The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Seeking Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain

The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Seeking Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain

The charred remains of Shedrick Thompson had not yet been cut from the tree from which he had been hanged before the controversy over his fate began. Thompson’s 1932 death was ruled a suicide by white authorities in rural Fauquier County, where Thompson lived and died. However, the local Fauquier population, white and black, knew that he had been lynched and his body torched. Thompson was the prime suspect in the severe beating of Henry and Mamie Baxley, a prominent local couple and Thompson’s landlords, who were viciously attacked in their home while their young son slept in the next room. Henry was knocked out cold by his attacker, and Mamie was dragged from the home and marched in the dead of night across several fields and into the woods where the assault continued. After the attack, Thompson vanished, most likely into the nearby foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains where he had grown up. Despite numerous manhunts, his whereabouts would remain a mystery until two months later, when he died at the end of a rope on Rattlesnake Mountain.

Thompson’s story is recounted in vivid detail by local author Jim Hall in his engaging, if sometimes unsettling, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Seeking Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain. Hall’s book is a case study in the tense racial climate that pervaded the agrarian South of the 1930s, where segregation was the law of the land, but black and white people lived and worked side-by-side with an intimacy that can only spring from the close camaraderie of rural life. Hall’s account illustrates the complexity of people’s reactions to the lynching, both in the 1930s and today. The book opens with a brief yet telling anecdote about the first lawman who arrived at the scene of the hanging. Deputy W.W. Pearson tried to extinguish the fire that was consuming Thompson’s corpse but was held at gunpoint by a member of the lynch mob and told to “let it burn.” Near the end of the book, a descendant of the reputed leaders of the mob is quoted; his discomfort with his family’s ties to Thompson’s lynching is evident. But he also admits that he was “never, ever led to believe that it was anything other than [a lynching]. He did the act, he hid in the mountain, he was caught, the mob took care of him and walked away from it.”  In between, Hall provides readers an in-depth look at life in 1930s Fauquier County and a feel for the factors that contributed the racial animosity that simmered just below the surface of daily life during that era.

Hall effectively mixes historical research and interviews with descendants of those involved and people who remember the Jim Crow decades. The resulting narrative is a portrait of both a dark chapter in local history and of subsequent generations’ struggles to come to terms with the legacy of racism and the evil acts it incited. One of the book’s most notable achievements is that, despite the horror of Thompson’s crime, Hall finds pathos in his story. While conceding from the first sentence that Thompson did indeed brutally beat the Baxleys, leaving Henry for dead and forcing himself on Mamie in the gloom of the woods, Hall explores the nature of justice and the ways in which 1930s society denied it to black Americans. Even if Thompson was guilty, Hall notes, “he had risked his life as a U.S. soldier at war, defending the rule of law, yet he died without benefit of it.” That both local and state officials played a role in sweeping Thompson’s murder under the rug underpins Hall’s depiction of the injustice that was done in the name of the backwards ideas that many in the local population considered justice.

Hall’s chronicle is richly illustrated with period photographs, newspaper clippings and a map, all of which help to present readers with a striking sense of life in an era of racial tension that is not as far in the past as we would like to think.

University of Mary Washington history professor Dr. Claudine Ferrell contributed the introduction to the book, which provides a brief account of the phenomenon of lynching and mob justice in American history.