Held prisoner on the mountain? A new wrinkle to the story

Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County.

Of all the comments that I received after last week’s story in The Washington Post, the most interesting was from a man who lives at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain. The man sent an email to say he heard an interesting story about Shedrick Thompson’s death, and he offered to share it with me.  I called, and we talked for maybe 45 minutes. The man gave permission to use his story in this blog. For many reasons, he asked that I not use his name. I agreed.

The story is similar to many of the other stories I heard while researching The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. It is hearsay and impossible to verify. But it is also vivid and plausible, at least parts of it, and for that reason it has survived in memory for many years.

This is what the man said:

The man has owned a 250-acre farm in northern Fauquier County near Hume for many years. At one point, he rented his land to a neighbor who ran cattle there. The cattleman loved to talk and tell stories, the landowner said. But one day the cattleman became serious and shared what he said was one of Fauquier’s darkest secrets: the death of Shedrick Thompson in 1932.

Born in 1920, the cattleman was 11 when Thompson attacked Henry and Mamie Baxley and fled west toward Buck Mountain. Hundreds of people took to the mountains to look for the fugitive, and the cattleman recalled being present when the lynch mob met to plan their search. These men caught Thompson on the second day after the attack, the cattleman said, and rather than deliver him to the authorities, they took him to a mountain cabin, where they tortured him. Finally, after two weeks, the posse lynched Thompson, the cattleman said. Thompson’s body was discovered two months later hanging from an apple tree on the Borden farm at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain.

Much of what the cattleman told the landowner confirmed what others had told me: how the searchers gathered at places like Alex Green’s store in Markham, their hunt for Thompson in the mountains, his quick capture and torture, and finally his hanging. The cattleman’s story also dismisses the official version of Thompson’s death–suicide–as part of a cynical cover-up.

What was new was the possibility that the captors held Thompson prisoner for two weeks. That detail seems unlikely. Did the posse keep Thompson under a 24-hour watch? But if true, their actions spread a new layer of evil on an already sordid tale. As the landowner told me, “It’s a terrible, terrible story.”

 

The sun is shining for me, despite the day-long rain

Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post wrote about my book in today’s paper.

I am grateful to Margaret Sullivan and The Washington Post for the story about me in today’s paper. Sullivan is the media columnist, and her work usually appears in the Style section. When she called, she said my experience with The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia was not the type she usually writes about–her most recent columns were about Bill O’Reilly and Facebook–but she thought it was interesting, and her editors agreed.

Sullivan heard from a friend of mine about the resistance that History Press has experienced trying to market my book in Warrenton and Fauquier County. She interviewed a number of people, including a publicist at History Press and a salesman there who went door-to-door in downtown Warrenton in a unsuccessful attempt to place the book with retailers.

I was impressed with Sullivan. She was true to her word and accurate, even calling back prior to publication to check her facts. Best of all, she documented the discouraging aspects of what has happened, but she also found reasons to be optimistic. She noted the change of heart by the directors of the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail, where the book is now for sale, and she talked with Karen White at the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier. White told her that she understands the resistance to the book. “Sometimes people are in denial,” she said. “They think none of this ever happened here.” But White also sees a willingness to reconsider the past, and she said she welcomes those conversations.

It takes a certain kind of reporter to bring this attitude to a story, a belief in our better angels and in their eventual triumph. Sullivan seemed to have it.

PS: Please join me this Thursday, April 27, at 7 p.m. at the headquarters building of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg. I’ll be talking about the book and about lynching in Virginia. The session is free and open to the public.

‘The Other Side of Eden’ to debut in Warrenton in May

Alphonso Washington was witness to some of the events of July 1932 and describes them in “The Other Side of Eden.”

In some ways, Tom Davenport’s new film is a companion piece to my book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. But in other ways, it is very different.

Viewers will soon have a chance to see these similarities and differences. The Other Side of Eden: A Southern Tragedy will premiere next month in Warrenton. The showing will be held on Saturday, May 13, at 7 p.m. at the Highland School Center for the Arts, 597 Broadview Avenue.  It is free and open to the public.

Tom has been working on the documentary for four years or 23 years, depending on when you date his initial interest. The film includes interviews from 1994 and 1997, but he recorded most of the material beginning in 2013, when he and I started working together. Tom and I shared documents and photographs, and I benefited greatly from his knowledge of the county, his contacts, and the research that he and Shawn Nicholls, his assistant, did. Tom, Shawn and I filmed at least a dozen interviews together, with me asking many of the questions and Tom filming over my shoulder. Tom will be 78 in June and has more than two dozen films to his credit. This is the first he’s done since last year’s follow-up to his 1986 film, A Singing Stream.

