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Monday, August 13, 2018

The Sad Tale of Mollie Lumsden

Map detail of southwestern Spotsylvania County, 1863

     Richard Matthews Lumsden and Martha Ann Hillsman were both born in Spotsylvania County in 1816. They were married in 1836, and over the next 22 years they had ten children--five daughters and five sons. The Lumsdens lived on a farm in southwestern Spotsylvania near the Orange County line. In the map detail shown above, "Lumsden" can be seen at the center left of the image, just west of Brightwell Road.
     Richard and Martha Ann's four oldest sons fought for the Confederacy William enlisted in Company D of the 30th Virginia Infantry on May 21, 1861. During the summer of 1862, he was a patient at General Hospital No. 21 in Richmond due to illness. Otherwise, the records show that he did not suffer any real difficulties, such as wounds or capture.
     James Fife Lumsden signed up with Company E of the 9th Virginia Cavalry on March 10, 1862. Like William, he survived the war relatively unscathed except for a bout of illness in the spring of 1863. After the war, Fife prospered as a merchant and postmaster in Orange County. He died at the age of 104 in 1945.

Obituary of James Fife Lumsden (Keith Walters)
     Charles and Henry Lumsden, who served in Crenshaw's Artillery, did not fare as well as their older brothers. Charles was shot twice during the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. One bullet crushed his lower jaw, the second lodged in his left shoulder, permanently disabling him. He carried that bullet within him for the rest of his life. Henry was struck by a shell fragment in his back just above the hip bone during the Battle of the Crater. The wound never completely healed, and decades after the war it would still abscess several times a year.
     The Lumsden's oldest daughter was named Mary Francis, but was known as "Mollie." Described as a pretty young woman, Mollie was born on January 12, 1838 and lived in her parents' household all her life, In the 1860 census, her occupation is given as "seamstress."
Map detail of southeastern Orange County, 1863

     By the mid-1860's, the Lumsdens moved to a farm in southeastern Orange County near the Tatum community, close to the Spotsylvania line. Late in life, Richard Lumsden served as postmaster at Tatum. The map detail above shows the section of Orange County where they lived, and where in 1868 a series of tragic and shocking events took place. The Herndon house can be seen at far right. Mrs. Simpson's house is at the bottom of the image. Antioch Baptist Church is in the center of the map detail, and the various Jacobs residences are south of the church.

     Reuben David Herndon was born in Orange County in 1834, a member of the large family reared by John and Mahala Landrum Herndon. By the start of the Civil War, Reuben was working as a carpenter. On April 25, 1861, he enlisted in Company A of the 13th Virginia Infantry at Harper's Ferry. He almost immediately fell ill and was admitted to a hospital 5 miles west of Winchester. Reuben remained on the sick rolls during his short term in the Confederate army. He was discharged due to disability on August 26, 1861. His certificate of disability is shown below (note that [Dr.] John Woolfolk represented him in obtaining this certificate):

Herndon certificate of disability (

     He then returned to Orange County and resumed his occupation as a carpenter. He appears to have had a religious inclination as well, as he was also licensed as a Baptist preacher. On January 14, 1862, he married Susan S. Mason, a daughter of Reverend Saunders Mason, a respected Baptist minister. Between 1863 and 1868 Reuben and Susan had three children--two daughters and a son. By 1867, Mollie Lumsden was employed as a domestic in their household, and frequently stayed overnight with them.
     One day late in May 1867, Mollie gave a note to Reuben, asking him to meet her. They met and had a brief conversation and agreed to see each other again later that day. The second time they met, they walked off the road into a pine thicket, where Mollie told him there were bad rumors about his conduct with some of the ladies in the neighborhood, and warned him to be on his guard. Reuben had been drinking whiskey that day and impulsively kissed her and gave her a ring. The next Sunday morning, Reuben met Mollie again as he was returning home from a job in Spotsylvania. They stepped into the woods to resume the kissing and hugging of their previous tryst and, in Reuben's words, "the devil told me to go further, and then and there I took the first step in the matter." They parted and did not see each other alone for a few months, during which time Mollie sent him presents of socks and neck ties.
     Reuben and Mollie then began seeing each other again, continuing their lovemaking episodes out of doors. Mollie began having misgivings about their relationship, fearing that Reuben's wife, Susan, would find them out. As it happened, this proved to be the least of her problems. In March 1868, Mollie wrote a note to Reuben and said that she "was in a bad fix" and wanted to know what to do. She was becoming obviously pregnant, and had taken to tightly binding her midsection with one of Reuben's ties in an attempt to hide her condition from her family. Reuben offered to go to her father and confess his responsibility. Mollie begged him not to, fearing her father would kill her. Reuben then suggested that they run away together to a place where no one would know them. Mollie did not like this idea either. They tried, unsuccessfully, to abort the baby.
     Finally, Mollie said that she knew a woman in Richmond who could take care of her, and if Reuben could arrange her transportation there, "he should have no more trouble about her and she would never betray him, come what might." By now Mollie feared to return home, and on the night of April 23, 1868 she hid herself in a stable. When Reuben met her on the morning of April 24, he realized how desperate their situation was, and determined to take immediate steps to raise some money to get Mollie to Richmond and have her cared for. First, he hid Mollie in a secluded section of woods and covered her with brush and branches both to hide her and protect her from the rain. He then went to see a number of people in the neighborhood. He sold a yoke of oxen for $28 and made arrangements to borrow a horse from Benjamin Quisenberry to take Mollie to Trevilian Station in Louisa County, some fifteen miles away. He bought a gingerbread cake for Mollie and then returned to her hiding place.
     As he approached the rude shelter he had made for her, he saw that it was all torn down. His first thought was that she had decided to take her chances with her family and had gone there to make her confession. Then he spotted her lying on the ground, as if asleep. But at once he realized that she was dead. Near her body was a bottle of morphine. It was the same one he had bought for her the previous month when she had been suffering with toothache. Reuben hid her body in the same spot in which she had waited for him that day. He picked up the vial, which he hid in the woods on his way home, taking care to mark the spot with a rock so that he could find it again.
     When Reuben returned home, he said nothing to Susan. She told him that Mollie was missing, and that her father had sent one of her younger sisters to ask Susan if she had seen Mollie, as she had not come home.

