On July 12, 1895, in Lunenburg County, Virginia, a retired farmer complained to his diary that the state was spending $300 a day to keep four blacks accused of murder safe in jail. “They should and ought to have been promptly lynched at once,” wrote Robert Allen, who had recently been elected to his twentieth consecutive term as a justice of the peace, “for there is not the least shadow of doubt about the guilt of all four of them.”
In A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial, Suzanne Lebsock, a historian, has chronicled the efforts that frustrated Allen and other would-be lynchers in Lunenburg County. The prisoners, three women and one man, were being held for the murder and robbery of a white woman named Lucy Pollard. The story is full of suspense and complex characters, with a plot so rich in incident and irony that Lebsock is puzzled that the case vanished from history for nearly ninety years. After all, Lebsock writes, “it had bedeviled some of Virginia’s most prominent politicians, engaged its best legal minds, and inspired some of the state’s most creative investigative reporting.”
In a footnote, she names the historian who broke the silence. Ann Field Alexander, who wrote her 1973 Ph.D. dissertation on John Mitchell Jr., the editor of the black newspaper The Richmond Planet, who covered the trials and their aftermath. With Race Man: The Rise and Fall of the ‘Fighting Editor’ John Mitchell Jr., a book based on Alexander’s dissertation, readers may supplement Lebsock’s account of the case with a biography of the journalist who was largely responsible for its surprising outcome.
The body of Lucy Pollard, a white planter’s daughter, was discovered by her husband at dusk on Friday, June 14, 1895, lying between her house and her chicken coop. A nearby meat ax accounted for the wounds to her face and head, while a struggle with her killer was the likely cause of the bruises on her neck and wrists. A lens had been knocked out of her glasses, and a dozen eggs had fallen from her basket and were lying broken beside her on the ground.
Lucy had married down. Her husband, Edward Pollard, a former peddler, had, thanks in part to the land brought to him by a series of wives, become a farmer and moneylender. When he came upon the body he rang the alarm bell twice, then stopped to check the liquor cabinet, where he kept his cash, and found that he had been robbed as well as widowed. His bell-ringing and shouting brought neighbors to the scene, including two black women, Mary Abernathy and Pokey Barnes, who kept vigil over the body through the night while Edward slept beside it. The next day, the women were arrested as suspects by the local constable. Soon Mary Barnes, a black woman who worked in Pollard’s garden and was the mother of Pokey Barnes, was also arrested. Mary Abernathy and Mary Barnes were the last people known to have seen Lucy Pollard alive. They had shared a drink of water with her and Edward at four o’clock, and after Edward had left, they had stayed behind for a few minutes to chat. Pokey Barnes, meanwhile, admitted to having been in the vicinity at the time.
Edward Pollard thought that some of his wife’s clothes were missing and, as Lebsock explains, stealing clothes was considered to be a crime characteristic of black women. All of this evidence was circumstantial, and it failed to convince a coroner’s jury. On Monday, three days after the murder, the women were released. But shortly afterward they were fingered as accomplices in the murder by a fourth suspect, a mulatto laborer named William Henry “Solomon” Marable, who had been seen the day after the murder spending twenty-dollar bills, then a large denomination, in nearby Chase City. The women were rearrested.
Despite angry crowds carrying ropes, the suspects were not lynched. Local officials smuggled them from one jail to another until they reached the relative safety of the city of Richmond, where they fell under the protection of the new governor, Charles O’Ferrall. During the last weeks of O’Ferrall’s 1893 election campaign, an unemployed black laborer had been hanged, shot, and burned in Roanoke before an audience of four thousand onlookers, and in response, O’Ferrall had committed himself politically to the suppression of lynching. At the request of Lunenburg County’s sheriff, O’Ferrall ordered two infantry units to escort the suspects back to Lunenburg for their trials. There a captain in the militia named Frank Cunningham pacified the crowds outside the courthouse by organizing baseball games and concerts and offering free medical care. Marable and the three women were safely tried. They were convicted and sentenced, and it looked as if Marable and two of the women would unjustly but legally hang, until a young black newspaper editor, John Mitchell Jr., involved himself in the case.
Mitchell was born in 1863 at Laburnum, an estate outside Richmond, the property of James Lyons, a genteel and well-connected attorney. Lyons was a close friend of Jefferson Davis, owned more than two dozen slaves, and decried Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as “inhuman and atrocious.” Among his possessions were Mitchell’s mother, a seamstress, and his father, a coachman. Alexander suggests that young Mitchell studied his master’s grand manner, which he later used to social advantage. As an adolescent, Mitchell took advantage of the schools that opened for blacks during the early years of Reconstruction and was educated to become a teacher. While teaching in Richmond’s schools, he began in 1883 to write for the black press. His first column, for The New York Globe, the most prominent black newspaper in the country, narrated the hanging of a black murderess in Henrico County, Virginia, in a suspenseful and sentimental style.
