Jim Hall calls the lynching of Shedrick Thompson “an open wound” in Fauquier County, Va.
It could heal, the former newspaper reporter believes, but only if residents would open up to what happened in 1932 about 20 miles north of Warrenton, the county seat.
In his book, “The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia,” he explored the hanging and subsequent burning of the black man — and his attack on a white couple that preceded it.
But Hall, who worked for the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star for 26 years, says that getting the book sold or publicly discussed in Fauquier has been a seven-month struggle.
“I’ve been really disappointed and surprised,” Hall said of a response that seemed to say, “Why would you revive such an awful incident?”
The book was published in September by South Carolina-based History Press. Soon after, he began to get the discouraging drift.
A sales rep said shopkeepers didn’t want to carry it. A Warrenton museum — the logical place to find it — decided not to stock it, after a divided board vote. And while Hall was making the rounds of other Virginia towns for author talks, “no church or civic group stepped forward” to host him in Fauquier.
“We couldn’t penetrate the area,” said History Press’s Megan Petrie. “It was just too sensitive a topic.” Robert Marquart, the sales rep who made the rounds of pharmacies and shops last fall, described the reaction: “They just weren’t keen to carry it.”
Yet local people did show interest when the slim volume was made available.
“The Fauquier libraries had one copy in each branch, and there’s never not been a waiting list,” Hall said. And when a Warrenton hardware store took a chance and stocked it, Hall said, the proprietor “held his breath” about the possible reaction — and the book sold out.
To be sure, the history excavated in the book is disturbing in many ways. The story begins with the abduction and rape of a white woman, Mamie Baxley, who was asleep when 39-year-old Thompson attacked her and her husband, Henry. Their toddler son slept in the next room.
Thompson, a World War I veteran, knew the family well: He lived next door in a tenant house; he worked for them as a farmhand and his wife as a cook. His motive remains a mystery.
After the attack, Thompson fled, and a manhunt went on for weeks, involving hundreds of volunteers, many of them armed.
They found nothing. But two months after the assault, a farmhand found Thompson’s body hanging from an apple tree.
Hall’s book tells what happened next, as a crowd gathered: “Despite the presence of a deputy sheriff, members of the mob set fire to the body, destroying everything but the skull. They also removed Thompson’s teeth as souvenirs.”
The county coroner ruled that his death was a suicide — Thompson, he said, had climbed onto the tree, attached a rope to his neck and jumped. A county grand jury confirmed it, but soon, civil rights groups and local newspapers saw it for what it was: a lynching followed by a coverup. Former governor Harry F. Byrd came down on the side of suicide.
“With no trial and no public explanation, the official verdict stood,” Hall wrote. His conclusion: “Thompson did not commit suicide. . . . He was captured and killed by a posse of his neighbors, the victim of Virginia’s last lynching.”
Karen Hughes White, the co-founder of the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County, understands the resistance that such a story may engender.
“Sometimes people are in denial. They want to think none of this ever happened here,” she told me. But she’s also found openness: “I’ve heard people say they never thought about these issues. We’re trying to allow people to think and to allow conversation.”
Her museum has stocked 25 copies of Hall’s book and will host a presentation on May 13. And a related documentary film by Tom Davenport, “The Other Side of Eden,” will be screened that evening at a Warrenton arts center.
This kind of interest and possible acceptance has been a long time coming, Hall said.
“I have spoken in Richmond, Culpeper, Manassas, Stafford and Fredericksburg about the book and about lynching in Virginia,” but never before in Fauquier County, the scene of the crimes.
Hall said he is heartened that the Old Jail Museum in Warrenton, which voted last year not to allow the book’s sale, has begun carrying it — seven months after publication.
In a foreword, University of Mary Washington history professor Claudine Ferrell writes that Thompson’s murder was one of many like it — lynchings peaked in the 1890s at about 200 a year. Over the years, murders by mobs in Mississippi alone took more than 500 black lives.
She sees Hall’s book as a valuable part of “clarifying the history of race, justice and community in American history.”
Hall’s honest accounting — and the painful discussions it is sure to provoke — may help heal the wound.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan.