October 12, 2016
New book explores region’s “last lynching” in July 1932
I believe it’s a book that should have been written. I’m proud of what I’ve done. I think I treated the situation fairly and accurately and was sensitive.
— Jim Hall
• Title: The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Seeking Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain
Jim Hall of Fredericksburg
Virginia’s last “known” lynching took place in 1932 near Hume in Northern Fauquier, according to Jim Hall. The book explores the violent attack on a Hume-area couple and the circumstances surrounding the assailant’s death by hanging.
The History Press
• Website: Click here
The writer instinctively understood Virginia’s last “known” lynching would make for a gripping story.
“It had the elements of race, violence – murder, assault – and sex,” retired Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star reporter Jim Hall said.
And, it would give an enterprising journalist a chance to set the record straight about an alleged suicide that Mr. Hall and many others considered a lynching.
Researching a master’s thesis 16 years ago about Virginia newspaper coverage of lynchings, Mr. Hall discovered the case of Shedrick Thompson, a black laborer hanged after abducting, beating and raping a prominent, white Northern Fauquier woman on July 17, 1932.
That night, Mr. Thompson attacked Henry Baxley Sr., 33, and his wife Mamie, 35, as they slept in their home near Hume on Leeds Manor Road. Their 2-year-old son, Henry Jr., slept in the next room.
A newspaper described them as “one of the most popular young couples in the county.”
Mr. Thompson, 39, knew the Baxley property well. He lived nextdoor in a tenant house. He had worked for the family for many years. And his wife, Ruth, cooked for the couple.
“I think Thompson went in the back door,” Mr. Hall explained during a recent tour of places that figure into the story. “He picked up a piece of stove wood. He mounted the steps to the second floor.
“He goes (into the Baxleys’ bedroom) attacks Henry, abducts Mamie, marches her down the driveway, across Leeds Manor Road, into the pasture to the foot of Buck Mountain. He robs her of her wedding ring and he rapes her.”
Because his 111-page master’s thesis focused on lynchings from 1880 to 1930, “a period of barbarity,” Mr. Hall set aside “the episode.” He earned the advanced degree in mass communications from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2001.
But, the circumstances surrounding the Baxley attack and the Thompson hanging continued to tug at Mr. Hall.
“It’s a weird one,” he said. “It’s first a lynching and then a suicide and then a lynching again. Suicide didn’t make any sense to anyone.”
The History Press last month published The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Seeking Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain, Mr. Hall’s 127-page account of the Baxley attack and Thompson lynching.
> Book excerpt at bottom of story
Mr. Hall doubted the “official” version — that Mr. Thompson had hanged himself to avoid capture. And, the reporter wanted to learn what moved him to assault the Baxleys.
So for about a dozen years, Mr. Hall “dabbled,” writing letters to potential sources and visiting libraries to find out what he could about the case.
A week before he retired from the Fredericksburg newspaper in May 2013, Mr. Hall got a call from Delaplane filmmaker Tom Davenport, who planned to make a documentary dealing with the case.
“Tom said, ‘I’m told by Henry Baxley Jr. that nobody knows more about this than you’,” Mr. Hall said, recalling the conversation.
“ ‘Well, Tom, your timing’s pretty good’,” Mr. Hall said he told the filmmaker.
“ ‘I’m about to retire’.”
Retirement freed him to research and write about the Thompson case “in earnest,” said Mr. Hall, who taught a reporting class for seven years during the 1990s at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg.
The two men met at a Marshall restaurant to discuss a possible collaboration. Together, they interviewed more than a dozen people.
“Tom held the camera over my shoulder and I asked the questions,” said Mr. Hall, 68. “When I was a reporter, I divided the job of newspapering into two pieces – the gathering and the writing. Tom and I worked together during the gathering phase. And then I wrote on my own.”
For a good part of three years, he spent up to four mornings a week writing the book.
Mr. Hall drew upon stories from 26 different newspapers — from The Fauquier Democrat to the New York Times, 20 letters and more than 30 books. He repeatedly interviewed sources and visited sites critical to the narrative.
