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The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Seeking Truth at

Rattlesnake Mountain
By Jim Hall

Jim Hall
1426 Kenmore Avenue
Fredericksburg, Va. 22401
Copyright 2014 by James E. Hall

Chapter 1
A body had been found. It hung from an apple tree at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain. By
the time Deputy W.W. Pearson got there, a crowd had gathered, more than 150 people. Someone
set fire to the body, and Pearson tried to beat back the flames with his new hat. Then a man
punched a pistol in his ribs. Get back, the man said. Let it burn.

The Attack at Edenhurst

Henry and Mamie Baxley were asleep in their upstairs bedroom when Shedrick Thompson
attacked them. Their 2-year-old son, Henry Jr., was sleeping in the adjoining bedroom.
Thompson knew the Baxleys and Edenhurst, their home. He and his wife, Ruth, lived next door
in a tenant house. He had worked as a farmhand for Henry and Henrys father, and Ruth was
their cook. He moved confidently in the dark, entering the house through the back door into the
kitchen, where he picked up a stick of stove wood. It was about 10 oclock on a Sunday night,
unbearably hot, even for July in rural Virginia.
Thompson crossed the wooden floor of the foyer, then crept upstairs to the bedroom. Henry
must have heard something, because he was out of bed when Thompson reached him. Thompson
was on him quickly, using the stick as a club. The two struggled in the dark, amid the sounds of
confusion and pain. Thompson hit Henry on the arm and head and finally knocked him
unconscious to the bedroom floor.
Thompson grabbed Mamie and pulled her from the bed. He dragged her past her downed
husband, out of the bedroom and down the stairs. Together the two stumbled through the door,
across the porch and into the moonlit night. The date was July 17, 1932, in Fauquier County, Va.
Thompson was black, 39, and the Baxleys employee. They were white, landed, and as one
newspaper said later, one of the most popular young couples in the county.

Inside the home, only silence followed the shouts and groans of the attack. Thompson and
Mamie were gone, and Henry was unconscious. Henry Jr. slept through the attack, unaware that
his father was injured and his mother was missing. Whatever fury drove Thompson to attack the
Baxleys that night did not involve their child.
Henry Sr. regained consciousness to find himself sitting by his sons bed. He said later that he
had only the vaguest recollection of covering his head with his arms to protect himself against
Thompsons blows. He called for his wife but got no answer. His head and arms were swollen
and painful, but he moved quickly through the house, searching each room. Downstairs, the front
door stood open. Henry peered into the darkness, the empty pastures and stillness. Nothing. He
scooped up Henry Jr. and hurried outside to his pickup, an old Reo. It was after 3 a.m. as he
drove to the main road, then south, past Hume, to the Cove, Mamies childhood home.
Alphonso Washington was a teenager then and had been working as a house boy for
Mamies family at the Cove for about a month. He saw Henry pull up the driveway, park his
truck, and with his son in his arms, run into the house. Henry told his in-laws of the attack and
Mamies abduction. He was bleeding freely and still dazed, one newspaper reported, and the
family was surprised that he had been able to drive. He said he thought Thompson had shot him.
But his in-laws examined him and said no, it looked like he had been beaten. Washington, now
102 years old, is a retired preacher, living in Culpeper, Va. In an interview in 2014, he recalled
what it was like when Henry arrived at the Cove and told of the attack. He didnt know nothing
about where [Mamie] was, he said. He didnt know nothing.
The abduction from her bedroom was just the beginning of Mamies nightmare. Thompson
grabbed her under the arm, pushing, dragging, almost carrying her down the hill and the dirt
driveway outside her home. They made an unlikely pair as they hurried west through the night.
He was 6 feet, 190 and labor-strong; she was tiny, so small that she had to use a pillow to reach
the pedals when she drove.
At the end of the driveway, they crossed Route 688, now known as Leeds Manor Road, and
entered the rocky pasture on the other side. They had not gone far into the field when a car
approached. It was Lucian Moss on his way home from Hume, where he had been playing
bridge. His window was down, and he was singing. Mamie knew Moss from their choir at Leeds
Episcopal Church and recognized his beautiful voice. She tried to pull away from Thompson;
surely Moss would see them and stop. But the car did not slow, and the headlights moved away.
If Mamie had any hopes of rescue, they faded then, leaving her with the fear of what was to
come, the possibility that she might never see her husband and child again.
Thompson pulled her through the pasture, across a creek and past the thickets of briars and
redbuds. The land was too rugged for crops. Instead, the Baxleys grazed cattle there and
produced apples. Everyone knew the place as Locust Shoots. After a hundred yards, they reached
the foot of Buck Mountain, out of sight of the road. Mamie was scared and sore from
Thompsons rough handling. But she told her family later that of all the injuries she suffered that
night, among the worst were the cuts to her bare feet from the rocks and briars.
No one but Mamie knows how long she was Thompsons prisoner. No one knows what, if
anything, he said to her. Was this some sort of drunken payback for something he thought she
had done? Was he angry at her husband? Two days later, when Stanley Woolf, sheriff of
Fauquier County, prepared a wanted poster for Thompson, he used technical language to
describe the incident as a criminal assault on a white woman, a capital offense. The members
of a Fauquier County grand jury were less delicate. They said Thompson raped her, a charge she
later confirmed.

