On the flight, death and skull. New details emerge

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Thompson family members at their home on Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County. They are Margaret Thompson, Sallie Rector, Catherine Rector and Emily Rector, from left. The log cabin is now the site of a Boy Scout camp. (Photo from Linda Tate and the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County.)

I knew from my years as a reporter that it was not unusual to hear from key sources after publication. That is what happened with The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. New sources came forward with new details.

In September, two weeks after the book came out, a member of the Shedrick Thompson family wrote to my colleague Dylan Nicholls to say that family members wanted to talk to us.

The family told us more about Thompson’s movements after his attack on Henry and Mamie Baxley in Fauquier County in July 1932, about the reaction of his family to his flight, and about what happened when family members learned of his lynching.

This new information came from Melvin Clay and Julia Mopkins, brother and sister, residents of Maryland, and both in their 80s. They are the children of Ola Clay, one of Thompson’s sisters. Tom Davenport, a Fauquier County filmmaker, interviewed them recently. (I have written about Tom and our collaborations here.)

We already knew that Thompson fled west into the mountains of northern Fauquier after he attacked the Baxleys. Now we know that he went to his boyhood home, a short distance away on Africa Mountain, where he told his mother, Fannie Thompson, what had happened. She asked him to leave, saying that by being there, he put the entire family at risk. She was correct. Family members were later threatened and even jailed while Thompson was at large. And the Thompson home was under constant watch. “They were prisoners in their own home for a short period of time,” Mopkins said.

Thompson was missing for two months, when his body was discovered hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain. Word of the discovery spread, and a mob gathered to set fire to the body. We now know that the Thompson family also learned of the discovery, and that Marrington Thompson, Shedrick’s father, went to the scene. Was the mob still there? Did he try to prevent the burning? We don’t know.

After the burning, officials carried Thompson’s skull and shoes, all that remained, back to Warrenton. The skull was displayed under the steps of the county courthouse and was later moved to the county coroner’s office. Then it seemed to disappear. Now we know that someone took it back to Africa Mountain and placed it on the Thompsons’ front porch.  “My grandmother had nightmares,” said Clay. “She lived with that for the rest of her life.”

A face for radio.
A face for radio.

PS: Last week I was guest of Ted Schubel on News Talk 1230 WFVA radio.You can listen to the 40-minute interview here.

The mystery of Martinsburg is solved

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Julia Mopkins holds a picture of her as an infant, seated on her mother’s lap. The photo is believed to be from 1932, the same year Shedrick Thompson was lynched. (Photo by Tom Davenport)

Of the many puzzling aspects of the Shedrick Thompson story, one of the most curious is Thompson’s connection to Martinsburg, West Virginia. Why were authorities in Fauquier County so focused on that small West Virginia city? Now, thanks to Julia Mopkins, we know.

Within hours of Thompson’s attack on Henry and Mamie Baxley in July 1932, Sheriff Stanley Woolf of Fauquier contacted William Schill, chief of police in Martinsburg. Martinsburg is located in northern West Virginia, about 60 miles from Fauquier. The 1930 census counted almost 15,000 people living there.

Woolf asked Schill if anyone there had seen Thompson. Schill said no and added, “We are on duty in case he comes here.” Woolf also asked Schill for some of Thompson’s clothes to help the tracking bloodhounds in Fauquier, and later he drove to Martinsburg to visit a place Thompson was known to have stayed and to interview people who knew the fugitive.

As I worked on The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, I could never figure out why Martinsburg was one of the first places Woolf thought about when searching for Thompson. What was the connection?

The answer surfaced last week when my colleague Tom Davenport interviewed Mopkins at her home in Maryland. Mopkins, 86, is Thompson’s niece. Her mother, Ola, was Thompson’s younger sister.

Martinsburg was where the Thompson men went for work, Mopkins said. Shedrick, his father, Marrington, and his older brother, Raymond, worked the farms and orchards in Fauquier during the planting, growing and harvest seasons. But in winter, when there was no work in Fauquier, they went to Martinsburg to work in its mills, Mopkins said. “They would go in the winter and come back in the spring,” she said.

Sheriff Woolf must have known this when he called Schill for help. But Thompson hadn’t gone that far. His body was eventually discovered in Fauquier, near Hume, hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain.