New evidence of a change in how Thompson case is seen

Gianluca DeFazio

I was delighted to learn recently that an essay I wrote has been published on a website I’ve long admired.

The website, Racial Terror: Lynching in Virginia, 1877-1927, is the creation of Gianluca DeFazio, an assistant professor in the Justice Studies Department at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. The site is a comprehensive, easy-to-use database, dedicated to the 104 people who were lynched in Virginia. Each victim, from Charlotte Harris (1877) to Leonard Woods (1927), is remembered with a recounting of what happened and supporting newspaper articles from the time. It’s a must-stop for anyone doing research on lynching in Virginia or just interested in the topic.

In July, DeFazio invited me and others to write essays for the site. In his invitation, he said he hoped the essays would provide “in-depth analyses for particular cases/periods/regions of Virginia.” I took him up on the offer and wrote about the 1932 lynching of Shedrick Thompson.  DeFazio described my submission as “exactly the type of contribution I was hoping for” and posted it last week.

I contacted DeFazio earlier this year when his website went live. I was disappointed that Thompson was not included. I recommended my book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, as a way of arguing that Thompson belonged on his site. DeFazio was always cordial and open to my arguments, but Thompson never made it to the master list of victims. For me, Thompson’s absence was an example of how his hanging in Fauquier County is often unrecognized for what it was—a murder.

But that appears to be changing. DeFazio said last week that he will update his list of victims this spring, He said he will devote a page to the Thompson lynching and include supporting newspaper stories. Again, I was delighted. His decision reminded me of the decision earlier this year by the Equal Justice Initiative to include Thompson in its new national memorial to lynching victims in Montgomery, Ala.

Thompson was no doubt guilty of multiple felonies when he attacked Henry and Mamie Baxley, but his death was not a suicide as county officials said at the time. It was a lynching, and increasingly, it is being recognized as such.

Family learns of grandad’s role in Thompson story

Noah Kenney. (Family photo from Pam Androsky)

Pam Androsky remembers the day she was riding with her father on Fiery Run Road in northern Fauquier County. When they passed what was then the Borden Farm and is today the Marriott Ranch, he pointed to the mountain and said, “That’s where they found a colored man hanging from an apple tree.”

George Kenney was correct. Shedrick Thompson was found hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain. But Kenney omitted a key detail when recounting the story for his daughter. He did not tell her that his own father, Noah Kenney, was the one who discovered Thompson’s body.

Androsky, a resident of  Maryland, learned this detail only last month, while reading The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. Her relatives look to her as the family historian, yet she was unaware that her grandfather played an important part in the Thompson story in September 1932.

Noah Kenney was 57 then and a tenant farmer at the Borden Farm, where he lived with his wife, Ethel, and their 11 children.  He told authorities that his cattle had been getting out so he decided to inspect a fence line in the thicket behind his house. There he found the body of a black man hanging from an apple tree. The body was decomposed, but Kenney knew that it was Thompson.

Thompson had been the subject of an intense search throughout northern Fauquier that summer. The fugitive was wanted for the assault of Henry and Mamie Baxley, his employers. After Kenney’s discovery, authorities ruled Thompson’s death a suicide. But others said no, that it was a lynching.

Kenney immediately wrote to the county board of supervisors to claim the $250 reward. “I am entitled to the reward. Please let me hear from you at once,” he wrote. The county had published three different wanted posters, including two that used the phrase “dead or alive.” Kenney seized on this wording, but the county refused to pay. He even hired a Front Royal attorney to press his claim. Again the board refused.

After I talked with Androsky last week, she forwarded a family photo of Noah Kenney. In the picture, he is tall and thin, with an actor’s chin and his hat pulled low. Androsky also recalls that he had dark hair and blue eyes. Some family members confuse his picture with that of George, his oldest child. Noah died in 1948, two days after celebrating his 73rd birthday.

I learned about Androsky after reading her sister’s review of The Last Lynching on the Goodreads website. Brenda Stensney wrote that every time Noah Kenney picked apples for his wife, he would tease her by claiming that they came from the hanging tree. “Needless to say, that did not amuse her,” she wrote.

What is the nature of your complaint, sir?

A drone picture of Edenhurst, the home where Shedrick Thompson attacked Henry and Mamie Baxley in 1932. (From “The Other Side of Eden” documentary.)

When Pam Kamphuis read my recent blog post about the Philip Carter Winery, she asked if I would step back and reflect on the resistance I’ve faced since publication of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. Kamphuis, the editor of The Piedmont Virginian in Warrenton, said she wanted to use the piece on the magazine’s blog. Here’s what I wrote:

When I worked as a newspaper reporter, and a reader complained about one of my stories, I listened carefully to what the reader said. Was the story wrong or incomplete? Was it poorly written? Or was the reader unhappy, not because of what the story said, but simply because I wrote it? To these readers, no news was good news.

