket at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain, a few miles from the Baxley house. It is Thompson.
Soon a crowd gathers, cuts down the body and sets fire to it. That night the county coroner explains how Thompson, hounded by the posses, hangs himself in the tree. It is a suicide, the coroner says. But the verdict seems hasty and contrary to common sense. Local residents boast that they were responsible for Thompson’s death. Newspaper stories tell of armed men capturing Thompson, shooting him in the head, mutilating him and hanging him on Rattlesnake Mountain.
Civil rights groups, such as the NAACP, place Thompson on their 1932 lynch lists. It is the first lynching in Virginia in five years, and former Gov. Harry F. Byrd is upset. One of the architects of the state’s antilynching law and a neighbor of the Baxleys, Byrd says that Virginia has been free of lynching since the law’s passage in 1928. He protests to the NAACP, saying that he has proof that Thompson committed suicide, but he does not say what that proof is. Walter White, head of the NAACP, defends the organization’s decision, then changes his mind, calling it a “hair-line” case. By flinching, White gives Byrd and others what they seek. They can continue to say that Virginia does not lynch, that it is unlike other Southern states, where lynching lives another 20 years.
That claim is still heard today, that lynching ended in Virginia in the 1920s. But that is not what residents of Fauquier say. They describe what is called an “underground lynching,” one done quietly by men who are uncertain of the community’s support. These residents say Thompson died within days of his attack on the Baxleys, at the hands of his neighbors. To them, Thompson’s death is not a suicide. It is Virginia’s last lynching.