     This was the version of events that Reuben Herndon provided in his written confession. During the investigation and trial that followed, the newspapers reported a different version of what had happened: That Reuben had accidentally poisoned Mollie in a failed attempt to induce abortion. She died, and in a frenzied attempt to cover up his complicity, Reuben had cut her up with an ax, with the intention of burying child and mother in separate places. He gave up on this idea and simply covered her body with brush and limbs and then left her. One hundred fifty years later, it is not possible to tell which version was the truth. After reading the newspaper articles I could find regarding this case, my opinion is that Mollie's death was either an accident or suicide. It is unlikely that Reuben did what the press said he did.

     In any event, Mollie Lumsden was missing. Over the next several days, search parties were organized to scour the neighborhood for any sign of her. Reuben participated in some of these efforts, and he was apparently as concerned as the other searchers, but of course for different reasons. It would be remembered that he was careful to subtly lead his fellow searchers away from where Mollie would ultimately be found. He even organized one of these searches himself at Antioch Baptist Church.
     Despite his efforts to deflect attention from himself, suspicion began to turn to him. After all, Mollie had spent considerable time at the Herndon house, and she had spent many nights there. Tormented by these rumors circulating about him, and by his own sense of guilt, he published this warning on May 15 in the Orange Native Virginian:

The Native Virginian 15 May 1868
     On May 21, Mrs. James Jacobs was in her yard when she noticed that her dog had blood on his paws as he approached the house. Thinking he had perhaps killed a lamb or calf, she urged her dog on and got him to lead her to the source of the blood, which turned out to be the spot where Mollie's body had been hidden. Richard Lumsden was summoned to come view the remains. He was able to identify his daughter only by her clothing; the dogs and buzzards had made any further identification of Mollie impossible. On his way home, Richard passed by Mrs. Simpson's house, where Reuben and a Mr. Catlett were shingling an outbuilding. Richard asked Reuben to come with him to where the discovery had been made. Reuben declined to do so. Then Richard asked Reuben if he would make a box in which to put Mollie's body. Reuben volunteered to do so, but was "so excited and unnerved that he could scarcely take the necessary measurements."
     The following day, Dr. John Woolfolk (who six years before signed Reuben's certificate of disability) testified at the inquest held by justice of the peace Francis J. Saunders. It was revealed that a letter written by Reuben was found in Mollie's dress pocket:

The Native Virginian 29 May 1868

     Reuben was then placed under arrest and taken to the place where Mollie had been found. Richard Lumsden approached him and said, "You murdered by daughter." Herndon replied, "I did not." Lumsden continued: "You cannot deny that you wrote that letter." Herndon said, "No sir, I did it." Whereupon Richard raised a hickory stick and attempted to knock Reuben down, but was prevented from doing so by the magistrate, Richard Richards.
     Feelings against Reuben ran very high and--fearing for his life--he made at least one attempt to escape from his jail cell by June 10. He was put in irons. Plans were afoot to storm the Orange County jail and seize Reuben and hang him at the spot where Mollie had died. On the day this was to be attempted, only a dozen of the 100 men who were expected to participate actually showed up. The plan to lynch Reuben was abandoned.
     During these weeks in jail, Reuben was visited by clergy and appeared to be contrite. He was allowed paper, pen and ink and he spent his days writing his life story and his confession. It was reported that his license to preach had been revoked.
     Reuben was the only inmate in his cell, a windowless room ventilated by a barred opening over the door. On the night of Sunday July 26, Reuben sawed through the bars of the ventilator and managed to get out of his cell. He then made his way down the passage to the other cells, which were occupied by black prisoners. He opened their cell doors. Together they managed to remove an iron bar from one windows and fled from the jail. Although there was much speculation as to how Reuben had obtained a saw to cut through bars and a key to open the doors of the other cells, no evidence implicating anyone was ever mentioned in the newspapers.
     The escape of all the jail's prisoners was not discovered until Monday morning. The Governor was immediately informed by telegraph. Four days later, notice of a $500 reward  for the arrest of Reuben was published in the papers:

The Native Virginian 31 July 1868

     After his escape, Reuben remained in the vicinity of Orange County. With no money and every man's hand against him, he had few good options. Two groups of men set out to track him down for the reward. One group visited the house of his sister-in-law, and later learned that he had escaped by the back door as the approached the house. The other group found his shoes in the woods.
     A week after the jail break, a disheveled man approached Peter Bibb, a black man who lived near Trevilian Station, and asked for directions to the house of a Mr. Grady. Bibb gave him the directions, but his suspicion was aroused by the man's appearance and manner, and he reported his encounter to the local magistrate, James Woolfolk. Enlisting the aid of two other men, Woolfolk went to Grady's house. They found Reuben asleep in bed. "He presented a forlorn appearance--haggard, thin, shoeless, foot-sore and hungry." He was arrested and taken back to the Orange County jail, where he was chained to the floor of his jail. As for the reward, The Governor of Virginia allowed $100 of it to be paid to Peter Bibb, much to the displeasure of Woolfolk and his helpers.
     Reuben hired a Judge Robertson and Shelton F. Locke of Albemarle County to represent him in court. His attorneys managed to have a number of continuances granted, and the trial did not get underway until late May 1869. Because of the level of hostility toward him in Orange County, 43 prospective jurors from Alexandria were brought to the courthouse. From that group, 12 were empanelled to hear the case. Testimony was taken from Mrs. Jacobs, Richard Lumsden, Mrs. Simpson, Francis J. Saunders, Dr. John Woolfolk, Dr. Elhanon Row and others. The case was given to the jury, which deliberated for 45 minutes.
     The jury returned a verdict of murder in the second degree, and Reuben was sentenced to 18 years in prison.  He was taken to the state penitentiary in Richmond, where he died on July 30, 1884, three years before his scheduled release.

     Richard and Martha Ann Lumsden lived another 40 years after the death of their daughter. Ninety-three-year-old Richard died in 1909. Martha Ann died two years later.

