Essay

How Virginia’s ‘Rocket Docket’ Capital Punishment System Exploited Lynching Fear

By Dale M. Brumfield

 

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees …

-Strange Fruit, recorded by Billie Holiday, 1939

lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

At 6:30 a.m. on January 10, 1909, a black man named Charles Gillespie attacked and severely beat 19-year-old Marie Louise Stumpf, the white daughter of a prominent local brewer, on her way to early Mass at the Catholic Cathedral on Laurel Street in Richmond. An account of the attack on page two of the January 13 Lexington Dispatch stated that Stumpf “fought with the frenzy of fear for her life” in trying to escape her attacker. She was reportedly saved by a passerby, Mr. Irvin Pool, who heard her screams while escorting a female telephone operator to her job.

Charles Gillespie

Charles Gillespie

About two hours after the assault, two detectives saw a man partially matching Stumpf’s description getting his shoes shined at the corner of Beech and Main Street. He was placed under arrest and searched. According to the January 11 Alexandria Gazette, a ring and a bracelet belonging to the victim was found in his pockets. As word of the attack spread throughout the neighborhood later that day, a furious crowd gathered outside the precinct police station, demanding Gillespie be turned over to them to be lynched. But as the Shenandoah Herald explained, a Judge named Witte arrived in person at the station and addressed the crowd, assuring them that Gillespie would receive a speedy trial, and that he would summon a special grand jury to indict him as soon as Miss Stumpf was able to testify against him.

Gillespie Daily Press Fri Feb 19 1909

Daily Press, 2/19/1909

That assurance pacified the crowd and it dispersed.

The January 22 Herald then recounted that after a short trial, Gillespie was found guilty of attempted criminal assault at Hustings Court on January 16, 1909. The all-white jury sentenced him to death after less than five minutes deliberation, and Gillespie was executed in the electric chair on February 16, a mere 38 days after the attack.

Virginia started executing prisoners in 1608 and, except for a 20-year hiatus from 1962 to 1982, has never stopped. In all, Virginia has legally put to death 1,390 people, more than any other state, including Texas. The Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty website states that Virginia also has the fastest post-conviction appellate process, averaging just under eight years from sentencing to execution. This “rocket docket” is key in considering the relationship between legal executions and extralegal lynchings in the Old Dominion. While several factors are considered to be crucial in Virginia’s relatively low lynching numbers, the extraordinary speed at which Virginia would arrest, try, convict, sentence then execute overwhelmingly young, black criminals (almost always for attacking a white person) frequently placated lynch mobs. At times, these mobs were – as in the Gillespie case – literally repulsed from jail steps by judges and sheriffs who pleaded with them (maybe with a wink and a nod) to disperse and ‘let the law take its course,’ or in other words, let a “legal lynching” occur.

Historians such as Fitzhugh Brundage in his book “Lynching in the New South” may be skeptical on whether speedy trials ending in legal executions were truly effective on reducing extralegal lynchings, but evidence shows that in the early 20th century the two existed for the same reason – to terrorize the black population with an efficient, guaranteed outcome of guilty and a subsequent quick death. An editorial in the October 1, 1908 Richmond Times-Dispatch inadvertently compared the use of the brand-new electric chair and the newly-instituted secrecy surrounding it as almost identical to lynching, in that the chair was “… well calculated to inspire terror in the heart of the superstitious African.” The acts of “legal lynchings,” or executions, were thus carried out in similar manners as lynchings, with the only difference being one was (and still is) completely lawful.

Another early example of legally inspiring terror in the heart of an African American was the case of Arthelius “Felix” Christian, a 17-year-old black teenager, who was convicted of criminally assaulting and then stabbing to death a 14-year-old white school girl in Botetourt County on February 18, 1909. As a lynch mob gathered at the Botetourt courthouse, Christian was indicted, tried and convicted within 24 hours of his capture. His trial, from the time the sheriff called the court to order until sentence was pronounced, took only 21 minutes. The February 26, 1909 Virginia Citizen reported in a brief statement on page 2, with implied relief, that “this was the swiftest meeting out of justice in the history of the criminal courts of Virginia” because “it prevented a threatened lynching.” Christian – who was never appointed a lawyer – was executed only 31 days later.

Similarly, on May 22, 1913 a 23-year-old black man, Benjamin Bailey, was accused of criminally assaulting a six-year-old white girl in Fairfax. Also, this proceeding was specifically expedited to prevent Bailey’s illegal lynching. The Washington Times reported on May 28 that on that day, Bailey was indicted by a special grand jury after only a few minutes of deliberation and entered a plea of not guilty. Two days later, the May 30 Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Bailey was tried, convicted and sentenced to die in an absurd two-hour trial with the elementary-aged child as the only witness. The jury was out after only 12 minutes.

Bailey was transferred to Richmond and executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia on August 8.

***

After the Civil War, Virginia’s political and business elites were eager to shake off the shackles of the “lost cause” and look toward the future, charting a course of industrial and agricultural development that was far more advanced than the states of the Deep South, who sought to cling to the old antebellum ways. Virginia’s development of highways, railroads and trade had more in common with the northern states, and the shift away from slavery and long-term labor contracts to day labor to build these improvements significantly decreased racial conflicts.

