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)|
|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 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.
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.