     Life also went on for Susan Mason Herndon and her children. In 1875, she married Edward Hughes (a carpenter, like Reuben) and raised a second family with him. She died of heart failure at age 85 in Orange County on March 24, 1927.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Death Comes to Hickory Point

     When John and Jennie Coleman were murdered at their home in Spotsylvania on the evening of April 2, 1935, their deaths shocked and outraged citizens throughout the region. Because of their deep roots in the area's history and their many familial ties to local persons of prominence, the news of their violent deaths and the events that occurred in the aftermath of that sad event made front-page news in The Free Lance-Star over the next ten months.
     To tell their story, I will begin with Thomas C. Chandler and his wife Clementina Alsop, the grandparents of Jennie Chandler Coleman. Thomas, a well-to-farmer from Caroline County, married Clementina, a native of Spotsylvania, on September 20, 1825. Clementina's father, Samuel Alsop, Jr., gave the Oakley farm and the fine house he built there as a wedding gift to the couple. Located on Catharpin Road near Corbin's Bridge, this property included several hundred acres and would be home to the Chandlers for fourteen years.

Oakley in 1935 (Francis Benjamin Johnston)
     During their time at Oakley, Thomas and Clementina Chandler became the parents of six children--four sons and two daughters, all of whom survived to adulthood. In 1839, Thomas sold Oakley to Enoch Gridley and moved his family to Fairfield, a large farm in Caroline County near Guiney's Station. In the 1863 map detail below, the location of the Chandler plantation can be seen just north of the railroad at "Guinea Sta." The home of Thomas and Clementine's oldest son, William Samuel Chandler (1826-1902) can be seen at far left in the image, just over the county line in Spotsylvania.

Map detail of western Caroline County, 1863

     The three oldest Chandler sons--William Samuel, Joseph Alsop and Thomas K.--attended Bethany College in what is now West Virginia. William, Thomas and their youngest brother Henry fought for the Confederacy. Dr. Joseph Chandler did not fight in the war, but supported the Confederate cause by selling fodder and provisions to a variety of quartermaster officers. (As a side note, Dr. Joseph Chandler's son, Julian Alvin Carroll Chandler, was president of the College of William and Mary 1919-1934).
     Just prior to the beginning of the Civil War, William and Joseph married two daughters of James and Margaret White. William married Ann Elizabeth in 1859; Dr. Joseph Chandler married Emuella the following year.

Fairfield (Ancestry)

Fairfield tobacco field. Stonewall Jackson died in the building at left

Fairfield in a state of decay. Stonewall Jackson died in the building in the foreground

     Clementina Chandler died in 1844. A few years later, Thomas Chandler married Mary Elizabeth Frazer, and together they raised four children. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the Chandlers prospered at Fairfield. At some point, Thomas razed the original house and replaced it with a fine brick dwelling. According to the 1860 census, Fairfield consisted of 740 acres. By the standards of his day, Thomas Chandler was a wealthy man. He had 62 slaves at Fairfield, and hired out another one to his son Thomas. The senior Chandler also owned six slaves employed in Spotsylvania County. His real estate was valued at $14,000 and his personal property was worth $39,000.
     Westwood, William Chandler's farm in eastern Spotsylvania, was a large one consisting of 500 acres, and he owned 22 slaves in 1860. On March 13, 1862, William enlisted in Company C of the 55th Virginia Infantry. He served as a guide for General Joseph R. Johnson. He mustered out of the infantry on December 30, 1862. Six months later, on June 15, 1863, he enlisted in Company B of the 9th Virginia Cavalry.
     While fighting south of Petersburg near the Weldon Railroad in October 1864, William was shot in the right thigh. Several days later, he was given a 60-day furlough, to begin November 4, 1864. By March 1, 1865 he was admitted to Chimborazo Hospital No. 5 in Richmond, diagnosed with "debilitas" (that is, weakness and feebleness) and still suffering from his leg wound. On March 13, he was reported as a deserter. Three weeks later, on April 3, he was captured by U. S. forces at Amelia's Cross Roads and imprisoned at Hart's Island in New York harbor. He took the oath of allegiance on June 14, 1865 and was provided with transportation to Fredericksburg. He remained at least partially disabled from his wound and suffered from occasional abscesses for the rest of his life.
     Meanwhile, William's father continued to live at Fairfield. During the winter of 1862-1863, General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and his family stayed with the Chandlers, with whom they became good friends. Several months later, Jackson returned to Fairfield, but this time under very unhappy circumstances. After the amputation of his left arm following his accidental shooting at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, Jackson was brought to the small building used by Thomas Chandler as an office, and made as comfortable as possible. He died there on May 10. A few weeks after being a part of that historic episode, Thomas Chandler had a violent encounter with Confederate soldiers at Fairfield.
     By the end of the Civil War, William and Ann already had three children. In the years that followed they would have three more. Their youngest daughter, Mildred Jane "Jennie" Chandler was born at Westwood on March 16, 1870.

Map detail of eastern Spotsylvania, 1863

     In the map detail shown above, Spotsylvania Courthouse can be seen in the lower left of the image. The homes of Joseph (which was in Caroline County) and William Chandler can be seen at upper right. In the left center of the map can be seen the 412-acre farm of John Thomas Coleman, Sr., (shown as "J. Coleman"). This place was called Hickory Point. John Thomas Coleman, Jr. was born here on March 9, 1858.
     Like William and Ann Chandler, John Coleman, Sr., and his wife, the former Emily Lewis Andrews, raised six children. In addition to John, Jr., I will mention Honeyman Coleman, who became a well-known pharmacist in Richmond, and Dr. William Coleman, who practiced medicine in Louisa County. A daughter, Bettie Kay, married Horace Frazer Crismond, a brother of Spotsylvania minister and clerk of court, Joseph Patrick Henry Crismond. Horace was a partner in the Fredericksburg store known as Willis & Crismond, and he served in the House of Delegates. John Coleman, Sr., had inherited Hickory Point from his father. After his death in 1892, the property passed down to John, Jr.
     John Thomas Coleman, Jr., married his first wife, Carrie Overton Harris, on December 7, 1890. They had one daughter, Mary Lin, born in 1895. Carrie was the daughter of Clement Marshall Harris, who owned "Bloomsbury" from 1854 until his death in 1867. Built in the late 1700's, Bloomsbury stood on what is now Route 208 for more than 200 years, until it was razed a few years ago. During the Civil War, the Battle of Harris Farm, fought here, was the last major engagement of the prolonged fighting near Spotsylvania Courthouse.