Thompson also knocked Mamie unconscious and pulled the rings from her fingerher
diamond white gold engagement ring and her wedding ring, white gold with orange blossom
engraving. Carved inside the wedding ring were her and her husbands initials and their wedding
date: H.L.B.--M.M.Y.--6-2-23. She and Henry had just celebrated their ninth anniversary. Now,
like her husband, she had been beaten senseless and left for dead.
Mamie came to at about 7 oclock that morning. She stumbled north through the field to the
dirt road, where she collapsed in the front yard of the Jackson house. James and Georgie
Jackson, a black couple, lived in the tenant house owned by the Baxleys; he worked for Mamies
father-in-law. James picked up Mamie in the front yard and carried her into the house, where
Georgie tended her bleeding wounds. Groups of men were already searching for Mamie, and
Jackson found one group and took them back to his home. Soon family members were there and
drove Mamie and Henry to Fauquier County Hospital in Warrenton.
The Baxleys were a farm family and apple growers. Henry was a protg of former Gov.
Harry F. Byrd and chairman of the county Democratic Party. Mamie was the granddaughter of
one of the largest and wealthiest landowners in the region and the stepdaughter of the chairman
of the county school board. Thompson, too, was from a longtime Virginia family. He was an
Army veteran whod served in France during World War I. Yet now he was traveling a path from
which he could not return. He had sneaked into the Baxley home, assaulted Henry, and abducted,
raped and beaten Mamie. He was doomed.
Thompson fled north toward the mountains where he grew up. As he crashed through thistle
and goldenrod, he must have known he was running for his life. Rape was a capital offense in
Virginia in 1932, punishable by electrocution. Two months before Thompson assaulted the
Baxleys, the state executed Sam Pannell, an 18-year-old black man from Halifax County, who
was charged in January 1932 with the rape of a white woman. A Halifax County Circuit Court
jury deliberated for eight minutes before sentencing him to death. Throughout the state, the rape
of a white woman by a black man was punished harshly. From 1868 to 1932, Virginia executed
55 people for rape and attempted rape. All of them were black.
The search for Thompson was the largest in the countys history, lasting for weeks and
involving law enforcement and hundreds of volunteers. Day after day, groups of armed men,
some organized by the sheriff and others self-assigned, combed the mountain paths. Some of
these men invaded the homes of local black residents, accusing them of hiding Thompson in
their cellars or behind cabin doors. Suspected sightings of the fugitive came from as far away as
Culpeper, 30 miles to the south. Yet, despite these efforts, the searchers found nothing and
eventually returned to their everyday lives.
Then, nearly two months after the assault, a farmhand checking a fence line at the foot of
Rattlesnake Mountain, a few miles from the Baxley house, found Thompsons body hanging
from an apple tree. Word spread and 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
Thompsons teeth as souvenirs. The county coroner ruled that night that Thompson had climbed
into the tree, attached a rope to his neck and jumped out. A few days later a county grand jury
confirmed his verdict. In the community and elsewhere, the two rulings seemed hasty, part of a
clumsy cover-up. Soon local newspapers reported the details of what they said was a lynching,
and national civil rights groups added Thompsons name to their lists of lynch victims. But
former Gov. Harry F. Byrd, among others, argued for suicide, and with no trial and no public
explanation, the official verdict stood.

And so began the Depression-era mystery of Shedrick Thompson. Thompson had worked for
the Baxleys for more than 15 years. He, his wife, and his stepson lived next door to them. The
two families were of separate worlds: one black, the other white; one poor, the other rich. They
were neighbors, perhaps even neighborly. Yet Thompson had tried to kill them. Why? And what
happened to him on Rattlesnake Mountain? The county coroner and a county grand jury ruled his
death a suicide, the final act of a desperate fugitive. Because of this, some historians do not
include his case among Virginias lynchings. To them, lynching in Virginia ended years earlier
with passage of a state antilynching law. But the evidence points to another conclusion: murder.
Thompson did not commit suicide on Rattlesnake Mountain. He was captured and killed by a
posse of his neighbors, the victim of Virginias last lynching.
Jim Hall is a native of Virginia and a resident of Fredericksburg. He received a bachelors degree
from Virginia Tech and a masters degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. He was a
newspaper reporter and editor for 26 years at The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg. He retired
in 2013.
This excerpt is from The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Seeking Truth at Rattlesnake
Mountain, his first book. It was published in September by History Press.