Today is the centennial of the electrocution of Floyd Allen, the wealthy patriarch of a Virginia clan, and his son Claude — for an astounding shootout right in the Carroll County (Va.) courthouse.
Before the unpleasantness, Allen was for Carroll County gentleman farmer, prosperous shopkeep, moonshine-distiller, and political operator. He was also a guy with a violent reputation.
That’s him on the right, but maybe you want to picture an Old Dominion Don Corleone instead.
“The worst man of the clan,” said a local judge who suspected that Allen had dodged other brushes with the law by intimidating witnesses. “Overbearing, vindictive, high tempered, brutal, with no respect for law and little or no regard for human life.”
Mix a guy like that with an innocent rustic harvest-produce ritual and bloodshed is bound to follow.
Matters began for the 50-something Allen with teenage hormones at a local cornshucking. Custom dictated that finding a lucky red ear of corn would entitle the corn-shucker who drew it to a kiss from any girl of his choice. A youth named Wesley Edwards, nephew to Floyd Allen, drew a red ear.
The girl he kissed happened to have a boyfriend. So here we go.
The next day, the jealous boyfriend got his by jumping Wesley Edwards, which drew Wesley’s brother into the brawl, which led to assault and weapons charges against the Edwards boys. They were arrested over the border in North Carolina, but en route to returning them to the Hillsville, Va., lockup, Floyd Allen stopped the cart and liberated his kin. Allen would say later that he didn’t intend this to go full-outlaw; rather, his lordly sense of prerogatives was offended to see the boys tied up instead of treated with dignity, and a political foe of a sheriff rushing to get them in manacles when Allen full intended to post bail for them.
And that led to the March 1912 trial of Floyd Allen for interfering with an officer of the law. Allen was convicted on this count and sentenced to one year in prison.
“Gentlemen,” replied our put-upon paterfamilias to this sentence. “I ain’t a-goin’.”*
Literally, this is what Floyd Allen got up and said in court in direct response to the judge’s delivery of sentence moments before.
There’s a great deal of after-the-fact argument and finger-pointing about who started this mess. It must have been mayhem: the sheriff plunked Allen, who collapsed on his attorney; Allen fired back with the revolver that he was naturally carrying to his own criminal sentencing.
Fears and rumors had circulated that exactly this sort of thing might go down if the surly Floyd Allen drew jail time, so quite a lot of attendees in the crowded courtroom were jittery and packing heat. Now they all started crouching and firing. At least fifty spent rounds were later retrieved from the hall of justice.
When the smoke cleared, the Allen clan had absconded as a gang with the now-fugitive Floyd. Five other people left the room for their coffins: the judge, the prosecutor, the sheriff, the jury foreman, and a 19-year-old girl who had testified against Allen.
Considering the distribution of bodies, that’s less a shootout than a massacre. (pdf)
A massive manhunt brought the Allens in within weeks. This time, jurors nervous of retaliation handed Floyd Allen the death penalty, and a like sentence to his son Claude.** The eventual clemency appeals for the latter would focus on his honorable adherence to the family, complaining that Claude was condemned for doing “no more than any boy would do for an old gray haired Father without a moments [sic] time to consider.” The appeals for the former blamed the sheriff for starting the shootout and the entire affair from the nephews’ arrest on down on political rivalries among Carroll County’s elites. Between these and clemency opponents decrying the “maudlin sentimentality” that proposed to spare these murderers, the standard of Virginia manhood was thoroughly litigated on editorial pages throughout the Commonwealth — indeed, throughout the country, for the astonishing case drained newsprint ink from coast to coast.
And why not? From corn-shucking to the twisted family honor to the electric chair, every pore oozed Americana. Even a young woman who was described as “a mountain girl” descended from her haunts to appeal for the life of her betrothed, Claude.
From the Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times, September 13, 1912.
“They were men of the mountains; they were out of the beaten parts of civilization; they were untaught in the ways of the world outside. Their habits and training had led them to adhere to a code of almost primal instincts in many ways; to them the right to do as they pleased regardless of what custom or other people demanded was ingrown. And yet they had never been criminal at heart.” -From a profile of the family in the March 28, 1913 Miami Herald
Though the Allens managed a few short delays as their appeals percolated, Mann was steadfast in his refusal to mitigate the crime. The two went to Virginia’s electric chair eleven minutes apart on this date.
