Are you sure it was the last lynching?

Paul Beers’ 1994 article in The Appalachian Journal.

The comment from an English teacher at Lord Fairfax Community College was one I had heard before. It went something like this: “This wasn’t the last lynching in Northern Virginia. There was another one that came later.”

John Owens, a librarian at Lord Fairfax, reported the comment to me. John said that a teacher at the college was checking out my book from the library when she mentioned another lynching in Fauquier that had occurred years after Shedrick Thompson’s death.

John encouraged the teacher to attend the talk that I will give at Lord Fairfax this Saturday, Feb. 24, at 2 p.m., or to contact me with the details of the later lynching.

I assume that the teacher was referring to the death of Nelson Pendleton in 1935. At least that is the case that I have heard most often mentioned as a possible later lynching. (Thompson was killed in 1932). I don’t know a lot about the Pendleton case. While I was working on The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, I found two press clippings about his death. The first was a one-paragraph news story from The Fauquier Democrat. The other was an editorial from The Richmond Planet. The clippings said that Pendleton died on May 15, 1935, in Markham. He was black, 25, and accused of attempting to assault a white woman. His body was found in an orchard “by a group of enraged citizens, armed with rifles,” the Planet said. The coroner ruled his death a suicide.

The 1935 Fauquier Democrat story about Pendleton’s death.

The Planet, a popular black newspaper, was critical of the suicide verdict, the same verdict offered in Thompson’s death. The paper said the verdict was “overworked in Warrenton,” and it added, “There is a strong possibility that Judge Lynch is still holding court in this state.”

So was Pendleton lynched? Was he Virginia’s last lynching?

Maybe. It would be hard to answer definitively without doing a lot more research.

In a sense, this is where I was years ago when thinking about the Thompson case. I remember reading Paul Beers’ 1994 piece in The Appalachian Journal. Beers was writing about the 1926 death of Raymond Bird in Wythe County and called it “the last documented lynching in Virginia.” Beers may have known that statement would be controversial so he added a lengthy footnote. He dismissed the 1927 Leonard Woods lynching as a Kentucky incident, though few others agree with him. He also concluded that Thompson’s death was a suicide. He quoted Virginius Dabney, the longtime editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who wrote that lynching in Virginia ended with passage of the state’s antilynching law in 1928. “Nearly all other students of Virginia lynchings agree with Dabney’s conclusion,” Beers said.

Well, not exactly. I did not agree and took up the challenge. I spent months reading documents and talking to people. I made the case, I believe, that Thompson was lynched. I also believe he was Virginia’s last lynching.

Someday, someone may do the research and make the case that Pendleton was lynched, and that he, not Thompson, was Virginia’s last lynching.

Please, someone, take up the challenge.

Please join me this Saturday or at another of the appearances listed below:

Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, 2 p.m., book talk at Lord Fairfax Community College, 6480 College St., Warrenton, Va.

Sunday, Feb 25, 2018, 2 p.m., book talk at the Thomas Balch Library, 208 W. Market St., Leesburg, Va.

Thursday, March 1, 2018, 10 a.m., joint appearance with filmmaker Tom Davenport for book talk and screening of his film, The Other Side of Eden. Lifetime Learning Institute, Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle,  Manassas, Va.

Sunday, March 18, 2018, 2 p.m., book talk at the Mosby Heritage Area Association, The Hill School, 130 South Madison St., Middleburg, 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.”


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.

What am I going to do with the rest of my life?

Edenhurst, once the Baxley home, in Fauquier County, Va.
Edenhurst, once the Baxley home, in Fauquier County, Va.

It’s done. It’s gone. I sent my manuscript to the History Press on Friday.

With that delivery, I met the second of two February deadlines.  The first was for the photographs. This one was for the book itself. Actually the book is still just an email attachment, a Word document of 51 pages, 32,000 words, done in 10-point, Times New Roman type, single-spaced. With luck, it will be a real book this summer.

Today I think back to December 2001, when I sent an email to Henry Baxley Jr. of Warrenton. Baxley and his parents were key characters in the story I wanted to tell, and I asked if he would talk with me. He agreed, and we met in a restaurant in Marshall. Later we drove to Africa Mountain and then to Edenhurst in Markham, where he lived as a baby. It was at Edenhurst that a farmhand employed by his family snuck into the house in the middle of the night and attacked his parents. Henry Jr. was not harmed and has no memory of the event. The current owner of the house, Dorothy Showers, was kind enough to show us the upstairs bedroom where the attack occurred. Showers also told us a story that Henry’s grandfather told her, how the attacker left behind a pistol on the landing.

That visit was the beginning of my work on this book, and the attack became its opening scene. The story has been my companion for more than 14 years. So now what do I do? Or as Merle Haggard sings, “I can smoke and I can drink. I’ll probably be alright ’till morning. But what am I going to do with the rest of my life?”