Bloomsbury (Ancestry)

     During this time, Jennie Chandler, who still lived with her parents, taught school near the courthouse from at least 1894-1900. Her sister Margaret also taught school.
     Jennie married railroad contractor Earnest M. Carpenter at Westwood on November 27, 1904. They moved to South Carolina, where Earnest's work took him. From there they moved to Georgia, where Earnest died. By September 1905, Jennie had come back home to Spotsylvania.
    John and Carrie Coleman lived at Hickory Point for 19 years. Carrie's health continued to fail, and she died of tuberculosis on March 20, 1909.
     And so it was that the widowed John and Jennie were able to come together in their middle age. They were married in Caroline County at the home of her brother, William Campbell Chandler, on January 27, 1910. The wedding was officiated by Reverend Decatur Williams. John and Jennie made their home at Hickory Point and John's daughter lived with them for many years.
     John was active in local politics and was a member of the Spotsylvania County Democratic Committee. For years he served as a member of the fair committee of the Rapphannock Mechanical and Agricultural Society, which planned the fair held annually in Fredericksburg. He was also appointed game warden for the Courtland District and remained at that job from at least 1904-1910.
     Mary Lin Coleman first attended the State Normal School in Farmville (the forerunner of modern Longwood University) and then studied two years at the State Normal School in Fredericksburg (today's University of Mary Washington). She married Oscar Clifford Scott in 1918. They lived with her parents at Hickory Point until at least 1930, but moved to their own house before 1935. Mary Lin was appointed as enumerator of the 1920 census for the Courtland District. Oscar owned a filling station.
     On the morning of April 2, 1935, Oscar Scott drove his father-in-law to Fredericksburg in John's 1929 Ford Model A (77-year-old John Coleman did not drive). John took care of a few errands in town, including cashing a small check from Farmers Creamery, and then they went back to the Coleman place. John asked Oscar if he and Mary Lin would come by that evening and Oscar said they would, then he left. As it turned out, something came up and the Scotts did not go back to the  Coleman place that night. (Mary Lin later said that had they done so, they likely would have perished with her parents.) Tom Braxton, John's black farm hand who had worked at Hickory Point for 39 years, milked the cows. When he left at about 6:30, the Colemans had begun their evening routine. Jennie had placed their dinner in the warming oven and had started washing the milk cans.
     A few hours later, John's Model A pulled into the Esso station near Thornburg owned by Thomas B. Payne. Elwood Haislip, Ezra Heflin and Mercer Waller were working there that evening. They recognized the Ford as that of John Coleman, Jr., because he had bought it there and had done all the repair work done there. Two black men were in the car, one of whom came inside to buy cigarettes. They filled the car with gas and then headed south toward Richmond. The station attendants were not concerned at the time, as it was not unusual for Mr. Coleman to give the keys to men who worked on his farm so that they could run errands for him.
      The following morning, Tom Braxton returned to Hickory Point to start his usual chores. He noticed right away that neither of the Colemans were up and about, which was unusual for them. The door to the house had been left open, as well as the garage door. The car was gone.
     By now Braxton was thoroughly alarmed, and he went to get Charlesworth Clarke, a white neighbor of the Colemans, and they returned to their house. They entered the house, but there was no sign of John or Jennie. Nor did they see signs of a struggle, although some papers had been taken out of a box on the bureau and strew about the bedroom floor.
     Braxton and Clarke then went to see Oscar Scott, and told them what they had observed that morning. The three of them then drove to Spotsylvania Courthouse and informed commonwealth's attorney, Emmett R. Carner (Sheriff Maxie Blaydes had traveled to Richmond that morning to testify in a trial at the federal courthouse).
     Carner, Scott, Braxton and Clarke then drove to Hickory Point. Carner noted that the cover to the well was askew, and that the bucket and chains had been torn away. The well cover was then removed, and once their eyes adjusted to the dark interior, a human form could be seen in the water below.
     Carner returned to the courthouse and called county coroner Dr. William A. Harris, who was in Fredericksburg at the time, and told him to be ready to examine two bodies once they had been retrieved from the well. Carner then returned to the Coleman farm. Help in bringing up the bodies was provided by neighbors Winfrey Mason, Ernest C. Lunsford and James Dennis.
     Both John and Jennie had been bludgeoned with with a blunt instrument, and each of them had been shot with John's shotgun, which was missing. Robbery was immediately thought to be the motive for the murders. Although the Colemans did not keep large sums of money in the house, they were presumed to be well-off financially. Mr. Coleman had no known enemies.
     Recently, a gang of road workers, primarily black men in the employ of the Clay Construction Company, had been grading and laying gravel on the road at Bloody Angle in the Battlefield Park. Because of the wet weather lately, these workers had been idle, so John had hired some of them to dig ditches, put up fences and do other work at Hickory Point. Suspicion at once fell on these men as possible suspects in the murder. The county offered a $500 for information leading to the arrest of the criminals.

The Free Lance-Star, 5 April 1935

     The Coleman's car was found in Richmond on the night of April 3. The attention of the investigators was briefly diverted from the road workers as possible suspects to two escaped black felons, James Williams and Connie Reeves. Mercer Waller, one of the attendants at Payne's filling station, had identified a mugshot of Connie Reeves as the man who had bought cigarettes on the night of the murders. This identification soon proved to be in error, however, and the search continued.