All that from a red ear of corn. Incidentally, somewhere in this whole timeline, Floyd’s nephews were themselves sentenced for the original brawl with the boyfriend (long before the shootout, and the resulting serious prison sentences they got for that). Their punishment was 30 and 60 days working the sheriff’s orchard. That, plus the destruction of their family.
* Allen had successfully refused to serve a one-hour jail sentence for a 1903 scrape. One measly hour.
** Several other Allens got long prison sentences eventually truncated by executive pardons in the 1920s. Most of their estate was seized and the family generally scattered across the country, far from Carroll County. (Floyd Allen’s brother Jack got into a barroom argument in North Carolina in 1918 about the notorious Hillsville events, and Jack wound up shot dead himself in the dispute.)
On this date in 1997, 39-year-old Michael Carl George was executed by lethal injection at Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia. He’d been condemned for the murder of fifteen-year-old Alexander Eugene Sztanko in 1990.
Michael Carl George (top) and his victim, Alexander Sztanko.
The teenager’s death had been horrific by anyone standard: he was abducted while out riding his dirt bike, handcuffed to a tree and sexually abused. Before shooting him in the head, the killer applied a stun gun to his genitals. His body, fully clothed but shoeless, was found the following afternoon.
The boy had been killed so close to home that his unsuspecting father actually heard the gunshots. A few hours after Alex Sztanko’s body was found, George was seen loitering near the murder site by a police officer and stopped for questioning. He matched the description of a camouflage-clad man seen near the Sztanko residence the day before, and the suspicious officer asked him directly if he’d been there the previous day.
George admitted that he had, claiming he’d been turkey hunting in the woods. As he was being questioned he was standing directly in front of a “No Trespassing” sign, which gave the policeman an excuse to pick him up.
At the time of his arrest he was carrying, among other things, a knife, a handcuff key and a map, which had an “X” marking the site where Alex’s body turned up in the woods and an “O” where the boy’s dirt bike and helmet were ultimately located.
Inside George’s truck was a machete, a hacksaw, bolt cutters, a tear gas canister, leather gloves and a stun gun. A search of his parents’ home, where he lived, turned up more incriminating items: a pair of handcuffs that matched the key he carried, and a loaded 9mm pistol which turned out to be the murder weapon.
Blood, DNA and fiber evidence also pointed to George as the culprit. The case was pretty open-and-shut.
George had a reputation as a pedophile and Alexander Sztanko wasn’t the only person he killed. The first, as far as anyone knows, was Larry Wayne Perry, a mentally disabled nine-year-old who lived with his grandparents in Dumfries, Virginia.
Larry vanished without a trace on May 22, 1979 and was never found. George admitted to burying the child’s body but said his death was an accident. As the authorities lacked the evidence to prove intentional homicide, he was allowed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and abduction.
A model prisoner, he served just two and a half years of a five-year sentence.
Four years later, he killed Alex Sztanko.
George would later claim he had murdered a third person, but he never named the alleged victim and his statements could not be verified. His appeals raced through the court system at top speed; his time on death row was less than five years, one of the shortest in the state since Virginia resumed executions in the early eighties.
Given the circumstances of the murder and his prior record, he had very few sympathizers and not much he could say for himself on appeal. His case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but they voted 7 to 2 to deny a stay of execution, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Paul Stevens dissenting.
Alex Sztanko’s parents were quoted as saying they were opposed to the death penalty generally, but as far as they saw it, George’s death was society’s gain.
George’s lethal injection took place without incident and he was pronounced dead at 9:18 p.m. He had no last statements for the press, but he did leave a letter for Mr. and Mrs. Sztanko, both of whom declined to witness his execution.
In 1983, fresh off parole for a 1971 homicide, Tuggle raped and shot 52-year-old Jessie Geneva Havens.
“From past experience, I would like to talk to an attorney,” he told the officer who arrested him. “I’ll probably tell you the full story later.”
