A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial
(2004), Suzanne Lebsock’s true crime book, tells the story of three women seeking justice after they are accused of murdering another woman in her farmyard. Well received by critics and readers alike, the book won the 2004 Francis Parkman Prize. An award-winning historian and author, Lebsock serves as the Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University. She is the author of numerous nonfiction and true crime books, all of which center on women in America’s history.A Murder in Virginia
covers the events of June of 1895 in Lunenburg County, Virginia. One afternoon, a middle-aged white woman, Lucy Jane Pollard, is found dead in her own yard. She has been murdered with an ax, and suspicion immediately falls on a sawmill hand, William Henry Marable. William, whom everyone knows as “Solomon,” flees Lunenburg Country shortly after Lucy’s murder. Because he does not explain his absence, everyone assumes he is responsible.
However, Solomon soon implicates others in the crime; the hunt to find the true killer is anything but straightforward. A Murder in Virginia
retraces what happened the day Lucy was murdered, and how color, social class, and gender clash in this small town. Lebsock explains that, because Lunenburg is so small, relationships between blacks and whites are polarized, and the outcome of the murder investigation was the culmination of years of social and racial tension.
Lebsock explores how deeply the color lines run in Lunenburg at the time. Segregation is extreme and racism is at an all-time high. No one is surprised when Solomon, a black man, is arrested so quickly. It is even less surprising when three black women are also implicated in the murder. All the authorities care about is keeping the suspects alive long enough to condemn them, because the risk of a public lynching is very high. Lebsock notes that never for a moment do the authorities consider that these people may be innocent.
Lebsock takes readers through the evidence and the aftermath. Authorities discover that $800 in cash is missing from Lucy’s home. Her husband, Edward, is a well-known moneylender, and everyone knows he keeps his money in the house. Because Solomon has extra money on him that he can’t explain, it is assumed that he broke into the Pollard house, stole the money, and killed Lucy. Lebsock explains that, given Lunenburg’s limited judicial system, this is all the proof authorities need to take the case to trial.
Lebsock describes what happens when Solomon implicates three black women—Pokey Barnes, Mary Barnes, and Mary Abernathy—and how the press treated the accused. Journalists thrive on gruesome stories to sell papers at the time, and their coverage plays a significant part in the outcome of the case. The media, Lebsock asserts, are biased and prejudicial, and not interested in justice. The authorities allow the media to dominate the case; the journalists can almost be described as extra jurors.
Because of this media interest, Lebsock reminds us, it doesn’t matter who is guilty or innocent. At least one of these suspects will be found guilty. The authorities are not looking for anyone else. All the people of Lunenburg care about is hanging someone for murdering a middle-class woman in her own home. They will use the crime as another excuse to oppress black people. However, not everyone in the media is so easily convinced.
Lebsock highlights the importance of the black newspaper, The Richmond Planet
, to the outcome. The paper arranges legal representation for the three women, and the black community rallies around them. This is no longer about the murder of an individual white woman—it is about the enduring mistreatment of African Americans and the media’s passion for ripping them apart.
Lebsock observes that, although lynching is a depressing reality for African Americans in Lunenburg and the surrounding areas, it is not the only danger that they face. By taking readers through the trials, Lebsock exposes how the courtroom is skewed against all black people at the time. Trials are nothing more than a pretense of civility and justice—once a black person is arrested and charged, they are automatically guilty.
The trials take place over many months. Solomon is later convicted of first-degree murder, and he is eventually hanged. Lebsock notes that, although it is unclear who really killed Lucy, it is likely that he was, at least, an accessory to her murder. The real murderer has never been convincingly identified. What is intriguing about the case, however, is that the women are eventually released, because the prosecutors accept that there is no convincing evidence against them.
Although dropping the charges against these women is a small victory, it is still a victory for justice at the time. Lebsock admits that A Murder in Virginia
cannot solve the mystery of Lucy’s killer’s real identity, but she praises the role of the black media in securing effective representation for the accused.
Lebsock relates that no one ever recovered the $800 or the other property stolen from the home. It has not ever been conclusively proven that anyone stole this money from the Pollard home in the first place, which affects the possible motives for the crime and, consequently, the list of suspects.