When a new black weekly, The Richmond Planet, was founded in December 1883, Mitchell and several other teachers began to write for it. No clippings from the paper’s first two years have survived. A few months after the Planet‘s inception, white Democrats ousted blacks and their allies from the Richmond school board, and many of the city’s black teachers were purged, among them Mitchell and ten others who had been moonlighting for the Planet. Unable to find any other work that satisfied him, at the end of 1884, Mitchell, at age twenty-one, took over the paper.
Under Mitchell’s leadership, the Planet had an exuberant, even militant tone. In every issue, beneath an image of a hanged black man, Mitchell published a list of lynching victims. He urged blacks to arm themselves against lynch mobs, writing that “the best remedy for a lyncher or a cursed mid-night rider is a 16-shot Winchester rifle in the hands of a dead-shot Negro who has nerve enough to pull the trigger.” He presented himself in his articles as a swashbuckling character, and at times he was. In 1886, when his articles about a recent lynching provoked an anonymous death threat, Mitchell printed the letter and then toured the scene of the lynching, sporting a pair of Smith & Wesson revolvers. In 1889 he saved a fifteen-year-old from hanging by riding all night to hand-deliver the governor’s stay of execution. In 1893 he helped obtain the acquittal and release from jail of a black farmhand who had miraculously survived a beating, shooting, and hanging by a white mob. He became well known for his bravado, and in 1888 he was elected to the lower house of Richmond’s city council. In 1890 he was elected alderman.
Mitchell made his newspaper a financial success. He found odd outside jobs to keep his printing press running. Alexander suggests that the Planet may have been subsidized by the local Republican Party in return for its support. Most important, black readers responded to its appeal. Alexander quotes an ad for subscribers that ran in the Planet in 1891:
Do you want to see what the Colored People are doing? Read the Planet. Do you want to know what Colored People think? Read the Planet. Do you want to know how many Colored People are hung to trees without due process of law? Read the Planet….
Anti-lynching was the principal cause of the Planet, but by the time of the Lunenburg cases, Mitchell realized that he had to press the Planet‘s campaign further. Even when blacks received due process in the courts, they could be the victims of racism in the community. The threat of lynching could function as blackmail, intimidating judges and juries into disregarding evidence, or the lack of it.
For righting this subtler injustice, Mitchell realized, the murder of Lucy Pollard was an opportune case. As he must have suspected when he read accounts in the white press of the four Lunenburg trials, and as he recognized as soon as he interviewed the four prisoners in Richmond in late July 1895, the case against the women was extremely thin. The principal witness against them was Solomon Marable, who had confessed to the murder and, under a surprisingly vigorous cross-examination by Pokey Barnes herself, had also confessed to perjury. Moreover, only one of the women, Mary Abernathy, had been represented by a lawyer. He had represented her only for as long as it took to request a change of venue; as soon as the request was denied, he quit.
During his first jailhouse interview, Mitchell learned from Mary Abernathy that a local white man whose last name was Thompson had threatened to kill Edward Pollard the day of the murder, calling him “a thief in every degree”—a fact that had gone unmentioned in all four trials. In the Lunenburg courtroom there had been such flagrant disregard of the facts—lack of interest in them, really—that it was clear to Mitchell that the trials’ outcome was the result of pressure on the part of lynch-hungry people like the justice of the peace and diarist Robert Allen, the lack of mob violence notwithstanding. Mitchell at once hired three conservative white lawyers to appeal the verdicts against the women. To pay their fees, he appealed to the generosity of readers of the Planet.
Thompson’s threat to “squash [Edward Pollard] in hell” turned out to be only the first in a series of revelations that undermined the case against Mary Abernathy, Pokey Barnes, and Mary Barnes. The case further unraveled when Solomon Marable began to tell a new story: not three black women but a white man had enlisted him to help with the killing, and that man’s name was also Thompson. But the Thompson who had threatened to “squash” Edward Pollard turned out to be William G. Thompson, Edward Pollard’s stepson, whereas the Thompson accused by Solomon Marable was David James Thompson, the son of one of Lucy Pollard’s cousins. Neither Thompson was charged with murder, although Solomon continued to repeat the name of David James Thompson to the press, until Thompson took the precaution of suing one of Richmond’s white newspapers for libel.
Was David James Thompson the murderer? Lebsock leads the reader through a thicket of conflicting theories and irreconcilable testimony. Since David James Thompson was never tried, there isn’t enough evidence to judge him in retrospect. But Marable’s story about Thompson was more credible than his story about the three women had been. He made his accusation against Thompson in court only once, and retracted it almost immediately, but it must have helped to sow doubt, especially in the minds of the judges, who later granted retrials in the women’s cases.
Doubt over the identity of the killer persists. No one ever found the eight hundred dollars stolen from Edward Pollard, or at least no one ever admitted to finding it. And in his last statement before hanging, Solomon Marable insisted that authorities were executing the wrong man.
At the end of her narrative, Lebsock speculates on who the murderer or murderers might have been. She suggests that the crime may have been the work of David James Thompson’s brother, Herbert Thompson, and that Cass Gregory, an amateur detective, may have encouraged Solomon to name the right family but the wrong man, so that Gregory could blackmail Herbert Thompson. This strikes me as somewhat too complex to be likely. But unresolved murders are tempting, and it is one of the merits of Lebsock’s book that readers acquire so detailed a knowledge of the case that they can invent theories of their own.