In this selfsame spring of 1983, 25-year-old Timothy Michael Kaine was receiving his J.D. from Harvard Law. He moved to Richmond, Va., with his classmate Anne Holton, daughter of the state’s former governor.
Kaine and Holton married in 1984.
This was also an eventful year for the now-twice-convicted killer Lem Tuggle: together with five other condemned inmates, Tuggle sensationally busted out of Mecklenburg Correctional Center — capturing several prison guards, making up a phony bomb threat, and simply strolling out the gates in their stolen uniforms during the confusion.
The “Mecklenburg Six”* cast a terrifying pall in the headlines of June 1984; it took weeks to recapture them all. Tuggle, sensibly, made a bid for Canada’s death-penalty-free soil, only sparing Ottawa a major diplomatic headache when he stopped to rob a Vermont diner for gas money and got arrested.
Kaine’s path was destined to cross with this notorious convict, but not for some years yet. In the meantime, the idealistic young J.D. in his first year at the bar was getting acquainted with death row when he accepted a pro bono legal appointment to represent condemned killer Richard Lee Whitley.
A lifelong Catholic who had spent a youthful finding-himself year working at a mission in Honduras, Kaine was (and remains) a death penalty opponent. This would later prove a sticky wicket, but mid-1980s Kaine didn’t have a career in politics on his radar, as evidenced by his distinctly impolitic remark that “murder is wrong in the gulag, in Afghanistan, in Soweto, in the mountains of Guatemala, in Fairfax County … and even the Spring Street Penitentiary.”
Later, when he was in politics, Kaine would tell a reporter profiling him during the 2005 gubernatorial campaign that he didn’t want the assignment but would have felt like a “hypocrite” to refuse it. The Commonwealth was less easily overcome than Kaine’s scruples, and Whitley died in Virginia’s electric chair on June 6, 1987.
“I just remember sitting on my back step late and just having a couple of beers and just staring out at my backyard,” Kaine recalled of the night he lost his client.
Having had this first taste of failing with a man’s life on the line while being publicly vilified for his work, Kaine signed on to represent Tuggle in 1989.
By the time Tuggle’s legal rope ran out in 1996, Tim Kaine was a 38-year-old Richmond city council member — the trailhead for his new and now-familiar career in politics.
As Kaine elevated himself into a statewide figure in the early 2000s, his death penalty position came in for some controversy which Kaine finessed by taking the position that while he himself opposed capital punishment, he would enforce the state’s death penalty law in his capacity as governor.**
* The other five were Linwood Briley, James Briley, Earl Clanton, Willie Leroy Jones, and Derick Peterson. All of these men were also executed.
** That was indeed the case. Gov. Kaine commuted only one death sentence, that of Percy Walton, while allowing 11 others to go forward. D.C. sniper John Muhammad was the most notorious man with Kaine’s signature on his death warrant.
No, not that Seven of Nine. We have no further details on offer about these poor souls, but we thought the assortment of crimes — a mother for murdering her bastard child; a highwayman; an overseer for whipping a slave to death — and the editorial rant about the governor‘s abus’d Clemency, made for a colorful slice of life.
On this date in 2009, D.C. sniper John Muhammad was executed by lethal injection in Virginia.
Muhammad — born John Allen Williams; he renamed himself after joining the Nation of Islam — authored with Lee Boyd Malvo, a juvenile collaborator under his sway, a spree of random sniper attacks around the Washington D.C. suburbs that terrified the nation’s capital in October 2002.
The two were captured together sleeping out in their sniper-mobile — a Chevy Caprice with a hole drilled in the trunk for taking concealed potshots at gas stations and mall parking lots and the like. Although arrested initially in Maryland, the U.S. Attorney General forced their case to the more aggressive death penalty jurisdiction of Virginia. (The two killed people in both states, tallying 10 dead and three wounded all told.)
From the time of his Oct. 24, 2002 arrest until the very end, Muhammad was frustratingly tight-lipped about how and why the carnage took place. Was it personal pique? Religious terrorism? Just a regular criminal racket?
