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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Drama of Being Peter Powell

Samuel Peter Powell, 1901

     Reckless charges and recriminations. Libelous accusations. Fisticuffs on the court house lawn. Allegations of murder and arson. These elements of S.P. Powell's public life, splashed across the pages of The Daily Star and The Free Lance for more than two decades, make for some spicy reading and provide an entertaining glimpse into the bare-knuckled politics of old Spotsylvania. [Please note that all images in my blog can be clicked on for larger viewing.]
     Born on January 26, 1880, Samuel Peter Powell was the oldest of nine children born to James L. Powell, Jr. and the former Carrie Elizabeth Jones. His grandfather was James L. Powell, Sr. (1801-1870), minister of Mt. Hermon Baptist Church. Reverend Powell was a well respected member of the clergy and a successful farmer, owning twenty two slaves in 1860. (Rare was the minister in the antebellum south who perceived any contradiction between slavery and his faith).
     Peter Powell's father was an 1857 graduate of the Lexington Law School. By 1860 James L. Powell, Jr. was plying his trade as an attorney in Roane County, (West) Virginia. He enlisted as captain of Company G, Sixtieth Virginia Infantry in July 1861. He resigned his commission in March 1862 to enlist as a private in Company E, Ninth Virginia Cavalry in Spotsylvania. After the war Powell continued to practice law, served as commonwealth's attorney in Spotsylvania and was elected to the House of Delegates for the 1878 session. After the Reverend and Mrs. Powell died, the family kept the farm and continued to live there well into the twentieth century.  This section of the county is known as Belmont.
     S.P. Powell attended the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (his photograph above is from their 1901 yearbook) and earned his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1902. He then returned to Spotsylvania, where he established his law practice. In 1905 Lizzie Row, my great grandmother, asked if he would represent the interests of her children in the estate of Richard Pulliam. Written on his letterhead, Powell's replies to her inquiries were written in September 1905 and are shown here.

S.P. Powell to Lizzie Row, 8 September 1905

S.P. Powell to Lizzie Row, 25 September 1905

S.P. Powell to Lizzie Row, 25 September 1905

     As it is so common with many up and coming lawyers, Peter Powell soon began to play a role in local politics. By 1906 he was Belmont's representative on the county's Republican committee. That same year young Powell unsuccessfully challenged R.C. Blaydes for the chairmanship.
     In 1910 Powell again ran against Blaydes for the committee chairmanship, his name having been placed in nomination by former sheriff James P. Turnley. Blaydes was supported by former clerk of court JPH Crismond, who helped conduct the meeting that re-elected him. This time Peter Powell did not accept defeat gracefully and in an open letter published in The Daily Star in October 1910 he gave full vent to his frustration at what he perceived to be the corrupt and underhanded tactics of the Blaydes-Crismond faction that denied him the chairmanship. In subsequent letters Turnley and Blaydes added their two cents. Blaydes elevated the temperature of this already heated exchange by calling Powell "a whiskey drinker and dope fiend." Tensions were ratcheted up even further in vituperative exchanges between Crismond and Powell. For those of you who have not read about JPH Crismond, it is worth a click to go here, where you can get a flavor of the take-no-prisoners fight between these two adversaries.
JPH Crismond at Spotsylvania Court House, about 1890

     This verbal dust-up in the press, however, was small potatoes compared to the display of pugilism described in The Daily Star on April 2, 1912. The ever combative Mr. Powell and W.D. Carter were opposing attorneys arguing a case in chancery in Spotsylvania. Powell attempted to file a paper, which was disallowed by the court. Things rapidly went down hill from there. I cannot improve upon the Star's colorful account of what happened next, so I am including it in its entirety here. For old fashioned outrageousness and hilarity, this is hard to beat.

