Historical Nonfiction Author

His great-grandfather witnessed a lynching. Could I help?

R.P.C. Sanderson (Courtesy of The Rev. Peter Getz)

In his email to me, The Rev. Peter Getz said that his great-grandfather had witnessed a lynching in Farmville, Va. But later, when he wrote about the incident, he did not date the entry or provide many details. Getz asked if I could help.

“I would like to share the account with you in hopes that you might be able to put a name and date on the lynching,” Getz wrote.

Getz lives in Texas and found me on the internet. His great-grandfather, R.P.C. Sanderson, lived in Roanoke in the 1880s and traveled throughout Virginia for the Norfolk & Western Railway. Sanderson was at the window of his room at the Prince Edward Hotel on Main Street in downtown Farmville when he saw riders gallop into town and heard banging and gunfire. The next day a man was hanging from a tree at the edge of town.

I thought I could help Getz, and I was excited to read what Sanderson had written. In my experience, eyewitness accounts of the type Sanderson wrote are rare.

Newspaper stories about lynchings were usually written after the incidents. As a former reporter and editor, I can imagine how a reporter working in Farmville or Roanoke or Charlottesville during the worst of the lynch era might arrive for work to learn that a lynching had occurred overnight. I can see the reporter interviewing people, visiting the scene, doing as much as he could, as fast as he could, to write a story on deadline. At least that’s how most of the stories read today: workmanlike accounts with little more than the obligatory who, what, when, where and why.

However, a handful of stories were written by reporters who witnessed the mob’s murders. Take the account of Joseph McCoy’s death in Alexandria in 1887. A reporter for the Alexandria Gazette witnessed the attack on the city jail, where McCoy was being held on an assault charge.


McCoy had become terribly frightened and had climbed up on the door and was secreted near the ceiling. The mob supposed they were in the wrong cell, and were about to leave for another when one of McCoy’s legs was discovered. He was pulled down with a yell and dragged to the pavement and the mob surged toward Cameron Street with him.


Similarly, a reporter for the Richmond Dispatch painted a vivid picture of the lynching of accused murderer Walter Cotton in Emporia in 1900:


Just in front of the courthouse was an old sycamore tree which had a branch growing from its trunk at right angles about 20 feet from the ground. To this the negro, numb from the effect of his shackles, was dragged, and two young men started to climb the tree to adjust the rope over the limb. One fell back, however, and the other being boosted by those on the ground soon reached the limb.

It was but the work of a moment for him to toss the rope over the limb, and then someone cried, ‘Everybody catch hold of the rope.’ In a second Cotton was drawn up to the limb of the tree, his forehead being badly gashed by a protruding limb.


Sanderson, too, was a careful observer that night in Farmville.


I heard horses come clattering along the street. Mounted men came along two by two, dropping a guard at each cross street intersection, the main body went on to the courthouse. There was some banging and battering, then the procession returned in like manner, and all was quiet till I heard a rattle of shots.


A pre-World War II postcard of Main Street, looking south, in downtown Farmville. (Courtesy of Boston Public Library.)

Even though Virginia had more than 100 lynchings during the lynch era, 1878-1932, Farmville had only one. So I told Getz that his great-grandfather had witnessed the August 1888 lynching of Archer Cook, at least what he could see and hear from his hotel window. Newspaper stories published the next day supplied the missing details:

Cook, 22, was black and in jail, accused of rape, though his relationship with a young white woman may have been consensual. Cook’s trial was postponed several times when the young woman said she was too sick to testify. Tired of waiting, local residents decided to act.

At the courthouse that night, they broke through the brick walls of the jail, removed Cook and rode away. The men hurried Cook to the nearest woods and hanged him from an oak tree. They fired 25 shots at him, then galloped off, “leaving a terribly mangled corpse,” according to one news report. Sanderson wrote that he recognized one of the riders as a railroad employee and spoke to him later about the incident. Even so, no one was ever charged with killing Cook or vandalizing the jail.

What distinguishes Sanderson’s account and the other eyewitness stories are the details, almost cinematic in their power. We can see McCoy hiding on top of his cell door, Cotton’s gashed forehead in Emporia, and the riders peeling away to guard the cross streets in Farmville. These details allow readers, then and now, to better understand the horror of what happened. With lynching stories, the devil truly is in the details.


Please join me for my next book talk. It is scheduled for Sunday, March 18, 2018, at 2 p.m. I will be the guest of the Mosby Heritage Area Association at The Hill School, 130 South Madison St., Middleburg, Va.


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