Writing a book proved more complicated than he expected.
“This was 33,000 words,” said Mr. Hall, who wrote the manuscript at his dining room table on a laptop computer. “I wrote (newspaper) stories. And, most of my stories are 500, 600 words. What was difficult for me was how to tell a longer story – how to frame it, how to structure it.”
He produced dozens of outlines and drafts, which he shared with his editor, former newsroom colleagues and college professors.
Mr. Hall submitted the finished manuscript to The History Press in January.
> Video: Jim Hall discusses reporting
Eight decades ago, the events captivated Fauquier.
Local officials promised a $250 reward for the “arrest, dead or alive” of Mr. Thompson.
“The search for Thompson was the largest in the county’s history, lasting for weeks and involving law enforcement and hundreds of volunteers,” Mr. Hall wrote. “Day after day, groups of armed men, some organized by the sheriff and others self-assigned, combed the mountain paths.”
Two months after the attack, a farmhand inspecting fences found Mr. Thompson’s decaying body hanging from an apple tree at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain, just a few miles from the Baxleys’ home near Hume.
Three hours after the discovery, about 150 people — including Fauquier’s only deputy sheriff and other law enforcement officers — had arrived at the scene, Mr. Hall’s research showed.
One onlooker wondered if Mr. Thompson’s remains would burn, according to the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record.
“Why don’t you try him?” another suggested.
Unable to subdue the mob, Fauquier sheriff’s Deputy W.W. Pearson watched.
“A third man lit a match,” Mr. Hall wrote. “Soon all that was left of Thompson were his skull and shoes. The crowd scrambled for Thompson’s teeth, removing them from the skull and distributing them as souvenirs.”
Mr. Thompson’s skull would later be displayed under the steps of the Fauquier courthouse on Warrenton’s Main Street.
Mr. Hall finds it “ironic” that Mr. Thompson’s “murder would have been celebrated in that way.”
The courthouse “is, in many ways, the center of Warrenton and Fauquier,” he said during a four-hour tour of the county. “It is a legal center. It is a commercial center. It is, in many ways, the symbolic heart of this community.”
The county coroner and a grand jury concluded Mr. Thompson committed suicide to avoid capture.
But, some Fauquier residents and newspapers across the state disputed that.
The suicide ruling “was seen by many as a rush to judgment, an attempt by officials to cleanse the community of any responsibility for Thompson’s death,” Mr. Hall wrote.
The NAACP initially deemed the Thompson hanging a lynching. But, former Gov. Harry F. Byrd, a friend of the Baxleys, intervened and the organization relented.
“Since this seemed to be a ‘hairline case’ it is not included in the Association’s Lynching Record for 1932,” said Walter White, who headed the national association.
Virginia passed an anti-lynching law in 1928. Gov. Byrd supported the legislation “more out of concern for Virginia’s reputation than for the well-being of its black residents” and for political self-interest, Mr. Hall wrote.
Mr. Hall found no credible evidence to support a suicide thesis for Mr. Thompson’s death.
Pure and simple, a band of locals lynched Mr. Thompson because they wanted “retribution,” not the reward money or the acclaim of bringing him to justice, according to the author.
“The whole episode was a clear, brutal message,” Mr. Hall said.
But, Mr. Thompson’s motives remain unknown, a source of some frustration for the author.
“There’s nothing definitive,” Mr. Hall said.
Speculation varied about what might have inspired the attack:
• Did the Baxleys owe Mr. Thompson back wages?
• Did the attack represent “payback for the indignities Thompson (a World War I veteran) experienced during and after the war?” Mr. Hall wrote. “Were the Baxleys surrogates for those who treated him unfairly?”
• “Was this some sort of drunken payback for something (Mr. Thompson) thought (Mrs. Baxley) had done?” Mr. Hall wrote. “Was (Mr. Thompson) angry at her husband?”
