One of the first things that Dr. Wayland Marks asked when we met for coffee was, “So, what do you think? Do you think he was lynched?”
I have known Marks, a Fredericksburg, Va., physician, for many years. He was among a group of 15 people who volunteered to read an early version of this manuscript. I gave copies to family, friends, and four college history professors. I asked them to be my editors, to point out inaccuracies, typographical errors, anything that bothered them. Marks did just that, writing in the margin when he found a misspelling or a poorly chosen word. What really bothered him, however, is that he didn’t find enough of me in the paper.
“I’m an old newspaper reporter,” I said. “I’m not supposed to be in there.”
I told him that I wanted to do a credible job of including the two possible reasons for Shedrick Thompson’s death–lynching and suicide.
“There was an official ruling of suicide,” I added. “In fact, there were two of them. I couldn’t ignore that.”
“But it’s your book,” he replied. “I want to know what you thought.”
Marks was right, of course. It was my story, my version of what happened on Rattlesnake Mountain. I could use my newspaper training to learn about the events in Fauquier County in 1932. I could report what I learned, even the part that ran counter to common sense. But I could also be a guide, taking readers through the forest. I could do as Marks asked and let more of me come out.
With this new freedom, I went back to my computer and recast the story. I tried to make it complete, but now I also wanted it to be definitive. I became a prosecutor, dispelling reasonable doubt and building the case for murder. I hope Marks realizes how important his questions were that morning over coffee. They changed everything.