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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.