I was reminded of this in recent months as the author of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. The book describes the horrific lynching of Shedrick Thompson in Fauquier County in 1932. The reaction from some Fauquier residents has been similar to what I heard from unhappy newspaper readers. The complaints are not that I got my facts wrong, or that I’m a lousy writer. Instead, they are upset that I told the story at all. It’s as if I was dumping dead skunks in downtown Warrenton. Go away, they’ve said, go away.

The first hint of a problem came soon after publication when a local reporter asked one person mentioned in the book what she thought of it. “I don’t want to look at the cover,” she said. “I don’t want to read it. I don’t want to read anything about it.”

Retailers in Warrenton also were nervous and told History Press, the publisher, that the topic was too sensitive for their shelves. In the early months, I had invitations to talk to groups in Richmond, Fredericksburg, Manassas, Culpeper, Stafford and Spotsylvania, but not Fauquier. Later the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier invited me to talk to its members. That appearance this spring is still the only time I’ve spoken in Fauquier.

I was scheduled to talk at a Fauquier winery this month, but a winery representative asked me to postpone the event to a time “when feelings are not so heated and the topics of conversation in your book might be better received.” But time itself is neutral and changes nothing, as Martin Luther King once said. So I spared the winery the pain of cancellation and did it myself. “I wish you the best,” I told them.

My friend, Tom Davenport, and I have worked together for months on this project. He has created a documentary film about the Thompson lynching and about the racial climate in Fauquier at the time. He too has experienced similar resistance. The leaders at his church, after much discussion, decided that the film was too controversial for a screening there. And after Tom did screen the film in May to a packed house in Warrenton, he received a threatening letter from a lawyer demanding that he remove one section. Because of the letter, Tom canceled a second showing in Upperville. But he also got his own attorney and successfully defended his right to show the entire film.

So when reading my book, if you find that my facts are wrong, please let me know. If you think the prose is pedestrian, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, I’m sorry, but I’ll continue to write and talk about this case. It’s a worthy topic that teaches, among other things, the dangers of ignorance. Pretty timely, I would say.

PS: Here’s my newly revised schedule of appearances for the fall/winter. Please join me if you’re in the area.

  1. Wednesday, Oct. 4, 10:30 a.m., Lifelong Learning Institute-Manassas, Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas, Va.
  2. Thursday, Oct. 12, 7 p.m., Fall for the Book, Kings Park Library, 9000 Burke Lake Rd., Burke, Va.
  3. Saturday, Nov. 11, 1:30 p.m., Central Rappahannock Regional Library, England Run Branch, 806 Lyons Blvd., Fredericksburg, Va.
  4. Friday, Nov. 17, 3 p.m., Fredericksburg Literary Club, (Place to be determined.)
  5. Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, 11:50 a.m., Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University,4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va.
  6. Sunday, Feb 11, 2018, Mosby Heritage Area Association, Marshall, Va. (Time and place to be determined)
  7. Sunday, Feb 25, 2018, 2 p.m., Thomas Balch Library, 208 W. Market St., Leesburg, Va.

 

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 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.

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.

The mystery of Martinsburg is solved

juliamopkins
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.

My book in 125 words or less

The cove
The Cove, near Hume, Va., was Mamie Baxley’s home for much of her life.

The latest assignment from my editor is to write a paragraph for the back cover. He said to highlight the key places, people and events in the book, and convey the chronological and geographic scope. And please do all that in 125 words or less.

The assignment reminded me of an exercise I used when teaching beginning reporting at the University of Mary Washington here in Fredericksburg. I would give the class the facts of a police incident, including the who, what, when, where, why and how, as well as a police quote, victim quote and eyewitness quote. The students had to tell their stories in 250 words or less. When they finished, I asked them to rewrite their stories in 100 words or less, and then once more in 50 words or less. The exercise showed how flabby most writing is, and how much of their stories could be preserved, even with tight editing, if they spent the time needed to rewrite. Google tells me it was Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, who was the first to say, “I have made this letter longer than usual because I didn’t have the time to make it shorter.”

So here’s what my book is about in 125 words or less. (Actually it’s 123 words.)

Fauquier County, Va., 1932. A black man is found hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain.  A mob sets fire to the body. Officials identify the remains as Shedrick Thompson, wanted for the abduction and rape of a white woman. They say Thompson killed himself, the final act of a desperate fugitive. But residents who hunted him know better. They say he was the victim of Virginia’s last lynching.

The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia takes a close look at Thompson’s crimes and his death, the actions of his neighbors, and the official cover-up. It touches on themes still discussed, including our struggles with class and race. And it offers a new reading on Virginia history, one more complex and disturbing than previously believed.