In The Other Side of Eden, viewers hear the story of Shedrick Thompson, his attack on Henry and Mamie Baxley in their home in 1932, and his subsequent lynching on Rattlesnake Mountain. The story is told by those who lived in Fauquier at the time, and by those who learned about it from their families and friends. It is clear from their testimonies that the incident had a profound effect on those directly involved, but also on the Baxley and the Thompson families. And on the community. The resistance Tom has encountered in compiling and showing his film, and the difficulty I have had in marketing the book in Fauquier, are measures of this. In my opinion, Thompson’s murder is an open wound in Fauquier, unacknowledged after almost 85 years, a story that still can’t be told.

But Tom expands on the lynching story, and in this way his film differs from my book. Tom explores a Depression-era feature of the racial climate in Fauquier: how white men of power fathered children out of wedlock with their black help. Several claims of this are offered in the film, including one involving Henry Baxley Sr. Shawn has been dogged in compiling evidence, and she believes that Baxley fathered a child by Mattie Wilkins, his black cook. There’s no known link between Mattie Wilkins and Shedrick Thompson, or Ruth Thompson, Shedrick’s wife, who was also a cook for the Baxleys. But Tom believes that this climate of what he calls “white sexual dominance” in Fauquier may have poisoned Thompson’s marriage and incited his violence against the Baxleys. The viewer gets to decide next month.

The university and the library: Two places I like

Edie Gross and her Newsgathering class at UMW.

I remember how happy and proud I was when I found my name on the shelves at the University of Mary Washington bookstore in Fredericksburg. The year was 1993, and I had agreed to teach there. One of my responsibilities as a new adjunct was to tell the bookstore which texts I would use in my class. They would then order the books, so students would have them for the start of the semester.

I told the bookstore that I wanted to use Mencher’s News Reporting and Writing, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook. About a week before the first class, I went to the bookstore to see if the books had arrived. I found the books, and below them on the shelf was a paper tag. I was happy to see the books, but it was the tag that really made me smile. It read:

Department: English

Course: Newsgathering 201

Section: 01

Instructor: Hall, J.

My life plan had no entry that said: become a college instructor. To be honest, I had no life plan. But I had become a college instructor, and I was smiling.

Please join me on Thursday, April 27, at 7 p.m. at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.

I was reminded of that day and that feeling recently when I was leaving the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg. On the door leading to the parking lot were a collection of posters advertising upcoming events. One of the posters had my name and picture on it. I’ll speak in the library auditorium on April 27, and the library wanted everyone to know about it.

Again, my life plan had no entry that said: make a public presentation at the headquarters library. But that’s what I’ll be doing. And this time, I did more than smile when I saw the poster. I took a picture of it.

Colin Woodward

PS: I want to thank Colin Woodward for inviting me to appear on his Amerikan Rambler podcast. Colin lives in Colonial Beach, works at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County, and travels the state talking to all kinds of people, many of whom are interested in history. Colin asked about The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, but he also asked about my upbringing in Falls Church, my schooling and early jobs, and lots of other stuff. (You can listen to the podcast here.)

Claudine Ferrell and her History class at UMW.

Thanks also to Claudine Ferrell and Edie Gross. At their invitations, I was back in the classroom this month. Claudine wrote the introduction to my book and recently asked me to talk to one of her history classes at the University of Mary Washington. Edie, a former colleague at The Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, asked me to talk to her Newsgathering class, the same one I taught those many years ago.

Why no mention of the Klan?

Daniel de Butts

The first thing that Daniel de Butts said to me when we met last week was, “Why didn’t you say anything about the Klan in your book?”

De Butts assumed that I had been pressured by prominent Fauquier County residents to keep any reference to the Ku Klux Klan out of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. To him, community pressure was understandable and expected.

De Butts, 67, is a graduate of Fauquier High who lives now in the Vint Hill area of Prince William County. His family has long ties to Fauquier, and two of his distant relatives, the brothers John and Caryle de Butts, are often mentioned as members of the posse who lynched Shedrick Thompson. De Butts read The Last Lynching soon after publication and has written me several times. In one of his earlier emails, he wrote, “My family was surely part of it, as you say. They made sure that he was not on Mt. Welby (the family home). Just over the fence on someone else’s land.”

De Butts also believes, as he said when we met last week, that the Klan’s fingerprints were all over the Thompson case. He said that the Klan was active in Fauquier in 1932, and that his ancestors were members. He said that the Klan quickly organized after Thompson’s assault on Henry and Mamie Baxley, pursued and caught him on Rattlesnake Mountain, and lynched him. Other Klan members aided in the cover-up that followed, he added. “People were better at keeping secrets than they are now,” he said.

De Butts bases his beliefs on family lore and his many years in Fauquier. He did not offer any writings, photos or Klan memorabilia to support his opinions.