In 2006 testimony, a now-contrite Lee Malvo — at one point he addressed Muhammad directly, saying “You took me into your house and you made me a monster” — outlined a plan that constituted a fearsomely nutty combination of motives: use the mayhem to extort millions of dollars, then take the money and set up a Canadian camp for 140 homeless black youth and rear them as terrorists. It’s just possible that this proposed enterprise pushed every single button in the collective American id.
(Malvo himself pled out to the murders, accepting six life sentences.)
Though executioners don’t quite bat 1.000 — who does, at any human endeavor? — the field on the whole succeeds more often than not.
On this date in 1864, the Confederate guerrilla John S. Mosby had seven Union prisoners executed, but he only managed to kill three of them — an efficiency very well below the Mendoza Line for the executioner’s trade.
It was a rare competence gap for the brilliant cavalryman.
The irregulars Mosby commanded in the Shenandoah Valley had frustrated for six months the consolidation of rampant northern armies, thereby preserving the Confederate capital of Richmond and extending the Civil War.
The situation had quick become intolerable for the Union, and Gen. Ulysses Grant emphasized (pdf) to Gen. Phil Sheridan the cruel anti-insurgent tactics he would countenance for “the necessity of clearing out the country so that it would not support Mosby’s gang. So long as the war lasts they must be prevented from raising another crop.”
Incensed, the Confederate “gray ghost” began stockpiling blue bodies from the offending command of George Armstrong Custer — yes, the Little Bighorn guy; he was perceived by Mosby to be responsible for the atrocity, although the actual paper trail on the execution order seems to be a little sketchy.
Mosby, who fancied himself the genteel sort who would closely abide the laws of war when fighting for the right to maintain human chattel, sent a lawlerly appeal up the chain of command seeking permission “to hang an equal number of Custer’s men.” General Robert E. Lee and Confederate Secretary of War James Sedden granted it.
The preparations began innocently enough on a quiet Sunday morning (November 6, 1864) when 27 Union prisoners of war were ushered with no explanation about what was happening out of a brick storehouse located in Rectortown, Virginia …
[They] were then marched to the banks of Goose Creek, about half a mile away. some, but definitely not all, of this specially selected pool of 27 prisoners belonged to Custer’s commands both past and present … [but] of the seven men eventually selected to die on Mosby’s orders only two were actually members of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade.
All 27 of the prisoners were lined up along Goose Creek and then made to draw slips of paper from a hat. Twenty of those slips of paper which were part of the macabre lottery were simply that, blank pieces of paper. The other seven — one for each of Mosby’s men executed at Front Royal and in Rappahanock County — were marked with a number …
Of the men who were forced to draw those slips of paper, some of them simply stared into space. Others, once they understood what was happening, prayed. There were a few of them who simply broke down.
Among the prisoners was a young drummer boy … who broke down completely, sobbing … He drew a blank slip and immediately proclaimed: “Damn it, ain’t I lucky!” When a second drummer boy was found to be unlucky enough to have drawn one of the marked slips of paper, upon the request of the men who had been spared, Mosby personally ordered the boy to be released from the seven condemned prisoners and the 18 remaining prisoners (excluding the first drummer boy) drew from the slips of paper for a second time.
Then one of the seven adults also got himself swapped out of the scrap by flashing a Masonic sign at a Confederate lodge member. The things that stand between life and death.
Out of the nine to come under death’s pall and the seven who were actually marched overnight to the place of execution (as close to Custer’s camp as Mosby dared) only three were there successfully ushered past death’s threshold.
At 4 a.m. on Monday, November 7, 1864 (the day before the election which would give Abraham Lincoln his second term in the White House and would therefore become the signature on the death warrant of the Confederacy), the Rangers and their prisoners reached the execution site in Beemer’s Woods, a mile west of Berryville, and the executions were carried forward. However, everything did not go exactly according to plan.
In the pre-dawn darkness and confusion (either through carelessness or lack of caring for their orders, since none of the prisoners had actually been involved in depredations against Confederate civilians) the Rangers allowed two of the seven prisoners (one of whom, G.H. Soule, 5th Michigan Cavalry Regiment, punched out a guard) to escape outright. Two other prisoners were apparently shot in the head, but surviving, having only been grazed, also escaped since they pretended, and were apparently believed, to be dead. The remaining three prisoners were hanged. The identities and whether or not these three prisoners were members of either Custer or Powell’s commands are unknown. Lt. Thompson, in accordance with his orders attached a placard to one of the hanged men (just as similar placards had been attached to the bodies of all three of Mosby’s hanged men). Mosby’s placard read: “These men have been hung in retaliation for an equal number of Colonel Mosby’s men hung by order of General Custer at Front Royal. Measure for Measure.”