The Free Lance-Star 5 April 1935

     A double funeral was held for John and Jennie Coleman on April 6, 1935. The details of the funeral were published on the front page of The Free Lance-Star on April 5. Reverend Edgar Green Stephens, pastor at Massaponax Baptist Church, officiated with the assistance of Reverend Preston Cave. Clerk of court Arthur Hancock Crismond, a nephew of John Coleman's sister, Bettie Kay Coleman Crismond, was one of the active pallbearers. Among the honorary pallbearers were prominent farmer, Charles R. Andrews; county coroner and member of the House of Delegates, Dr. William Aquilla Harris; Judge Frederick W. Coleman (he appears not to have been related to John), who would preside at the murder trial; former commonwealth's attorney and member of the House of Delgates, Samuel Peter Powell; publisher of The Free Lance-Star, Josiah P. Rowe, Jr.; commonwealth's attorney Emmett Roy Carner; Spotsylvania County treasurer Irvin Chandler Clore; and Spotsylvania sheriff Maxie Blaydes.

Arthur Hancock Crismond

Charles R. Andrews

Samuel Peter Powell

Dr. William Aquilla Harris

Reverend Edgar Green Stephens

     Jennie was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Fredericksburg. John was buried in his family's cemetery at Hickory Point.
     On April 8, The Free Lance-Star reported that Joe Jackson, a black man from Goochland County who had lived in the Spotsylvania area for several months, had come to the police and turned himself in the day after the funeral. He had heard that the authorities had been looking for him. Officers declined to state why they had suspected Jackson in connection with the crime, and Jackson denied any involvement in the murders. But this proved to be the turning point in the investigation. On April 10, it was reported that the state of Virginia was offering a reward of $200 for the arrest of the Colemans' killers. This was in addition to the $500 already offered by Spotsylvania.

The Free Lance-Star 13 April 1935

     On April 13, it was reported that Joe Jackson and John Shell had been charged with the murders of John and Jennie Coleman. Sheriff Blaydes and constable S. Walker Burgess had skillfully tracked John Shell to Haverstraw, New York. With the help of local law enforcement, Blaydes and Burgess arrested Shell, who refused to waive extradition back to Spotsylvania, citing his fear of being lynched. At the time of his arrest, Shell had on his person a gold watch case that had belonged to John T. Coleman, Jr.
     On Tuesday, April 16, 1935, a special grand jury met and indicted Shell and Jackson for the murder of the Colemans. The grand jury consisted of: Arthur Lynn Blanton, owner of Blanton Ford in Fredericksburg; John Moncure Chilton, father of future Spotsylvania school teacher, Merle Strickler; J. T. Owens and G. B. Gardner. Also included in the grand jury were two black men: Virgil Williams and Alexander Crump.
     Immediately after the indictment was handed down, Joe Jackson was taken to the Henrico County jail, where his physical safety was more likely to be assured. Commonwealth's attorney Carner requested that Virginia Governor Peery begin extradition proceedings to have Shell brought back to Virginia for trial.
     Sheriff Blaydes and S. Burgess Walker (who had just been named a special officer by Judge Frederick W. Coleman) arrived in Haverstraw, New York and took custody of John Shell on May 1. He was brought to the Henrico County jail where he and Jackson would await their trial. As they continued to be questioned by authorities, these two men frequently changed their stories and blamed each other for the actual murder, a pattern that would continue for the rest of their lives.
     Judge Coleman appointed Fredericksburg attorney Harry H. Sager to represent Shell and Jackson at their trial on May 14. Feelings against the prisoners ran high in Spotsylvania for the crime described by the The Free Lance-Star as "the most fiendish and atrocious crime in the county's history." Ten state troopers would help protect the prisoners during their travel from Henrico to Spotsylvania, and during the trial itself. These state police would be armed with riot guns, night sticks, tear gas grenades and automatic pistols A section of the courtroom would be set aside for black spectators.

The Free Lance-Star 15 May 1935

     Under heavy guard, Shell and Jackson were taken from their cells in Henrico and driven to Spotsylvania. The trial began at 10 a. m. and the prosecution presented its case in the morning. The court adjourned at 12:30 and was scheduled to reconvene at 2 p. m. As the prisoners were led through the crowd at the courthouse, estimated to be at least 700 people, two men suddenly broke through the cordon of police and attacked Shell and Jackson. These young men were identified as Reginald Foster, 30, and his brother Warrick, 27, sons of Spotsylvania farmer William Beauregard Foster. The Fosters then proceeded to rain blows on the heads and faces of the prisoners. While doing so, they called out to the other members of the crowd to join them. Fortunately, none did so, although many were heard to say later that they sympathized with the Fosters' actions. The state police were able to beat back the Fosters with their night sticks, and Shell and Foster were hustled into the court room.
     Their defense attorney, Henry Sager presented no evidence on behalf of his clients, whom he had just met that morning. His defense consisted largely of asking the jury to acquit these men if they thought there was reasonable doubt as to their guilt. No stenographic record was made of the proceedings.
     The jury consisted of Robert Warner Hilldrup (foreman), Jeter Talley, H. F. Craig, James William Thorburn, E. C. Leitch, Lindsey Mason, John A. Gordon, H. J. Durrett, Rhodes Pritchett, J. L. Sullivan, N. A. Tristano and Willie Jennings. The jury retired to deliberate after receiving instructions from Judge Coleman. Four minutes later, they arrived at guilty verdicts for both men. Judge Coleman pronounced a sentence of death in the electric chair for Shell and Jackson and scheduled their execution for June 21, 1935. They were then taken back to Henrico County jail, where they would remain until transferred to death row in the state penitentiary.
     Three days before they were to be executed, Shell and Jackson were granted a reprieve by Governor Peery, who had received a petition seeking a writ of error from their new attorney, E. A. Norrell of Richmond. As The Free Lance-Star would constantly remind its readers in the months to come, Norrell was a "negro attorney."
     This would be the first of five stays of execution granted to the Coleman's killers. Norrell's last ditch attempt to get a new trial for his clients, by appealing to the United States Supreme Court, ended in failure when the high court ruled that it could not consider the appeal since there was no stenographic record of the trial.
     Joe Jackson and John Shell were executed for their crime just before 8 a. m. on February 21, 1936. These were the witnesses present for their electrocution:

Special thanks to Park Historian Eric Mink for sharing with me the two photographs of Fairfield.