The Daily Star 2 April 1912

The Daily Star 2 April 1912

The Daily Star 2 April 1912

     S.P. Powell was elected to the House of Delegates in 1914. Not surprisingly, conflict and controversy--his constant companions, it seemed--followed him to the state house. In 1915 he presented a long list of charges of corruption against circuit judge Richard Henry Lee Chichester. These charges were answered by Chichester in The Free Lance of August 10, 1915. The House of Delegates conducted its own investigation into these allegations and voted to impeach RHL Chichester. Fortunately for the judge the Senate voted not to convict him. Ten years later he was appointed to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Samuel P. Powell, 1914

     Peter Powell was elected commonwealth's attorney in 1916 and held that position until at least 1930. He continued to fulminate in the press against the political establishment of Spotsylvania, which he called "The Ring."
     Powell remained a confirmed bachelor for the first forty years of his life. That changed in December 1920 when he married Dorothy Vaughn McCormick (1893-1969) of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She was an attorney in her own right and she may have had a moderating influence on her husband, whose diatribes in the newspapers began to appear less frequently.

     The next time the Powell name dominated the headlines of The Daily Star, it would be the result of a real tragedy and not the public pronouncements of the commonwealth's attorney. On May 17, 1924 Powell's brother, Dr. Robert Llewellen Powell, was shot to death near the family home by neighbor Charles Kendall. Young Mr. Kendall immediately fled the state by train, only to quietly return to Virginia shortly thereafter. He was arrested in Orange County and brought back to the Spotsylvania jail and was charged with first degree murder.
     Because this crime involved the brother of Peter Powell, judge RHL Chichester appointed C. O'Conor Goolrick to prosecute the case as acting commonwealth's attorney. During the sensational trial that took place August-September 1924, it was revealed that a sister of Charles Kendall had "gotten in trouble." Kendall was given a pistol by his father to ensure that the father of this trouble, Emmet Taylor, accompanied them to the court house for the strongly urged marriage. Meanwhile, the Kendall girl had consulted with Dr. Powell, who prescribed for her ergot, a drug commonly used to induce abortion. While the drug succeeded in making her sick, it did not otherwise have the desired outcome. Dr. Powell then suggested to Miss Kendall that he could send her to a place in Tennessee where they "could get rid of it." She declined his advice and ultimately the child was born.
     Testimony was also given that Dr. Powell had made improper advances on two other Kendall sisters, one of whom was married. As if the Powell-Kendall relationship were not already sufficiently complicated, it was shown that Dr. Powell and Charles Kendall had also been rivals for the affections of the wife of a local store owner.
     Three days before the shooting, Charles Kendall confronted Dr. Powell at that store, where their mutual love interest was working that day.  Powell  knocked Kendall to the ground and beat him senseless. This set the stage for the final act of this drama, when on May 17 Kendall, now armed with his pistol, accosted Dr. Powell and shot him several times as he attempted to run away. The victim lived for two hours and gave his dying declaration to his brother Peter Powell, identifying Kendall as his killer.
     Charles Kendall testified in his own behalf. He said that on the day of the shooting (his face then still bearing the marks of Powell's fists) he demanded that Dr. Powell apologize for insulting two of his sisters and giving abortion medicine to a third. "He cussed me and said he ought to smack my head off, after which he advanced upon me." Kendall said he shot in self defense, and kept shooting because he feared that Dr. Powell was trying to retrieve a gun from his car.
     During the trial hundreds of curiosity seekers thronged the grounds of the court house in hopes of catching every salacious detail. The case went to the jury on September 4, 1924. After deliberating for seventy minutes, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
     During the 1920s Peter and Dorothy and their two daughters lived in a house with about 125 acres across from Spotsylvania Court House. On July 13, 1930 the Powell home was destroyed by fire, and a week later the outbuildings also burned. The Powells were convinced these were acts of arson and published a notice offering a reward for information. (Ironically, the office and law library of Peter's father burned in 1901).

Powell house in Spotsylvania

     The Powell family moved to Fredericksburg and settled at 307 Lewis Street. Peter and Dorothy continued their law practicies and they prepared a title abstract for Greenfield, my family's ancestral farm in Spotsylvania. I discovered those papers several years ago in the archives of the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.
     Peter and Dorothy's daughters were well educated and became respected professionals in their own right. Catherine earned her law degree and joined the law practice of her mother. Mary was a doctor and in 1949 became the first female physician on the staff of Mary Washington Hospital.
     Samuel Peter Powell died in Fredericksburg on November 13, 1944 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. 

Photo courtesy of

1 comment:

  1. I have passed the ''Powell'' monument near Belmont so many times in my life and have heard the story of the incidence that occurred. Now I read all the details, well written and with documentation! Thank you Mr. Pat Sullivan Keith