Archive for February 24th, 2017

1902: Joe Higginbotham, criminal assailant

Add comment February 24th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1902, Joe Higginbotham was hanged for raping and slashing the throat of a Mrs. Ralph Webber.

The State (Columbia, S.C.), Jan. 24, 1902

This headline-making outrage occurred in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the town was on the verge of living up to its name before officers spirited the black janitor away to Roanoke for safekeeping; in Roanoke, military guardsmen were scrambled for security against a rumor that Higginbotham’s life would be attempted even there.

One might well wonder why the bother, as the formal proceedings against the culprit blessed by the law entailed very little deliberation beyond Judge Lynch. Mrs. Webber survived her injury and once her condition stabilized, she was brought to the jail on January 21 to make an identification. “She at once identified him as the man who assaulted her. The negro broke down and confessed to the crime with which he is charged, and further stated that he had attempted some months ago to assault a white girl who was a patient in a Lynchburg hospital.” (Charlotte Observer, Jan. 22, 1902)

Two days after that meeting, Higginbotham pleaded guilty at a short trial under heavy guard back in Lynchburg. The sentence was imposed for exactly one month out — plus one more day so as not to fall on a Sunday — and it went off as scheduled, undisturbed by any appeal or reprieve.

The Higginbotham name will be distinctive to students of 20th century American law, as it was borne by Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, one of the greatest jurists never to reach the Supreme Court.* (Higginbotham was reportedly considered for the seat Thurgood Marshall eventually received.) Since it appears from this message board that Higginbotham descendants in the Lynchburg and Amherst County part of Virginia count the judge among their kin, we couldn’t help but wonder whether, like radio host Tom Joyner discovered, there might be an execution hidden in the family tree.

Resident genealogist and occasional guest poster Golde Singer did some research on this proposition.

Judge Higginbotham grew up in New Jersey but census records confirm that his father Aloysius was in fact born in Virginia to a family with deep roots in Amherst County. Aloysius’s move to the Trenton, N.J. area in the first decade of the 20th century would have put him on the leading edge of the Great Migration of southern blacks to northern industrial cities.

Suggestive as that might be, Golde’s search through Aloysius’s family did not appear to turn up any clear link to a Joseph Higginbotham; indeed, Higginbotham the criminal assailant was reportedly himself an adopted or foster child whose lineage appears obscure. The trail from this point dissipates in history’s marshes. The Higginbotham name is quite widespread in the Lynchburg area; family ancestries for the African-American Higginbothams appear to trace back to slavery among the white family of Captain John Higginbotham, a Revolutionary War officer whose own father relocated to Amherst, Va. from Barbados. (Different English Higginbothams made good in India.)

A generalist site such as ours leaves off short of the close reading of archival records or research into family lore that would required here. (Perhaps there are some readers prepared to shed some light?) In the end, of course, any hypothetical family connection between these two very different men would count as little more than historical curiosity.

* Full disclosure: this author never had the privilege of meeting Judge Higginbotham, but counts as a mentor to his death penalty interest one of the judge’s proteges.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA,Virginia

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