Friday, July 13, 2018

"He heard the report of the gun"

Oakley, 1935 (Frances Benjamin Johnston)

           Several years ago, I wrote a piece on the early history of Oakley, focusing primarily on the letter written by Maria Dobyns in June 1864, in which she described to her friend, Nan Row, the occupation of her family's farm and the violence that occurred there during the Battle of the Wilderness.
     Earlier this year, I came across an eleven-page typewritten history of Oakley which included details I had never seen anywhere else. The author's name does not appear on this document, but his primary source of information is referred to as "Judge" Kent. This would have been William Lee Kent (1862-1949).

William Lee Kent

     William Kent at one time served as a justice of the peace in Spotsylvania County, and was also county  registrar for a time. I think that this is how he earned the nickname "Judge." He was very knowledgeable about Spotsylvania history, and was the main resource for a history of Shady Grove Methodist Church written in 1939. He was also frequently consulted by Mildred Barnum when she wrote her surveys of historic Spotsylvania properties for the WPA during the 1930's.
     William  spent his entire life on the farm established by his grandfather, Warner Kent, who was arrested by soldiers of the United States army during the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864.
Warner Kent was confined at the Old Capitol Prison for a time following his capture. His family had no idea what had happened to him until his return home some weeks later. The Kent family's dreadful ordeal during this time can be read in this post I wrote in 2011.

Detail Spotsylvania County map, 1863

     The Kents lived next to Hazel Hill, which was owned by W. W. Jones during the Civil War. Oakley, home of the Dobyns family, lay across Catharpin Road from Hazel Hill.

Leroy Dobyns and family. Spotsylvania County, April 1866

     From this recently discovered history of Oakley, I learned that Leroy Dobyns brought two families of slaves with him when he took possession of Oakley in 1854. These were the Fauntleroys and Woodwards, who remained in Spotsylvania after their emancipation and for decades afterwards.
     I also learned about two features of the Oakley property that have been gone for a long time. A large, two-room brick kitchen once stood behind the house. The room closest to the house included a huge fireplace which was nearly the width of the room. Hanging in the fireplace were large iron cranes, which could be raised or lowered. The cranes hung on pivots, so that pots and kettles could be swung into and out of the fire as needed. The fireplace included a large brick oven. The back room of the kitchen was used as quarters for the cook.
     The other thing different about Oakley during these years was that the driveway was not in the same place as the modern one. The entrance to Oakley at that time was about a half mile east of the one that exists today, and the road leading from Catharpin to Oakley was much longer.
     Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Leroy Dobyns and his family returned to Essex County, which had been their home before moving to Spotsylvania. The Embrey Index of Spotsylvania Deeds shows that Leroy W. and Mary C. Dobyns of Essex County sold 1000 acres to Jos. "Lichtensteen" of New York on January 3, 1868.
     Joseph Lichtenstein was born in Hungary in 1811 and at some time immigrated to New York City, where he made his money as a vinegar manufacturer. While he lived in New York, his name appeared as "Lichtenstein" in the state census of 1855, and the federal censuses 1860 and 1880. For whatever reason, once he came to Spotsylvania, his name appears as "Lichtenstern" in the 1870 census, articles in the local press and in the history of Oakley I am referring to in this article. I have no way of knowing if he chose this version of his name himself to sound less Jewish in the rural south, or if this was just how local residents chose to spell it. For the purposes of this post, he will be called Joseph Lichtenstein.
     Lichtenstein did not move to Spotsylvania right away. For a time, he rented the farm to Lucius Estes and Richard Todd. Lucius and his wife lived at Oakley until the arrival of the Lichtenstein family.  Lucius, his wife and their adopted son later lived as caretakers at "Greenfield," the Row farm just northwest of Oakley.
     When Joseph Lichtenstein finally arrived at Oakley, he brought with him his wife, Julia, and their children (there are six children named in the 1870 census).
     The former vinegar distiller apparently had visions of becoming a country squire once he came to Spotsylvania. He also brought with him a dozen fine horses and a number of stable boys to care for them. A man named Jones was hired to oversee the farming operations at Oakley.
     Unfortunately, neither Lichtenstein nor Jones knew much about farming. During the first year, much of the wheat crop was lost to their ineptitude (some of the wheat had been piled into one huge mound, and was allowed to rot). Each man blamed the other for this poor showing, and Jones was threatened with dismissal without pay. Lichtenstein approached three neighbors and asked them to help arbitrate the case. They ruled that Lichtenstein was responsible, and that he owed Jones the remainder of that year's salary. Jones was paid off, and then fired.
     Lichtenstein next hired William Harris as overseer. Harris was a brother of future Spotsylvania sheriff and clerk of court, Thomas Addison Harris. Harris's parents' farm can seen in the lower right of the map detail above. Later, William and his brother John owned Harris & Brother Grocery in Fredericksburg.
     William and his wife, the former Mary Ann Buchanan, lived at Oakley in the wing of the house. Mary Ann taught school at Hazel Hill, and was a teacher of William Kent.
     When William and Mary Ann Harris moved on, Lichtenstein decided to run Oakley himself. This did not go well, and he soon went into debt and had to borrow $4,000.
     His problems were compounded by a tragic accident that occurred not long after the birth of the Lichtenstein's daughter, Katie. One of their older sons, Isadore, kept a pistol in the bureau. One day he showed it to the black nurse hired to take care of Katie. After Isadore had left the room the nurse, who was holding Katie in one arm, took the gun out of the drawer. While examining it, the pistol accidentally discharged, instantly killing Katie. She is buried in an unmarked grave at Oakley. (Another daughter, Julia, died in January 1871.)
     About 46 years after this sad event, in 1918, William Lee Kent, who had worked as caretaker at Oakley for seven years, was tending the crops there. While he was working in the field, a man approached William and identified himself as Charles Lichtenstein, a younger brother of Isadore. William and Charles walked through the house together. When they entered the room where Katie had been fatally shot, Charles told William that he had been present when this tragedy occurred. He heard the report of the gun, and then the scream of the nurse, who started running down the hall. At just that moment, Katie's mother had come up the stairs from the basement to see what the commotion was about. Just as Julia Lichtenstein opened the door, the terrified nurse dropped the dead baby at her mother's feet.