Believing his purpose accomplished, or at any rate close enough for rebel government work, Mosby then wrote to Union General Sheridan justifying the action and assuring him that future “prisoners falling into my hands will be treated with the kindness due to their condition, unless some new act of barbarity shall compel me, reluctantly, to adopt a line of policy repugnant to humanity.”
The letter, and the 3-out-of-7 reprisal, actually worked — with no further measures exacted for measure or tits given for tat. For the waning months of the war the rival forces confined themselves to killing one another on the battlefield, and not in the stockade.
Well, mostly: one of the conspirators in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 — which did assassinate Lincoln, but was really a wider attempt to decapitate the entire northern government — was a former Mosby’s ranger named Lewis Powell aka Payne. Lincoln killer John Wilkes Booth also seemed to flee in Mosby’s direction (Mosby’s units were still in the field, not covered by the April 9 Appomattox surrender.) There exists an unproven but delicious speculative hypothesis that the hand of John Mosby was among those behind an exponentially more ambitious “line of policy repugnant to humanity.”
Be that as it may, Mosby actually became a Republican after the war — for which he received some Southern death threats — and lived fifty eventful years. Among other things, the aged Mosby regaled the young George Patton (whose father Mosby knew) with Civil War stories.
On this date in 1623 one Daniel Frank was condemned to hang for theft in the Jamestown colony. It was the first hanging to take place in that part of the British North American colonies that eventually broke away as the United States.
Frank is actually not the very first entry in Watt Espy’s encyclopedic 15,000-plus catalogue of “American” executions — he’s the second. In 1608, George Kendall had been shot for a mutinous plot, also in Jamestown, Virginia. We don’t have a firm date for that event.
But rigorous calendaring, like lenient penal theories, took a back seat in the tiny and tenuous New World colony. Jamestown was the successor to Walter Raleigh‘s failed Roanoke settlement, which disappeared without a trace — and planted in harsh and distant environs, Jamestown had a couple of brushes with the very same fate.
Jamestowne, surrounded by Indian settlements and illustrated wilderness. Excerpt from 1608 map of John Smith (yes, the Pocahontas guy) found here.
Still, this was a delicate balance: Jamestown didn’t have the resources to countenance potential recidivism, but it also didn’t have the resources to go killing productive colonists — or scaring away potential productive colonists. A draconian 1612 Laws Divine, Moral and Martial evidently never sent anyone to the gallows, but was rolled back all the same in 1619 for fear of disaffecting investors.
Sithence we are not to bee a little carefull, and our young Cattell, & Breeders may be cherished, that by the preservation, and increase of them, the Colony heere may receive in due time assured and great benefite … so profitable succeeding a Commodity, as increase of Cattel, Kine, Hogges, Goates, Poultrie &c. must of necessity bee granted …
wee do strictly charge and command, that no man shall dare to kill, or destroy any Bull, Cow, Calfe, Mare, Horse, Colt, Goate, Swine, Cocke, Henne, Chicken, Dogge, Turkie, or any tame Cattel, or Poultry, of what condition soever; whether his owne, or appertaining to another man, without leave from the Generall, upon paine of death.
-The 1612 legal code, topically.
Daniel Frank — “Daniell Francke” to ye olde time Virginians — drew a hanging sentence for stealing and killing a calf belonging to George Yeardley, a major landowner and the former (and future) colonial governor of the Virginia terrtory. Frank, we can assume, was in a state of agonizing hunger when he undertook this desperate act.
