Shedrick Thompson’s attack on the Baxleys and the discovery of his body hanging from an apple tree were big news in Fauquier County in 1932. The Fauquier Democrat, the county weekly, followed the case closely, as did daily newspapers in nearby Strasburg, Winchester, Front Royal and throughout Virginia. I found 29 stories about the Thompson case in 16 newspapers while researching this book. Nineteen of those stories were on the front page.
I counted the number of stories published, but I also noted the words that the reporters used when writing them. What I found was that coverage of Thompson’s lynching was typical of the time.
I did my master’s thesis on lynching in Virginia, specifically on how Virginia newspapers covered lynching. At the turn of the 20th century, the state’s newspapers reflected their communities, in that they regarded blacks as second-class citizens and supported their harsh treatment. In the lynch stories, lynchers were justified in what they did, even heroic. Victims were guilty and described as brutes, savages or fiends. As a longtime newspaper reporter, I was surprised and embarrassed to read it.
But after about 1920, papers changed their coverage, again reflecting their communities. Stories and editorials were more critical of lynchers and less hostile toward the victims. Even so, reporters, as in the Thompson case, never tried to find out who the lynchers were. They made sure that readers knew that the accused was a Negro or “colored.” And they often assumed the victim’s guilt, as when they described Thompson as the “attacker.” One story said he “brutally assaulted” the Baxleys, even though he was never convicted of the crime or even charged. The worst of the old race tags were gone by this time, replaced by more neutral language. However, The Winchester Evening Star was the exception. In its stories, Thompson was not the accused or even the assailant. He was a “desperado.”