The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Seeking Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain by Jim Hall was published by History Press on Sept. 12, 2016. You can order your copy at History Press, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble.
The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Seeking Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain is the story of two attacks, one on Henry and Mamie Baxley and the second on Shedrick Thompson.
Thompson attacked the Baxleys, his employer, in their home in Fauquier County, Va., in 1932. He too was attacked by vigilantes for what he had done. Assault, abduction, and rape were the charges in the first incident. Lynching was the crime in the second.
Hundreds of armed men combed the mountain paths in northern Fauquier, searching for Thompson after he fled the Baxley farm. Finally, two months later, a farmhand checking a fence line spotted a black man hanging from an apple tree. It was in a thicket at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain, a few miles from the Baxley house. It was Thompson.
Soon a crowd gathered, cut down the body and set fire to it. That night the county coroner explained how Thompson, hounded by his searchers, had hanged himself. But the suicide verdict seemed hasty and contrary to common sense. Local residents boasted that they had killed Thompson. Newspaper stories told how armed men captured and hanged the fugitive soon after the attack on the Baxleys.
Civil rights groups, such as the NAACP, reacted by placing Thompson on their 1932 list of lynch victims. It was the first lynching in Virginia in five years, and former Gov. Harry F. Byrd was upset. He protested to the NAACP, saying that Thompson committed suicide. Walter White, head of the NAACP, defended the group’s decision, then changed his mind, calling it a “hair-line” case. By flinching, White gave Byrd and others what they sought. They could continue to boast that Virginia did not lynch, that it was unlike other Southern states.
That claim is still heard today, that lynching ended in Virginia in the 1920s. But that is not what residents of Fauquier say. They describe what is called an “underground lynching,” one done quietly by men uncertain of community support. These residents say Thompson died within days of the attack on the Baxleys. Author Jim Hall makes a compelling case that Thompson’s death was not a suicide. It was Virginia’s last lynching.