Fredericksburg Ledger 10 May 1872

     Not long after  Katie's death, Joseph Lichtenstein sold Oakley to Thomas Hall and returned to New York, where he became an insurance agent. His ownership of Oakley started its long, downward spiral of absentee owners and neglect that would continue until the place was bought by George Charles Beals in 1926.


Thursday, June 7, 2018

Powhatan Foster

Powhatan Thomas Foster (Barbara Faulconer)

     For a number of years now, I have wanted to write about Powhatan Foster, who was a friend and an employee of my great grandfather, George Washington Estes Row. Powhatan and George also served in Company E of the 9th Virginia Cavalry, although not at the same time. Over the past year, I have had the good fortune to be given access to resources that have made it possible for me to tell Powhatan's story with with the kind of detail that would not have been possible earlier.

Lily Foster Haney (Barbara Faulconer)

     Last year, Barbara Faulconer shared with me a splendid and richly detailed history of the Foster family written by Lily Foster Haney (1892-1973), a daughter of Powhatan Foster. Lily taught in the public schools of Spotsylvania County for many years, and she wrote her history in a lucid and flowing style that is a joy to read. In this essay, I will be quoting from her work with the notation '(LFH)' at the end of each passage that I include. In addition to Lily's writing, I have also benefited from the Haney family history researched and written by Wade Haney, a grandson of Powhatan.

Map detail of Spotsylvania County, 1863 (Fold

     Powhatan Thomas Foster was born in Spotsylvania on December 20, 1846. He was the third of ten children born to William Edwin Foster and the elaborately named Ada Engedi Ellentine Wheatley Harding. Powhatan's older brother, Oregon Dallas Foster, was also born in 1846 (on February 3). Powhatan was born either at his parents' house (indicated as "W Foster in the map detail above) or at "Aspen Hill," the farm of his grandfather, Robert Dudley Foster, immediately to the southwest of William Foster's home.

Robert Dudley Foster (

     Powhatan received what formal education he got from his mother's father, Mark Harding, who who was living in the household of William Edwin Foster during the 1850's. It is presumed that Powhatan and his siblings enjoyed the usual fun and games available to rural youngsters of that era. Two of Powhatan's uncles, James and Thomas, were about the same age as his brother Oregon (called "Dee" by the family and later known to the public as O. D. Foster) and himself. In a survey of the Foster farm written by her in 1936 for the Works Progress Administration, Mildred Barnum interviewed Lily Foster Haney and Lena Foster, the widow of Powhatan's younger brother William Beauregard Foster. From Mildred's interviews, we learn that some of the fun and games enjoyed by the Foster boys came with serious consequences: "One night these boys were having a party around a fire near the many outbuildings that a Virginia plantation had in those days. In a spirit of mischief they set fire to a pile of shavings near the cooper's shop, and as a result of this all of 'Marse Robert's' [Robert Dudley Foster] outbuildings went up in smoke. The boys went to bed but when the owner discovered the fire they were punished. Powhatan slipped out of bed and ran downstairs. His grandmother said 'Run, Honey, Run.' He replied 'Please open the door and you will see some running.'"
     When the Civil War began, the Foster men enlisted in the Virginia Cavalry. William Edwin Foster and his brothers James and Thomas joined Company E of the 9th Virginia Cavalry. William's brother, Warrenton Dudley Foster, fought with the 39th Cavalry Battalion and was captured by Federal troops along with Benjamin Cason Rawlings in November 1863. At the age of 15, Powhatan's brother Oregon enlisted in the 9th Cavalry on July 15, 1861.
     The compiled service records for Powhatan Foster do not exist in the National Archives. When he applied for a Confederate veteran's pension in January 1912, he affirmed that he joined the 9th Virginia Cavalry in Culpeper County in May 1863. Family tradition says that Powhatan ran away from home to join his kinfolk serving in the 9th Cavalry. The Foster men of the 9th were unaware that he had come until his name was called out during a roll call shortly after his arrival. Powhatan served with the 9th Cavalry until its remnants were surrendered by General Lee at Appomattox in April 1865.
     He was an excellent horseman and became a courier to General J. E. B. Stuart. "Once he was taking a message from Verdiersville to General Lee near Fredericksburg. His orders were to swallow the message if captured. The Yankees were between the two generals. He ran into the enemy near Shady Grove Church but was not captured. Dad had some narrow escapes but was never hurt, the hat band was shot off his hat was the closest call" (LFH).
     Confederate troops briefly occupied Oakley farm on Catharpin Road after the departure of Union forces (for a full account of the Union occupation of Oakley, please read my post The Letter from Maria Dobyns). Four mounted scouts were dispatched from there to the farm of Caroline Todd near the intersection of Catharpin and Brock Roads in order to learn of the disposition and strength of the Union troops there. These scouts were John Cooper, Marcus Chewning, Eli Jones and Powhatan Foster. In the past few days, Chewning and Cooper had already performed deeds that ensured that their names would be known to history. Mount View farm, which once stood on modern Hill-Ewell Drive, had been occupied by a squad of Union soldiers. Marcus Chewning, a relative of the Chewnings who owned Mount View, rode up to the house and at once realized that enemy soldiers were inside. In a bold move, Chewning rode around the house and yelled and otherwise made as much noise as possible, and fooled the Union soldiers into thinking that they were surrounded by a larger force. These men came out and surrendered to Chewning. John Cooper is generally credited with shooting Union Major William Baldwin Darlington as he stood in the yard at Oakley. Cooper had been perched in a cherry tree across the road at Hazel Hill; his rifle was equipped with a telescopic sight. After his leg was amputated, Major Darlington was taken to the house of William Buchanan near Shady Grove Church. Five weeks later, he was liberated by General Phil Sheridan's cavalry as they made their way through Spotsylvania to Trevilian Station in Louisa County.
     While trotting through a patch of woods near the spring on the Todd farm, Powhatan and his fellow scouts suddenly found themselves confronting a large force of Union cavalry. Powhatan shot the first Federal soldier he saw, who then toppled into the spring (Powhatan later said that this was the only enemy soldier he was certain he killed during the war). Powhatan and his comrades then wheeled their horses about, and made a mad dash through the yard of the Todd farm, trying to get back to Oakley. As they came to the yard gate, three of them successfully leaped over. Eli Jones's horse crashed into the gate and fell. As the others sped on, they called back to him "Goodbye, Eli" for they were certain they would never see him again, as the Union troopers were already fast closing in on them. However, Jones jumped back on his horse, which had not been hurt, and in seconds caught up with his companions, and all four made it safely back to Oakley.
     After the war, Powhatan returned to his father's farm and remained there, working as a farmer and laborer in the local saw mills, until his marriage in 1883. However, he did have an adventure on the high seas when he served on a merchant vessel that sailed to South America. "While there he got a monkey to bring home. This monkey was so mischievous he was always in trouble with the sailors. Finally the monkey disappeared and Dad thought the sailors killed him. Dad was gone a long time on this sailing trip and was reported dead. When he returned a friend told him he heard he was dead. Dad said 'I heard it too, but I knew it was a damned lie when I heard it'" (LFH).

