Virginia court quashes false indictment of Black man lynched by mob in 1898

In front of a packed courtroom on Wednesday, a judge in Albemarle County, Virginia, overturned the indictment of a Black man who the court now believes was falsely accused of raping a white woman. John Henry James’s criminal record is now clear. But James wasn’t present in court to celebrate: he was lynched by an angry white mob 125 years earlier.

On 11 July 1898, Julia Hotopp, a white woman, said she was returning home from the nearby town of Charlottesville after having her riding horse re-shod, when she was violently assaulted in a remote part of the road. But from there, her story differs: in some accounts, she said she was able to fend the attacker off by scratching his face, while in others, the man raped her in such a foul manner she did not want to give particulars.

She described the man as “a very Black man, heavy-set, slight mustache, wore dark clothes, and his toes were sticking out of his shoes,” according to local newspaper reports published that day in the Daily Progress and obtained by the Guardian.

Soon after, local ice cream vendor John Henry James was arrested, though even the paper reported that he was only “answering somewhat the description of Miss Hotopp’s assailant”. Nobody seemed to check for her skin beneath his fingernails.

The story was reported breathlessly by the Daily Progress, with the headline “Atrocious and Outrageous: A Young Lady Assaulted By A Black Villain”. Soon, an angry white mob grew outside the jail and jailers were allegedly worried for James’s safety. Albemarle county sheriff Lucien Watts and Charlottesville police chief Frank P Farish smuggled James out of the building through private homes and even a wine cellar. They took him on to a train to the nearby town of Staunton, Virginia, where he spent the night in the local jail.

The next morning, on 12 July, James, Farish, and Watts took the train back to Charlottesville for a hastily called grand jury hearing.

When the train made a scheduled stop a few miles outside of town, on property that is now part of the Farmington country club, an armed, angry, and unmasked mob of at about 150 white men pulled James from the train. According to newspaper reports, the men looped a rope around James’ neck and dragged him to “a small locust tree near the blacksmith shop”. Onlookers claimed Farish and Watts were unable to stop the mob.

Before being lynched, James reportedly said, “Before God, I am innocent,” the newspaper said. “As soon as he was elevated, the crowd emptied their pistols into his body, probably 40 shots entering it,” reported the newspaper.

Shortly after the lynching, the grand jury discovered what happened and assembled in Albemarle county. They indicted him for the assault of Julia Hotopp – even though he was already dead.

This is known as the most famous lynching in Charlottesville, a town still reckoning with its racist past; in August 2017, a white nationalist riot taking place in the town killed white counter-protester Heather Heyer and inspired then president Donald Trump’s comments about violence on “both sides”.

Local historians and activists have been working to get recognition for James’s lynching, which they say is invalid on its face.

“You can’t indict a corpse,” said Jalane Schmidt, director of the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy’s Memory Project.

As part of the racial reconciliation work in Charlottesville, Jim Hingeley, the Albemarle county prosecutor, introduced a motion in May to overturn his office’s 125-year-old indictment of James for the assault of Hotopp, and clear James’s criminal record.

“We need to confront the history of racial terror lynching in our own community,” Hingeley said. “And if we don’t confront racial injustice like this … I think it impairs our ability to repair that legacy and to build a more just future.”

The prosecutor’s office, known as the commonwealth’s attorney in Virginia, wrote in court documents filed in May: “The commonwealth believes this was a false accusation.”

Hingeley said “there wasn’t any reason at all to indict a man who had died, except that a lynching had just occurred. And so the community, I believe, wanted to put a formal accusation on the record as if to justify, not that it could justify it, but as if to justify the killing of John Henry James.”

Local historians and activists have been working to get recognition for James’s lynching.

Presiding judge Cheryl Higgins underscored this point on Wednesday, telling the court: “The indictment was not an instrument of justice. It was used as a sanction and to approve the lynching of a man simply because he was Black and it was a mockery of the judicial system and abuse of the process.”

More than a century later, there is little evidence to confirm that the alleged assault ever took place or, if it did, to find other potential suspects. However, according to recent reporting in the Daily Progress, Hotopp was later charged with insanity in Washington in 1911.

In the overturning of the indictment, Hingeley pointed out the utter failure of his predecessors to find and prosecute James’s killers. The Albemarle prosecutor at the time was Micajah Woods, a former Confederate who would later become chair of a committee to erect Confederate statues on the courthouse lawn.

“They actually had an inquiry into the death, and they found he had died ‘at the hands of persons unknown’, which is a lie,” Hingeley said.

Historians, particularly Philip Dray, who wrote the book At the Hands of Persons Unknown: the Lynching of Black America, have found that “at the hands of persons unknown” is a common phrase in this dark period of American history. It was used to purposefully obscure the identities of those responsible for mob lynchings.

In the case of James’s killing, there were 150 unmasked white men gathered in broad daylight, with both the county sheriff and the town police chief in attendance. While Charlottesville is still a small town, it was even smaller in 1898.

“There were people in the crowd who certainly could have identified those who did the lynching,” Hingeley said. “The justice system turned a blind eye to it.”

There was even an acknowledgment of this in an editorial published in the local paper, the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator at the time: “The rule in society in Albemarle is such that one frequently has to be introduced to another several times there before he can be said to know him. The jury had not had a formal introduction, you see.”

Activists like Schmidt, co-founder of Charlottesville Black Lives Matter, said though the lynching of James was long ago, it reflects modern problems in both Charlottesville and across America.

“As we saw in 2017, it’s a white supremacist mob attacking people of color,” she said. “And the police [are] standing idly by and allowing this to happen … There’s absolutely a pattern here.”

Hingeley echoed this feeling: “Let’s be clear here, the lynching was a result of white supremacy. And if anybody thinks that white supremacy is gone, they need to think again. And this is something that still plagues us in our contemporary society. So confronting our past has a great deal of value, and I think it’s important to do.”

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