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.


Have thumb drive, will travel

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.

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.

‘That’s W.W. Pearson.’

W.W. Pearson
W.W. Pearson
W.W. Pearson with his wife Florence.

I realized later that I forgot to ask the lady her name. Perhaps I was distracted by the photos she pulled from her notebook during a recent book signing at the Culpeper County Library.

She had two black-and-white pictures, one of a man in an overcoat and hat, and the other of the same man, smiling beside a smiling woman. “That’s W.W. Pearson,” the lady said.

I knew immediately who she was talking about. W.W. Pearson plays a key role in The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. This was the first time I had seen a picture of him.

Pearson was the deputy sheriff in Fauquier County in September 1932, Sheriff Stanley Woolf’s only deputy. If I correctly understood the lady who stood before me, Pearson also was her great grandfather.

Pearson was one of the first officials to arrive after the discovery of Shedrick Thompson’s body, hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain. He was there when the mob set fire to the body, destroying all but the skull and shoes. He told his family later that he tried to put out the flames by swatting at them with his new hat, but someone stuck a pistol in his ribs and said, “Let it burn.” Pearson stepped away and let the body burn, with only a scorched hat to show for his effort.

The lady confirmed a postscript to that story that I had heard but not included in the book: Pearson gave the hat to an acquaintance, but when the man learned how it had been damaged, he didn’t want it and gave it back.

logoPS: I’ll be at the annual Local Authors Reception, sponsored by my favorite library, the Central Rappahannock Regional Library. The event is tonight, Nov. 15, from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Porter Branch, 2001 Parkway Blvd., North Stafford. Hope to see you there.

The book has been written, yet the story still unfolds

Melvin Clay with a photo of Fannie Thompson, his grandmother and Shedrick Thompson’s mother. (Photo by Tom Davenport)

First, I got a picture of Shedrick Thompson’s father, and then pictures of his siblings. And yesterday, I saw for the first time a picture of his mother. Maybe, if my luck holds, I will someday see a picture of Thompson himself.

Thompson is a key figure in The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. He was accused of assault and  lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County in 1932. I spent years learning about the man, yet I have almost no idea what he looked like. A wanted poster at the time said that he was dark brown, 6 feet, 180 pounds, with a birthmark behind his ear, and an old gunshot wound on his hand. But I never found a photo of him and did not include one in the book. In fact, until very recently, I had never seen any photos of anyone in his large family.

Marrington Thompson, Shedrick Thompson’s father. (Photo from Linda Tate)

Last month, however, I learned about Linda Tate and wrote to her. Tate is a resident of Detroit, related to the Thompsons and an expert in the family’s history. She sent me pictures of Marrington Thompson, the patriarch of the family, and seven of the Thompson children. (Shedrick was one of nine children.)

And then, Melvin Clay, a resident of Maryland and the son of one of Shedrick’s sisters, offered a picture of Fannie Thompson, Shedrick’s mother. Clay told my colleague Tom Davenport in a filmed interview last week that he admired his grandmother so much that he always kept her picture close by. With that, he reached into his desk drawer and pulled out her framed picture. Clay held up the picture and smiled. I smiled too when I saw it.

Tate said yesterday that her reaction was similar. “The picture at the end blew me away. Every time I get to see a picture of one of my grandfather’s siblings, I get excited.”


For this old reporter, lynch coverage was embarrassing

Stories about the Shedrick Thompson case appeared in newspapers throughout Virginia.
Stories about the Shedrick Thompson case appeared in newspapers throughout Virginia.

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.”


‘He was wrong what he did’

I remember how excited I was when I first saw this video by Dylan Nicholls. Dylan created it in 2014 as part of a successful Kickstarter campaign to help fund a film about the Shedrick Thompson case.

Dylan is a student at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., who works part time with Fauquier County filmmaker Tom Davenport. (I wrote about Tom in an earlier blog post.) Dylan’s mother, Shawn Nicholls, and his brother, Zach, also work with Tom. Together they are producing a documentary about Thompson’s lynching. They hope to complete it by the end of this year. My dream is that Tom and I will someday make joint appearances before school and civic groups, where I talk about The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia and Tom shows his film.