Though Mr. Espy’s register of historical executions is an astounding resource, double-checking the dates is a recommended practice. In this case, I believe he’s used a highly fragmentary original record (pdf) and mistakenly ascribed the legal proceedings to the last previous date heading, March 1, 1622. [This would be March 1, 1623 by current reckoning; see footnote here.] This date has been repeated by any number of sources.*
But the narration very clearly states that “the tryall of Danyell Francke and George Clarke vppon Tewsday the fyfth of August 1623″ proceeded on the charge of
felonyously steal[ing] and kill[ing] one Calf ye goodes and Chattles of Sr: George Yardley kn[ight] of the woorth and Pryce of three poundes sterling. And after the saide Daniell Francke had killed the said Calfe, Thow the saide George Clarke as Access[orie] to the saide Felony didst help the saide Daniell Fra[nck] to carry the saide Calfe into thy owne house, a[nd] didst helpe to dress eate and spend the same, contrary to the peace of our Sou’ainge Lorde the Ki[ng] his Crowne and Dignitie.
Both men “Receaved sentenc of Death Accordinge to Lawe. Daniell Francke was executed: George Clarke repriued” — either because Clarke was merely an accessory, or as Martha McCartney plausibly speculates, because the gunsmith Clarke was a lot more valuable to the colony than the indentured laborer Francke.
The latter had to make do with his milestone distinction: The first documented hanging in the future US, and the first known execution under normal criminal law.
* My reading of the date is also corroborated (and Espy’s undermined) by a February, 1623 [i.e., 1624] record of the colony’s deaths “since April last.”
On this date in 2010, Paul Warner Powell was electrocuted in Virginia — the last human being, as of this writing, to be put to death by that method, although he is not likely to retain that distinction long-term.
However many might be yet to ride the lightning, it is doubtful that any will usurp this virulent racist’s place on dumbest-criminals lists.
Powell confronted a 16-year-old acquaintance about her relationship with an African-American, and in the altercation that followed our man stabbed Stacie Reed in the heart.
Then the charmer laid in wait in the house for the return of Stacie’s 14-year-old sister, whom he raped and left (so he thought) stabbed to death in the basement. Kristie Reed survived an abdomen wound and a slashed throat.
So far, just a regular malevolent criminal.
But his fate turned on a small legal technicality followed by a monumentally foolish blunder.
Initially death-sentenced for the murder (of Stacie) aggravated by the rape (of Kristie), that sentence was vacated by the Commonwealth’s high court on the grounds that rape could only aggravate the murder into a capital crime if it was the murder victim (Stacie) who was raped. Prosecutors had not shown that.
Erroneously believing this decision to have freed him from any risk of execution thanks to double jeopardy, Powell then proceeded to scribble a lengthy jeering diatribe to his prosecutor “to show you how stupid all of y’all mother fuckers are.”
The entire very profane letter is here. Apart from its intrinsically monstrous narrative, it made this very unwise admission about how things went with the murder victim Stacie:
I told her that all I wanted to do was fuck her and then I would leave and that we could do it the easy way or the hard way.
… she got up and started fighting with me and clawed me face. We wrestled around a little and then I slammed her to the floor. When she hit the floor I sat on top of her and pinned her hands down again. She said she would fuck me and I told her that if she tried fighting with me again, I would kill her.
This freely-confessed attempted rape (it was not consummated — hence the state’s previous inability to charge it) qualified as the exact aggravating factor whose want had just enabled Powell to escape death row. And in fact, prosecutors were able to use it to try Powell for his life once again. This time, they got him — and it stuck.*
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
Powell, it turned out, was an energetic correspondent.
Apart from the aforementioned lethal missive, he posted other bigoted mash notes to his prosecutor “Fat Ebert”; he sent menacing taunts to the victims’ mother Lorraine Whoberry; and he even began swapping racy billets-doux with the married forewoman of his first jury who, guilt-stricken at having sent a man to his death, started writing the murderer and wound up falling for him and testifying on his behalf at his second sentencing.
Whoberry, the mother of Stacie and Kristie and the woman whom Powell had crudely harassed by mail from prison, founded the STACIE Foundation to teach compassion for violent crime victims. Whoberry even had some compassion of her own for Powell, eventually forgiving him; the two spoke amicably by phone on the night before Powell’s execution.**
* This raises our periodic reminder to anyone who should come to be of interest in a legal investigation not to talk to the police, period.
