The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia
Interview by Natalie Beyer
Issue 46 • December 2016 • Fredericksburg
Racially motivated murder, biased police work, a community-wide cover-up—it was a story just waiting to be exposed, and that’s exactly what this retired reporter did.
“I was in the news business long enough to know when you’ve got a good story,” Jim Hall said as we sat on campus at the University of Mary Washington. This Fredericksburg resident was speaking of his authorial debut, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Seeking Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain, an account of a troubling chapter in the Commonwealth’s not-so-distant past. We had met at the Hurley Convergence Center, mere feet from the archives used to conduct his research, before he was to present to UMW professor Claudine Ferrell’s upper-level history course. Hall had teamed up with Ferrell, herself well-versed in the history of the practice of lynching, while writing the book. Together, they worked to shed light on a local mystery that began almost 85 years ago.
The Last Lynching was a project of passion, beginning out of simple curiosity, but eventually growing into a mission to expose the truth behind a piece of small town folklore. A longtime writer for The Free Lance-Star, Hall had retired from newspaper journalism in 2013 and was toying with the idea of studying the regional history of lynching. Specifically, he wanted to document how local newspapers had reported lynching occurrences. In order to limit the scope of the project, Hall decided that he would review clippings from Virginia newspapers published up until 1930. That is, until he stumbled across the Shedrick Thompson case.
Thompson was a suspected kidnapper and rapist whose body was found, burned and mutilated, hanging from an apple tree in Fauquier County. The official cause of death: suicide. Though it had happened in 1932, two years past Hall’s self-imposed limit, something about the case enticed him to dig deeper. It had all the makings of a true-crime thriller: the kidnapping and rape of a prominent Southern belle known as Mamie Baxley, collaborative murder, police cover-ups, and the community’s collective keeping of dark secrets. Hall himself had to admit that broaching this topic would not only be difficult and sensitive, but virtually taboo. “Lynching is a weird subject,” Hall said, “It’s fascinating, but horrifying.”
One initial attraction Hall had for the story was the apparent lack of common sense applied to the investigation. “You know, if it looks like a rose, smells like a rose, it’s a rose,” Hall said, “and this case, it looked like a lynching, it was at the time that lynchings were being done, and it involved a crime—an alleged crime—for which lynchings occurred.” The more Hall sifted through coroner and police documents, the more complex and twisted the tale became. “There were a lot of elements that made it look like a lynching, yet the official version was suicide and that didn’t sit well. There was just something about that. It was like the good ol’ boys got away with it and the community covered it up for them.”
Hall faced many difficulties sourcing credible witnesses who were alive and willing to talk with him. Since so many years had passed, the best Hall could manage were descendants of the parties involved and neighbors of the Baxley family. Many did not want to speak about their family’s connection to the murder or cover-up. “There were people who wouldn’t be interviewed because of it,” Hall recounted. “There are descendants of those who perhaps were involved who wouldn’t be interviewed. It was a difficult process at times. I think there were seventeen people—Fauquier residents—who cooperated with me.” He had more luck when talking to younger residents who had grown up with the story as childhood lore, almost unaware that it actually happened. “There were plenty of people in Fauquier who knew about it, who had been told about it, who had grew up with this story and were happy to tell me what happened—what they heard happened. I think I made a good case for what happened based upon the stories of those who lived there.”
After he finished his manuscript, Hall found that the road to publication was not an easy one. “I got rejected three times,” he said with a raspy laugh. After passing the piece along to his historian friends for a bit of peer review, he approached numerous publishers before being accepted by The History Press based in Charleston, South Carolina. Though they were quite enthusiastic about the project, regional book markets have been less so. “The publisher has had a hard time placing the book in retail outlets in Warrenton because of the sensitive nature of the subject,” he acknowledged. “The museum at Warrenton has a very nice bookstore and gift shop. They wouldn’t carry it.” Though he expected pushback from the communities mentioned in the book, he felt a sense of journalistic duty to get the truth out, even if it didn’t paint a pretty picture. “There is a resistance still to the telling of the story. The argument made to me indirectly is, ‘Why are you retelling this sordid tale? Why are you bringing up this old story?’” Hall’s answer: “I’m not retelling this sordid tale. I’m telling this sordid tale for the first time because it’s never been laid out in its entirety. I don’t think anyone that I know of has made the case for what actually happened, and that is, a murder.”
The Last Lynching was officially released this past September, bringing to bear the historical justice that Shedrick Thompson and his family deserve. I was curious to know what was next for this new author. “I’m story-driven,” Hall said with a smile, “I want to be knocked over by a story and then I’ll spend the time that it takes to pursue it. But if it doesn’t sort of get me out of the chair, I’m stuck. So, I’m waiting. I hope that another story comes along that interests me.”