Powhatan Foster (Babara Faulconer)

     During the late 1870's and early 1880's, Powhatan worked at the saw mill of George Washington Estes Row, which was located on the farm of Joseph Talley near Todd's Tavern. His name appeared several times in the business ledgers of Mr. Row:

     He also worked at the saw mill of his brother Oregon, who was in business in Fredericksburg. In addition to being a lumberman, Oregon was also a grocer, served on the city council and was the town's post master. His years of success allowed him and his family to live comfortably in the historic "Sentry Box" house. Meanwhile, despite his best efforts, Powhatan could never quite equal his brother's achievements.

Oregon Dallas Foster (

     By the early 1880's, Powhatan was courting Ernestine Virginia Knighton, a daughter of Robert S. Knighton and Georgianna Herring. He loved to attend the local dances, and it was at one of these get togethers that he made his move: "When he proposed to Mother, he was at a dance, he wrote a note, fastened it to the end of a switch and passed it over to her, asking her if she would marry him to look up and smile. Mother's name was Ernestine Virginia, but he always called her Susie" (LFH). Powhatan and Ernestine married at her parents' house on October 18, 1883.
     During the early years of their marriage, Powhatan and Ernestine "lived in a small house at Buchanan's Corner [at the intersection of West Catharpin and Robert E. Lee Drive]. They ran a little store for Mr. Buchanan" (LFH). The first three of their eight children were born during this time, and are shown in the photograph below:

Powhatan Foster and family (Barbara Faulconer)

     About 1890, Powhatan built a house on West Catharpin Road on land that had belonged to his father, who died in 1885. Shown here is a photograph of the place, and a drawing done by Lily Foster Haney. This house was called "New Danielsville:"

New Danielsville (Barbara Faulconer)

(Lily Foster Haney)

     Powhatan worked as a subsistence farmer, earned $1 a day working as a sawyer in the local mills and even worked for a time at nearby White Hall gold mine. Lily noted that while working for the saw mills, Powhatan spent the entire week living in one of the on-site shanties (these shanties also  existed at the Row saw mill). He came home on Saturdays and returned to the mill on Sunday evenings. Working in a 19th century saw mill was a dangerous undertaking. In 1893, Powhatan suffered an injury serious enough to be reported in The Free Lance:

The Free Lance 7 February 1893

     Although he would be remembered as a "small man in stature, with a big heart," he also had a volcanic temper which would subside as quickly as it erupted. His daughter Lily remembered this episode in particular: "One Saturday night he was at Sheppard's store when a young fellow made a rude remark about some lady--the fellow was drinking--up shot Dad's fist and knocked him down--his nose bled and he had a black eye. Dad's fist was hurt too.  Dad knew Eddie was in no condition to go home so he brought him to our house, washed his face and put him to bed. Next morning he lent him a clean shirt and we all went to Craig's [Baptist Church] to an all day meeting. Of course people noticed Dad's hand and asked what was wrong. Dad told them to find the fellow with the black eye and they would know" (LFH).
     Unlike his brother Oregon, Powhatan was a staunch Democrat (Oregon was active in Republican Party affairs and represented Fredericksburg at the 1888 Republican National Convention). Powhatan dipped his toe into local politics, and ran unsuccessfully for a county supervisor seat in 1895 and 1899, and he also fell short in his bid to become a justice of the peace in 1907.

The Free Lance 16 April 1895

     Of course, there were also happy times for the Foster family, which is evident in this article from The Free Lance:

The Free Lance 3 November 1910

     However, the year 1914 would be marked by a succession of tragedies in the Foster family. Oregon Dallas Foster died on June 26. On November 13, fourteen-year-old Robert Edwin "Ned" Foster, the older of Powhatan and Virginia's two sons, died of rheumatism.

Ned Foster (Barbara Faulconer)

     Just three months prior to Ned's death, on August 10, 1914, the life of Powhatan Thomas Foster came to an abrupt and violent end at the saw mill of C. W. Howard. The particulars were provided in two obituaries published in The Free Lance:

The Free Lance 13 August 1914

The Free Lance 18 August 1914

Death certificate of Powhatan Foster (

     Powhatan was buried in the Foster family cemetery, in which the graves were marked by simple field stones. About 20 years later, Lily Foster Haney made arrangements to have the body of her father to be removed to the Confederate Cemetery at Spotsylvania Court House so that he could lie at rest in the company of his fellow soldiers. In late 1935, Mrs. Charles R. "Bertie" Andrews ordered a headstone for Powhatan from the War Department. Bertie's father, Thomas Addison Harris, had served in Company E of the 9th Virginia Cavalry.




Barnum, Mildred. "The Foster Place and Foster Graveyard." The Works Progress Administration of Virginia, November 18, 1936.

Haney, Lily Foster. "Family, Friends & Neighbors: Lily Foster Haney's Autobiography",1970.

Haney, Wade R. "History and Genealogy of the Albert and Sophie Haney Family." Researched and compiled by R. Wade Haney, 1998.