I myself was struck by an odd bit of dialogue that Marable repeated almost every time he blamed the murder on David James Thompson. According to Marable, just before Thompson murdered Lucy Pollard, he asked her, “Do you know me?” and she replied, “You are a white man.” While Lebsock observes that “the statement is just strange enough to ring true,” her explanation doesn’t quite account for its strangeness. Was Marable struggling to make up a story about a killer unlike himself, while also struggling not to pin the crime on a real and identifiable person, as his story about the three black women had done? As an invented line of dialogue, “You are a white man” would have been such a story, though not a very convincing one. On the other hand, what if Marable was telling the truth? Perhaps he reported Lucy Pollard’s statement accurately but misunderstood what she had said. Perhaps when the killer had asked, “Do you know me?” Mrs. Pollard had answered, “You are a Whiteman.” She would have been replying that she did know him, by giving his family name. Therefore, having robbed her, Mr. Whiteman would have had to kill her.
The 1890 census records for Virginia were destroyed in a fire long ago, but the names “Whiteman” and “Whitman” appear in Richmond city directories for 1889 and 1890. But unless there are descendants of people named Whiteman with pertinent information, my theory isn’t any more susceptible of proof than Lebsock’s.
Alexander points out that the close of the nineteenth century has been called “the nadir” of African-American history. In the 1890s, lynching in the United States was at its peak, with 161 cases reported in 1892. Virginia had a better record than most Southern states. Racial violence there tapered off steeply around the time of the Lunenburg cases. Yet even in Virginia, the situation of African-Americans continued to be bleak for years to come. In 1896, flush with his success in exonerating the three black women, Mitchell failed to win reelection as an alderman when white election officials obstructed the voting in the polls in black districts and discarded many black ballots on the grounds that they were incorrectly marked.
The disfranchisement of blacks soon became systematic; after Mitchell’s defeat, there would be no blacks on Richmond’s city council for the next fifty years. In 1901, Virginia’s trains were segregated for the first time. In 1904, Richmond’s streetcars were segregated. Indeed, the transit company responsible for the segregation order was represented by one of the lawyers Mitchell had hired to defend the Lunenburg women a decade earlier.
Lebsock believes that the Lunenburg cases were forgotten because few people had both the power and the motive to recall them publicly once white supremacy took hold in Virginia. When blacks lost their political voice, they also lost the ability to keep alive the memory of past victories, and whites found the Lunenburg cases inconvenient to remember, perhaps because, as Lebsock suggests, their story was exceptional, involving “a united and highly mobilized African American citizenry, formidable African American leadership, and a critical mass of whites and blacks who worked in concert to the same end.”
Yet the Lunenburg cases coincide with the decline of lynching in Virginia, and so to some degree they reflect the historical moment. Without Mitchell’s intervention, Mary Abernathy and Pokey Barnes would no doubt have been hanged, but once Mitchell took up their cause, a number of powerful whites were willing to bend the rules to assist him. When Lunenburg’s sheriff would not accept a military escort to prevent the lynching, the governor refused to hand the prisoners over to him, even though he had no legal authority to hold them. In the original trials no one had filed a bill of exceptions on behalf of the defendants, but Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals nonetheless granted writs that allowed lawyers to request retrials. A commonwealth attorney spontaneously halted his county’s prosecution of Pokey Barnes in what seems to have been an act of conscience. In 1896, the year of Plessy v. Ferguson, the white elite of Virginia seems to have been ready to set aside both lynching and the railroading of juries by the threat of lynching. Why?
Perhaps the state’s leaders were able to feel ashamed of these clumsy and brutal tools of oppression because they had taken up a new, bloodless, and more efficient one: disfranchisement. It may be no coincidence that Mitchell was turned out of office just as he was winning the Lunenburg cases. White supremacy had shifted its strategy. The shift was never a complete one. Lynching survived, side by side with denying blacks the vote, until the 1960s, and it would turn out that in order to end lynching, one had to allow black people to vote.
The shift does not make Mitchell’s part in the Lunenburg cases any the less heroic, but it does complicate the story’s ending. In the difficult decades that followed, he seems to have become demoralized. “We find as we grow older that nothing speaks so loud as money,” he wrote in 1905. Although he kept his newspaper, he turned most of his attention to banking, insurance, and real estate speculation, and in the pursuit of financial success, he ceased to challenge the people he began to call “quality white folks.” After his bank failed in 1922, he was found guilty of fraud and theft. The conviction was overturned on technicalities, but his career was over. A. Philip Randolph’s journal, The Messenger, did not regret Mitchell’s fall from grace: “When one loses his courage and devotes most of his time [to] urging the victims of oppression to be polite to the persecutors, it is time for him to go.” Perhaps we remember the Lunenburg cases now because we can appreciate a victory in a cause that did not achieve everything that had been hoped for.