I believe him. Last year my colleague Shawn Nicholls discovered an advertisement and two news stories about a Klan rally in Warrenton in 1926. The county weekly, The Fauquier Democrat, described torch-carrying Klan members, in robes and hoods, parading down Main Street and lighting a cross at a rally just outside town.  (Available here.) I can imagine that this same racial hatred was alive six years later, and that Klan members mobilized quickly to kill Thompson.

And no, as I told de Butts, no one pressured me to keep the Klan out of my book. Its absence was for a simpler reason: I just didn’t know about it at the time.

 

 

Have thumb drive, will travel

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Germanna Community College this week sponsored a program on publishing your first book. Participants were (from left) Rick Pullen, Howard Owen, Jim Hall, David Sam, Cory MacLauchlin and Chris Brown.

I expected to promote The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia after publication, but I didn’t realize that promotion would take the form that it has. I thought I would go to signings, sit behind a table, and talk to those who wanted to buy the book. I’ve done that and enjoy it very much.

But I’m also a man with a thumb drive and PowerPoint slides who travels the region, talking about lynching, especially lynchings in Virginia. I talk about the lynching I know best, the 1932 Fauquier County incident that is the subject of my book. But I spend as much or more time on other cases, such as the 1893 death of William Shorter. Shorter was pulled from a train outside Winchester, Va., and hanged beside the track. He was accused of murder and was with a deputy sheriff on his way to trial, but the residents of Winchester couldn’t wait.

All of a sudden, I’ve become something of an expert on lynching. I’ve given talks about it in Richmond, Culpeper, Manassas, Stafford and Fredericksburg. This month I will talk to a history class and a journalism class at the University of Mary Washington. Next month I’m at the Central Rappahannock library in Fredericksburg, and after that the Afro-American Historical Association in Fauquier County and the Fall for the Book festival at George Mason University in Fairfax County.

I’m making good use of my master’s degree research, when I studied how Virginia newspapers covered lynching. I found accounts of maybe 50 of the 70 incidents that occurred in the state from 1880-1930, including the 1897 death of Joseph McCoy. A mob dragged McCoy from the jail in Alexandria and hanged him from a lamppost at the corner of Cameron and Lee streets. He had been accused of the assault of a child.

I talked to a videographer this week when I spoke at a program sponsored by Germanna Community College. I’m thinking about making a video of one of my talks and placing it on YouTube. Who knows? Maybe I’ve found a new career as a speaker.

A story of persistence is supposed to end this way

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Rick Pullen
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David Sam

David Sam asked an interesting question last week: Is it persistence or delusion that compels a person to write a book and work tirelessly to get it published?

I would answer persistence, and Sam would too. Persistence paid off for him.

Sam is president of Germanna Community College, in the Fredericksburg area, and a published poet. He and I and Rick Pullen, a Fredericksburg resident and the author of the political thriller Naked Ambition, were guests last week on Town Talk, Ted Schubel’s show on WFVA radio. We were there to talk about getting your first book published, which is the subject of a panel discussion that Germanna will host later this month.

Sam is the perfect person to moderate the panel. I was astounded to hear what he’s gone through to get published. He told the radio audience that he’s written poetry for 43 years and has submitted more than 600 poems or collections of poems for publication. Fewer than 100 were accepted. The former English professor maintains a spreadsheet to track his submissions and acceptances. “My success rate is 13.6 percent,” he said.

Sam said people ask him why he perseveres. “I would say I have no good answer,” he said. “For whatever reason, I need to write poetry.”

Last week Sam learned that a collection of 20 poems, Finite to Fail, was the grand prize winner in a national chapbook contest. It was his first contest prize, and it means that the poems will be published by GFT Press in Florida. It is an honor that he is obviously proud of and the reward for years of persistence.

PS:  The free Germanna program will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m. at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in downtown Fredericksburg. In addition to Sam, Pullen and me, the panelists will be Cory MacLauchlin, Howard Owen and Chris Jones.

You can listen to our appearance on Town Talk here.

 

How I published my book, in three easy steps

firstbookjA University of Mary Washington student wrote me recently to say that he wouldn’t be able to attend the program that Germanna Community College is sponsoring next month on getting your first book published. Germanna invited me to be part of the program, and the student asked, “Could you lend me some of your advice on publishing?”

I had no idea how to answer a question like that, but I wanted to be helpful, so I told the student that if my experience qualifies as advice, I’d be happy to share it. So, here goes. This is how I got my book published, in three easy steps:

First, I wrote the book. Other writers may solicit a publisher on the strength of an idea and a completed first chapter. Not me. I had a 33,000-word nonfiction manuscript in hand when I began this journey.

