Inserting more of me in this book

Dr. Wayland Marks examines the late Ethel Davis while her daughter-in-law Linda Davis watches.

One of the first things that Dr. Wayland Marks asked when we met for coffee was, “So, what do you think? Do you think he was lynched?”

I have known Marks, a Fredericksburg, Va., physician, for many years. He was among a group of 15 people who volunteered to read an early version of this manuscript. I gave copies to family, friends, and four college history professors. I asked them to be my editors, to point out inaccuracies, typographical errors, anything that bothered them. Marks did just that, writing in the margin when he found a misspelling or a poorly chosen word. What really bothered him, however, is that he didn’t find enough of me in the paper.

“I’m an old newspaper reporter,” I said. “I’m not supposed to be in there.”

I told him that I wanted to do a credible job of including the two possible reasons for Shedrick Thompson’s death–lynching and suicide.

“There was an official ruling of suicide,” I added. “In fact, there were two of them. I couldn’t ignore that.”

“But it’s your book,” he replied. “I want to know what you thought.”

Marks was right, of course. It was my story, my version of what happened on Rattlesnake Mountain. I could use my newspaper training to learn about the events in Fauquier County in 1932. I could report what I learned, even the part that ran counter to common sense. But I could also be a guide, taking readers through the forest. I could do as Marks asked and let more of me come out.

With this new freedom, I went back to my computer and recast the story. I tried to make it complete, but now I also wanted it to be definitive. I became a prosecutor, dispelling reasonable doubt and building the case for murder. I hope Marks realizes how important his questions were that morning over coffee. They changed everything.

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.