The exception was the far southwest coal fields. Late nineteenth century railroad and highway construction reduced the isolation of the area, bringing in waves of unwelcome immigrants to work in the burgeoning mining and timber industry, leading to racial conflicts. As a result, far more lynchings occurred there than the rest of the state – in fact, there were nine lynching victims in Tazewell County alone between 1882 and 1900.

While lynching was an obvious method of maintaining white supremacy through violence and intimidation, legal executions of this period were insidiously threatened for similar purposes by elected prosecutors. On August 16, 1912, the Newport News Daily Press reported a 16-year-old black teenage girl named Virginia Christian from Hampton became the first juvenile female executed in America for accidentally killing her white employer, Ida Belote, after Mrs. Belote attacked Christian for allegedly stealing from her.

Virginia Christian

Virginia Christian

According to Charles Vaughn’s book “Grant Me to Live: The Execution of Virginia Christian”, the Elizabeth City County Prosecutor fully intended from the start to make an example out of Christian, placing her in a no-win situation by citing not only the threatening presence of lynch mobs “just outside the courthouse,” but using her case to prove to the local black community that the consequences of killing a white person was always going to be death, if not by lynching, then by execution. The jury returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder after 23 minutes of deliberation, and Trial Judge Clarence W. Robinson sentenced her to death in the electric chair on the day after her 17th birthday.

According to Derryn Moten’s 1998 dissertation, “A Gruesome Warning to Black Girls:  The August 16, 1912 Execution of Virginia Christian,” after numerous religious and community leaders appealed to Governor William Mann to reduce Christian’s sentence to life in prison, Mann reinforced the supremacy of the racial caste system in Virginia by responding that “Christian’s murder of her white (emphasis added) employer, Ida Virginia Belote, was the most dastardly in the state’s history and that Christian’s execution is necessary to ensure public safety … I have therefore reluctantly reached the conclusion that there is nothing in the case which justifies executive clemency.”

The 1910 case of Arlington’s Henry Smith shows that the threat of lynch mobs was a tactic used sometimes not just by prosecutors, but also by police for coercing confessions. Charged by a desperate Chief of Police of murdering Chicago artist Walter Schultz, the March 18, 1909 Washington Times recounted Smith’s story of how he was held in an Arlington jail for four days with no food or water and given the choice of confessing and taking his chances in the courtroom, or being freed and face the lynch mob supposedly outside. Smith chose to confess, but then recanted several times afterward, earning several stays until he was finally electrocuted on June 3.

Railroaded M-7 Flyer

Railroaded! Martinsville 7 Flyer

A similar police approach was used as late as 1950 in a Martinsville case, when seven young black defendants were charged with rape and aiding and abetting the rape of a white woman, Ruby Stroud Floyd. Eric Rise’s 1992 essay “Race, Rape, and Radicalism: The Case of the Martinsville Seven, 1949-1951” recounted how some of the defendants told their attorneys they were threatened by police during interrogation of a “mob of a thousand men” in the streets of Martinsville unless they confessed. In a shocking affront to the burgeoning civil rights movement, all seven men were found guilty of rape and aiding and abetting rape and executed in the electric chair on two separate days. Meanwhile, only one year earlier on August 29, 1948, the Norfolk Journal reported that a white Glasgow man named Murrel Dudley raped a “feeble-minded colored woman” named Bertha Rose. The article stated that Dudley was found guilty and fined $20.

Heading into the 1920s, Virginia seemed to take a tough stand against lynching and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. While Governor Harry F. Byrd and his administration were devoted to maintaining white supremacy, they did not appreciate the Klan’s secretive nature and the mob violence that ensued from it – as indicated by the August, 1926 lynching of Raymond Bird in Wythe County, which was reputedly done by up to 50 Klan members.

Cornered by combative anti-lynching newspaper editorials, his own desire to attract more business to Virginia and his goal to preserve white supremacy, Byrd guardedly wrote the Virginia Anti-Lynching Law of 1928 – one of the first and most rigorous in the nation, which made lynching a state offense prosecuted by the Attorney General, rather than local jurisdictions.

While it can be debated that the Virginia law was intended less to protect the commonwealth’s black citizens in favor of the state’s business reputation, the end result, according to Encyclopedia of Virginia, was that the Klan’s presence noticeably dropped off and lynchings appeared to decrease significantly – although some, such as that of Shedrick Thompson, were not classified or pursued as lynchings to avoid “a bloat on Virginia’s reputation.” “Virginia is the last state in the Union where lynching should be tolerated,” Gov. Byrd said of the new legislation, “for Virginia contributed to America the leaders who taught that this was a government by laws.” But nature abhors a vacuum, and with lynchings at least officially outlawed, executions increased at a furious pace. In the 34 years between the 1928 passage of the lynch law and the 1962 death penalty moratorium, Virginia legally executed 80 black and 17 white men, most all for murder and/or rape. In comparison, about 105 were lynched in the much longer 57-year period from 1871 to 1930, the height of lynching in Virginia.

Even though it was certified as a suicide by local authorities and therefore never prosecuted under the 1928 Anti-Lynching Law, the last Virginia lynching that we know of was that of Shedrick Thompson of Linden in 1932. As for the death penalty, as of 2019 there are only two inmates on death row. More importantly, there were zero executions in 2018, and no new death sentences handed down since 2011.

The Commonwealth of Virginia is slowly shedding its obsessions with death.

 

Dale Brumfield is the author of nine books, and is Field Director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (www.VADP.org), a Richmond-based non-profit. His personal website is www.dalebrumfield.net.

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