This 2-minute trailer was exciting because Dylan successfully pieced together excerpts from our filmed interviews and our research. It was evidence of how powerful the Thompson story is. And it was my first experience as an on-camera talking head.



The new phone book’s here! The new phone book’s here!


The cover for this book arrived from History Press this morning, and all I can think about is Steve Martin in the 1979 movie “The Jerk.” I laughed again to see the YouTube clip of him celebrating the arrival of the new phone book.

“I’m somebody now!” Martin says. “Millions of people look at this book every day. This is the kind of spontaneous publicity, your name in print, that makes people! Things are going to start happening to me now.”

Today I share his goofy enthusiasm, his childish exuberance.

The publisher wants to know what I think about the cover. Any thoughts, dear readers? I’m disappointed that it’s black and white, rather than color, but perhaps that fits the time period and somber subject. Other than that, I like it. Or as Martin says in this 40-second clip,  “I’m in print.”

A new title, or learning to play well with the other children

2treeBefore History Press agreed to publish this story, they asked me to complete an 8-page application. One of the questions they asked was: are you capable of working with other people on a long-term project that requires a “high level of co-ordination.” In other words, do I play well with the other children?

I answered sure, that I was a former newspaper reporter who had worked with assigning editors, copy editors, managing editors, photographers, page designers and fellow reporters on stories that took months to complete. It was an honest answer, but now my breezy assurance is being tested. Other people are messing with my stuff.

The first change I’ve had to deal with is the title. I always liked the title that I gave this story: Death on Rattlesnake Mountain: Virginia’s Last Lynching. It was concise, as Strunk and White suggest. It was accurate and informative, as required of a good headline. And it was intriguing. As one of my former colleagues said, “Rattlesnake Mountain has such a mysterious appeal.”

But History Press has other standards. They have learned that if you put the subject locale in the title, the book sells better. The term “Rattlesnake Mountain” can’t carry this burden since there are Rattlesnake Mountains in New Hampshire and Washington state. They also argued that my title was repetitive, that “death” and “lynching” are the same thing. They wanted a subtitle that told the book buyer what my goal was in writing the book.

We went back and forth several times. They gave some, and I gave some. And so, as you may have noticed, this book has a new title: The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Searching for Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain. It’s not my first choice, but as I told them, I play well with other children.


We will begin with a few words by Claudine Ferrell

Claudine Ferrell
Claudine Ferrell

I am grateful to Claudine Ferrell for writing the introduction for this book. Claudine is a professor of history at the University of Mary Washington, where she has taught for more than 30 years. Her doctoral work at Rice University focused on lynching in the South.

One of the librarians at Mary Washington told me about her and suggested that I contact her. I had never met her, but I wrote in July 2014 and asked if she would be willing to read what I had written about the Shedrick Thompson case. To my surprise, she agreed and has been a friend to this project ever since. Recently I spoke to one of her classes at UMW and heard her encourage her students to make that “cold call” to the expert who might be able to help them in their research. There is a good chance that the expert will respond, she said. I thought, yes, that is exactly what happened to me.

After reading my work, Claudine suggested several changes, which I made, and she encouraged me that my research and writing were worthy of publication. When my editor at History Press asked if I knew a scholar versed in the topic of lynching who would write the introduction, I thought of Claudine.

In her introduction, Ferrell vividly describes the scope and nature of lynching in America: “Tens of thousands of mob members killed—by rope, gun, fire, knife, fist, and any other means at their disposal—thousands of alleged violators of the law and of social order. For three-quarters of a century, most members of the mob were white men—and even women and children—and most of the victims were black men—and even women and children. The alleged violations varied from murder, arson, and rape to speaking disrespectfully to a white man. Sometimes, the crime matched the statute books. Sometimes, the offender received a trial; sometimes, the trial provided a semblance of due process. All too often, the mob acted regardless of statute or court or fairness.”