However, it is our firm conviction that Executed Today attracts a caliber of reader who intuit the inadvisability of confessing one’s capital crimes in florid written detail.
** Forgiveness or no, Whoberry did continue to support Powell’s execution.
The guide, a negro, had misled us during the night, and, to obviate the delay of retracing our steps. Col. Dahlgren, on the representations of the negro that an excellent ford was to be found at Dover Mills, concluded to cross at that point. After two hours’ halt we again moved on, and soon reached Dover Mills, but only to meet disappointment.
Dover Milles, Civil War era illustration
The negro had deceived us, no ford existed at this point nor any means of crossing the river. He then stated that the ford was three miles below: this was obviously false, as the river was evidently navigable to and above this place, as we saw a sloop going down the river.
… he came into our lines from Richmond … [and] was born and had always belonged in the immediate vicinity of Dover Mills, was very shrewd and intelligent, and it would seem impossible that he should not know that no ford existed in the neighborhood, where he had seen vessels daily passing. Col. Dahlgren had warned him that if detected acting in bad faith, or lying, we would surely hang him, and after we left Dover Mills, and had gone down the river so far as to render further prevarication unavailing, the colonel charged him with betraying us, destroying the whole design of the expedition, and hazarding the lives of every one engaged in it, — and told him that he should be hung in conformity with the terms of his service. The negro became greatly alarmed, stated confusedly that he was mistaken, thought we intended to cross the river in boats, and finally said that he had done wrong, was sorry, etc. The colonel ordered him to be hung, — a halter strap was used for the purpose, and we left the miserable wretch dangling by the roadside.
Our correspondent terms this the case of the “Faithless Negro”, but posterity has the luxury of a less paranoiac reading than indulged by a troupe of hotheaded commandos deep in enemy territory all a-panic as their expedition implodes. The James River was just plain swollen with winter rains. Bad luck all around.
This expedition’s leader, Col. Ulric Dahlgren, abandoned the effort and in the attempt to fall back, rode into a Confederate ambush the next day. He died in the fusillade, while his men were captured.
The body of this late Col. Dahlgren, on whose authority our misfortunate guide was put to death, was found by the Confederates to bear some startling papers* … indicating that the intent of his ill-starred expedition was not merely to liberate starving northern prisoners, but that “once in the City it must be destroyed & Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.”
Within days, the story was abroad and Richmond newspapers floridly outraged at this proposed breach of chivalrous warfare.
Though Confederate General Robert E. Lee was able to quash public demands for the Dahlgren party’s summary execution, the documents may indeed have marked a turning point in the war’s conduct, a public announcement of total warfare sufficient for the South to “inaugurate a system of bloody retaliations.”** If so, it was a well-timed license: the Confederacy was in the process of being steamrolled and would soon require recourse to more desperate strategems.
There are, in fact, some historians who postulate that it was “bloody retaliation” for Dahlgren’s attempt on the Confederate president that ultimately led southern agents to initiate the late-war plots against Abraham Lincoln’s person — resulting ultimately in Lincoln’s assassination:
Ulric Dahlgren, and [his] probable patron [U.S. Secretary of War] Edwin Stanton set out to engineer the death of the Confederacy’s president; the legacy spawned out of the utter failure of their effort may have included the death of their own president.
That is some blowback.
Books exploring the alleged link between the Dahlgren Papers and the Lincoln assassination
* It must be said that the Dahlgren papers have been continually contested as frauds from the moment they were known, though many historians do indeed consider them legitimate. We are in no position to contribute to that debate, and for the purposes of this post’s narration the question is immaterial: the papers, forged or not, certainly existed, were widely publicized, and genuinely angered many southerners.
** These words are the demand of the March 8, 1864 Richmond Dispatch.
On this date in 1951, the first of two batches comprising the “Martinsville Seven” — black, all — went to the Virginia electric chair for gang-raping a white woman. (The remainder were executed on Feb. 5)
In fact, this case generated a bit of a legal milestone: a month before the executions began, the U.S. Supreme Court declined an appeal seeking relief on the then-novel grounds of equal protection — rather than due process.
