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 …