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.

He walked among them but was not of them

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Authorities published three versions of the reward poster for Thompson. In this one, they incorrectly listed his first name as Chad.

One of the first things I had to figure out when working on this book was Shedrick Thompson’s correct name. Thompson is one of the key characters in the story, the man accused of attacking the Baxleys and the man lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain. Yet in news accounts and legal documents, I found nine different versions of his name. He was Shadrack, Shad, Chad, Shedurek, Shadr’k, Shadrick, Shadrock, Shadrach and Shadric.

Thompson was born in Fauquier County to a Fauquier family. He spent most of his life in the county and married a Fauquier County woman. Yet after he attacked the Baxleys, when he became the object of an intense manhunt, no one seemed to know his name.

To me, this invisibility was a measure of what life must have been like for him in Fauquier in 1932. Thompson worked on his neighbors’ farms and in their orchards, yet they never bothered to learn his name. I can picture a reporter asking Sheriff Stanley Woolf, after the attack, for the name of the accused. “Thompson,” Woolf would have replied. “I think it’s Chad Thompson.”

No, Thompson’s 1917 draft registration and his 1921 marriage license are definitive. His first name was Shedrick.

What color would you like, sir?

Sheriff Stanley Woolf led the search for Shedrick Thompson.
Sheriff Stanley Woolf led the search for Shedrick Thompson.

The questions that my editor asked reminded me of the goofy things that Gilda Radner would say as Baba Wawa on Saturday Night Live. But I understood why he wanted to know, and I enjoyed answering him. Again, he was thinking about the cover for this book, and he wanted to know two things:

What color or color scheme would apply to your book?

The color scheme for the cover would be important if I was writing about, say, the history of Notre Dame football (blue and gold). But that didn’t apply to this book. I did tell him, however, that I have never thought of the people, the region or the incidents in the book as “dark” or “forbidding.” It has always seemed to me that this was a “broad daylight” crime, even though parts of it took place at night. Thompson was an employee of the Baxleys, so there was no doubt he was their attacker. Also, the men who hanged Thompson talked about it afterward, even bragged about it. The fact that they had to appear before a grand jury is also an indication of how closely associated with the crime they were. Because of that, I voted against a black or deep brown color scheme.

What words describe the tone of your book?

I answered that the book is serious, argumentative, and corrective in that it challenges the existing historic record. I also said it was violent, disturbing, and senseless for what Thompson did to the Baxleys and what Fauquier residents did to Thompson. And it was puzzling since many aspects of the story are hard to explain.