Next, I sent cover letters and electronic copies of the work to three academic publications. I believed that’s where the manuscript belonged, but one after another, the three journals said no. In fact, the editor at the third one was dismissive of my scholarship and my writing. He hurt my feelings. I knew my research was solid, and I knew that my writing was 10 times better than the gibberish he published. But he was right. My work didn’t belong in his journal. It didn’t read like the other articles there, and it was three times as long. I realized then that my work was not a journal article but a book, a solid, general-interest history book. And that’s when I found History Press.

History Press, based in South Carolina, says it specializes in local and regional history, and that its books are soft-cover and shorter than most, with lots of pictures. That appealed to me. I went to the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg and inspected several History Press books. They were handsome works, professionally made, and I could picture being published by them. I also studied the company’s catalog and found a niche where I might fit. I filled out their query form and attached a cover letter, saying that my book would work nicely under their “true crime” umbrella. They thought so too. I signed a contract, and about a year later, I had in hand The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia.

So to the UMW student, I say tell your story, then study the market for a publisher. Not just any publisher, but the best one for you. And, oh yes, the third and most important step: get up and try again after they knock you down, because they will.

When the topic is lynching, people want to hear

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I spoke to ElderStudy members yesterday at the Stafford campus of the University of Mary Washington.

The question was a familiar one, but my answer was new, an admission that I had never made before.

Yesterday, at a presentation before the members of Mary Washington ElderStudy, an audience member asked, “Why did you pursue this project?” He and others before him seemed puzzled that I would devote time and energy to such an unusual and unpleasant topic.

I usually answer these questioners by talking about how this book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, is a spinoff from the work I did for my master’s thesis at VCU in 2001. But if you go back to before VCU, why did I choose to study lynching? Sometimes I wonder if there really is a prior life, and that somehow I was connected to a lynching in an earlier existence.

But yesterday, I offered a more earthly reason for my interest in the topic. I blamed my audience.

I explained how whenever I bring up the topic of lynching, the person I am talking to is immediately interested. I noticed it in Dr. Clarence Thomas, my advisor at VCU and not the Supreme Court justice,  when I proposed to study how Virginia newspapers covered lynching. I noticed it in my editors at the Free Lance-Star newspaper when I proposed stories based on my research. And I noticed it in the immediate response from History Press when I proposed a book about the lynching of Shedrick Thompson in Fauquier County in 1932.

I can’t explain this interest. Perhaps it is a desire to see what anarchy looks like. Perhaps it is a fascination with a distant, primitive instinct.

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A Richmond Times-Dispatch story about the 1903 death of George Henderson.

But I do know that when I stand before a group of people, as I did yesterday, and talk about what happened to George Henderson and many others, there is silence in the room. People want to hear.

Henderson was from North Carolina, on his way by train to West Virginia. He stepped off the train when it stopped in a small town just south of Luray. What he could not know was that the citizens of that town in 1903 did not allow black people to be there. They chased Henderson, and he fled toward the Shenandoah River. He tried to cross the river on top of a dam but fell to his death. And, as usual, the news accounts made no mention of anyone being held responsible for his death.

So, as I said to the audience yesterday, I am a storyteller with stories of interest.

One set of facts but two different stories

Tom Davenport and I have worked together on this project for many months. We’ve shared files and photographs and joined forces for more than a dozen interviews. But I’ve always known that the film he’s making will be different than the book I wrote, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. Tom has a more complicated story he wants to tell.

Perhaps because of my newspaper training, I focused on what happened in Markham, Va., during the summer and fall of 1932. I sought details on Shedrick Thompson’s attack on Henry and Mamie Baxley, his flight, capture and death, and the cover-up that followed. Everything else was a distraction.

Not so for Tom. He has long been interested in Thompson’s death. He shared with me filmed interviews from 1994 and 1997 in which he asked the late Elsie McCarthy and the late Emma Coleman, Fauquier County residents, about the case. Tom wants to tell the story of the lynching, but he also wants to examine in more detail the setting for the crime, especially one aspect of Fauquier’s racial life. We have found several examples of white men of standing who fathered children by the black women they employed. Each time, Tom has asked if the white men acknowledged their children, supported them as they grew, or remembered them in their wills. The answers were almost always no. It will be interesting to see how he weaves these pieces together, the hanging and the world from which it sprung.

Tom said this week that he has completed about 40 minutes of what will probably be a 60-minute documentary.  “It’s going good,” he said. The 2-minute video above is part of the opening of the film, what Tom calls a “rough cut.” In it, Henry Baxley Jr. and Alphonso Washington talk about the initial attack. (Earlier blog posts about Tom and our collaboration can be seen here and here.)

elderstudybannerPS: My first appearance of the new year will take place next week, Tuesday, Jan. 10. I’ll be talking to members of Mary Washington ElderStudy. The group of retirees meets at 10 a.m. at the Stafford campus of the University of Mary Washington on U.S. 17. I’ve been a member of the group for several years, but this is the first time I’ve been their guest speaker.