Dick Hammerstrom, a retired Free Lance-Star editor and friend of the author, called Mr. Hall “meticulously thorough and meticulously accurate. You never questioned the authenticity or the accuracy of what he was writing.”
With clear and sometimes “colorful” writing, Mr. Hall brought the hanging story alive, Mr. Hammerstrom said.
“I felt like I knew the Baxley family after reading what happened to them,” he said. “And, the hanging victim – I felt like I knew something about him, even though there’s not as much detail, because he died abruptly.”
Mr. Hammerstrom called the book a “good yarn.”
But, not everybody thinks the story should have been revisited.
“I don’t have anything to say about it,” Ursula Baxley, Henry Jr.’s wife, said in a phone interview. “Neither of us want to comment on it. It’s a book that should never have been published. I don’t want to look at the cover. I don’t want to read it. I don’t want to read anything about it. It’s very hurtful.”
Told of her comments, Mr. Hall said: “I certainly respect that. I believe it’s a book that should have been written. I’m proud of what I’ve done. I think I treated the situation fairly and accurately and was sensitive.”
Mrs. Baxley’s response came as no surprise, the author said.
A retired civil engineer and surveyor, Mr. Baxley eventually stopped cooperating with him. Mr. Hall suspects that Mrs. Baxley may have influenced that decision.
“She was unhappy with (aspects of the book) and he was respectful of that,” the former reporter suggested.
Mr. Hall hoped to meet with Mr. Baxley “one more time, at the very end, to fact-check. I had a thousand things I wanted to check, like spellings, dates, names.”
But, he “was not available for that,” Mr. Hall said. “It soured at the end.”
Mr. Hall said he would like to discuss the book with Mrs. Baxley.
“I’d love to hear directly from her what it is that bothers her about it,” he said. “It’s certainly an unsettling story. There’s no doubt about it. Her marriage family (was) victimized in a terrible way, maybe the worst way, other than murder. Now the story is being retold.”
Mrs. Baxley “might feel differently” if she read the book, Mr. Hall said.
The author has never met or talked with her.
“They’re frightened, basically,” Mr. Davenport said of the Baxleys. “They didn’t know what was going to be in the book. And, they don’t know what’s going to be in the movie.”
Mr. Davenport has completed a rough cut of his documentary addressing the attack and aftermath.
Like Mr. Hall, he hopes the couple will read the book and “see that it’s not anything that’s damaging to them.”
Excerpt of the Last Lynching in Northern Virginia- Seeking Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain by Fauquier Now on Scribd
Please, be polite. Avoid name-calling and profanity.
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eeed · October 15, 2016 at 8:44 pm
Your criticisms are neither fair nor accurate. Please read the book. You'll see it is not an apology for those who murdered Thompson. It's an indictment.
I. thompson · October 14, 2016 at 3:42 pm
Obviously you never contacted the Thompson family so your findings are based on the words of the "good old boys" who look after their own. what lynching (murder) do you know was ever justifiable for people of color? how dare you tarnish a family's name with accusations that Mr. Thompson was a drunk, or mad because someone owed him money. before you try to write a non-fiction book get your damn facts straight. this is nothing but pure fiction. the reason that lady didn't want to talk about it is because she didn't want to truth to be known.
The Great Grand-daughter of Mr Thompson
TooTrue · October 13, 2016 at 2:58 pm
The display of the skull on the steps of the courthouse in Warrenton is also sickening.
BJ · October 12, 2016 at 3:27 pm
Empathy also goes to the Ruth Thompson family if any remain alive today. Was Mamie Baxley raped and examined by a doctor, or did she say she was raped without substantiated proof because being "forced to go with a man, especially a man of color" had many meanings in the past? Much to consider. Is this book Fact or Faction (Fact blended with Fiction) as Alex Haley called his book "Roots".
BJ · October 12, 2016 at 2:26 pm
I can empathize with Mrs. Henry Baxley Jr. I personally would not want my family's tragic history up for review through the public eye. After any living persons have passed, who were present at the time of the incident, is a more appropriate time in my opinion.
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