The argument was that the Old Dominion’s superficially race-neutral rape statute was anything but; that argument was buttressed by data showing that Virginia had executed 45 black men for raping white women from 1908 to 1950, but never once in that period executed any white man for raping a black woman. (The high court only declined to take the appeal; it wouldn’t get around to explicitly ruling equal protection claims based on racial patterns out of bounds until 1987′s McCleskey v. Kemp.)
This seems to be the debut use for this gambit, bound to become an increasingly powerful one both in and out of the courtroom during the civil rights movement.
And it was available — and necessary — here because the Martinsville Seven basically looked guilty as sin. Their confessions and the victim’s accusation and the testimony of a young eyewitness said that, drink-addled, they had opportunistically grabbed a white Jehovah’s Witness housewife when she was proselytizing on the wrong side of the tracks.
certain striking characteristics distinguished the proceedings from classic “legal lynchings.” The evidence presented at trial clearly proved that nonconsensual sexual intercourse with the victim had taken place. All seven defendants admitted their presence at the scene, and although some of the men may not have actually consummated the act … The prosecution emphasized the preservation of community stability, not the protection of southern womanly virtues, as the dominant concern of Martinsville’s white citizens. Most significant, the trial judge made a concerted effort to mute the racial overtones of the trials. Although white juries decided each case, blacks appeared in every jury pool. Race-baiting by prosecutors and witnesses, notably evident at Scottsboro and other similar trials, was absent from the Martinsville proceedings. By diligently adhering to procedural requirements, the court attempted to try the case “as though both parties were members of the same race.”**
The standard playbook for fighting a “legal lynching” case was leveraging outrage over a plausibly innocent convict and an outrageous kangaroo court.†
Paradoxically, by taking these elements out of the mix (relatively speaking), the Martinsville Seven perfectly isolated the extreme harshness of the penalty and the structural discrimination under which it was imposed. The NAACP took up the case on appeal strictly for its discriminatory characteristics, steering for its part completely clear of any “actual innocence” argument.
These challenges posed discomfiting questions that jurists shrank away from. The Virginia Supreme Court, in denying an equal protection application, fretted that actual legal relief could mean that “no Negroes could be executed unless a certain number of white people” were, too. Timeless.
Though a later U.S. Supreme Court would completely overturn death-sentencing for rape, based in part on its overwhelming racial slant, justices have generally avoided meddling to redress broad statistical patterns rather than identifiable process violations specific to particular cases.
Those questions of substantive — rather than merely procedural — equality in the justice system remain potently unresolved, still part of Americans’ lived experience of the law from death row to the drug war to driving while black. As if to underscore the point in this instance, just two days prior to the first Martinsville executions, the Wall Street bankster acting as American proconsul in conquered Germany pardoned imprisoned Nazi industrialist Alfried Krupp, and restored him to the fortune he had amassed working Jewish slaves to death during the war. It was a very particular quality of mercy the U.S. showed the world in those days. (The Martinsville case was known, and protested, worldwide.)
Carol Steiker (she used to clerk for liberal Justice Thurgood Marshall, who as an NAACP lawyer worked on the Martinsville case) argues‡ that the Martinsville Seven’s legacy is linked to their later obscurity, for “[t]heir attempt to present statistical proof of discrimination in capital sentencing represents a ‘road not taken’” — neither in 1951, nor since.
The road taken instead had Joe Henry Hampton, 22, Howard Hairston, 21, Booker Millner, 22 and Frank Hairston, 19 electrocuted one by one this morning in 1951. Their three co-accused, John Clabon Taylor, 24, James Luther Hairston, 23, and Francis DeSales Grayson, 40, followed them on February 5.
* “Race, Rape, and Radicalism: The Case of the Martinsville Seven, 1949-1951″ in The Journal of Southern History, Aug., 1992.
** This quote an actual trial admonishment of the judge, Kennon Whittle.
† Graded on a curve: this is still Jim Crow Virginia. Six trials were wrapped up at warp speed in 11 days, with a total of 72 jurors — each one white. The implied comparison is something along the lines of, all seven tried together in the course of an afternoon, with a good ol’ boy defense attorney mailing it in.
‡ Review of Rise’s book titled “Remembering Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment” in the Virginia Law Review, Apr., 1997