Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial

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"[Makes] history, with all its messiness, ugliness, and even humanity, come vividly alive."—Chicago Tribune
It's 1895 in Virginia, and a white woman lies in her farmyard, murdered with an ax. Suspicion soon falls on a young black sawmill hand, who tries to flee the county. Captured, he implicates three women, accusing them of plotting the murder and wielding the ax. In vivid courtroom scenes, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Suzanne Lebsock recounts their dramatic trials and brings us close to women we would never otherwise know: a devout (and pregnant) mother of nine; another hard-working mother (also of nine); and her plucky, quick-tempered daughter. All claim to be innocent. With the danger of lynching high, can they get justice?
Lebsock takes us deep into this contentious, often surprising world, where blacks struggle to hold on to their post-Civil War gains against a rising tide of white privilege. A sensation in its own time, this case offers the modern reader a riveting encounter with a South in the throes of change.

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Editorial Reviews

Dallas Morning News
“So much happens—and so much of it is unexpected—in Suzanne Lebsock's gripping study of the sensational ax murder of Lucy Jane Pollard...that we can only urge readers to read for themselves the acclaimed author's brilliant descriptions of racial politics (four African Americans were accused), the constant threat of lynching, the vicious court battles and how it all ended.”
New York Times
“How refreshing! Honest-to-goodness, 100 percent-genuine facts in an age of docudramas and fictional histories....Impressive job of historical re-creation....[Lebsock] has done a service in resuscitating this forgotten tale.”
The Washington Post
Lebsock -- a professor of history at the University of Washington at Seattle -- is right to insist that it deserves at least a footnote in history, and she has provided just that in A Murder in Virginia. — Jonathan Yardley
Publishers Weekly
In recounting a 1895 murder investigation and trial in Lunenberg County, Va., Lebsock (The Free Women of Petersburg) meticulously brings to life a lost episode of a small, segregated Southern town and frames it against the backdrop of racial strife in the country as a whole. When the wife of a prominent Lunenberg man is murdered with an ax, a black farmhand, Solomon Marable, is immediately arrested. He shocks everyone by accusing three black women of the crime, and a dramatic set of trials ensues. Lebsock recounts the improbable roles of lawyers, judges, politicians, the black community and the defendants themselves in the case, thanking "the archivists, librarians, county clerks, the clerks' clerks, and packrats of all descriptions," who allowed her to recreate the investigations and five trials in astonishing detail. Mary Abernathy (tried twice), Mary Barnes and her daughter Pokey Barnes were eventually exonerated, to the relief of many. Marable paid for the crime with his life, but Lebsock, a professor of history at the University of Washington, is not sure he did it; she presents the case from both sides, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. Throughout, Lebsock employs a clear, precise prose, and packs the book with the sort of detail that will satisfy procedural junkies. For history buffs, the book provides a fascinating, microcosmic glimpse into the politics and law of late Reconstruction, at a moment when the U.S. was poised on the brink of the 20th century. Moreover, Lebsock perfectly captures the manner in which the town mobilized to give the women (if not Marable) a fair trial, and the ways in which individual personalities influenced that process, lending this book a human interest beyond its time and place. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
On a warm afternoon in June 1895, a 56-year-old white woman was brutally murdered in Lunenburg County, VA. Despite the absence of any truly incriminating eye-witness testimony or physical evidence, four blacks-three women and one man-were arrested and tried for the murder. Lebsock (history, Univ. of Washington, Seattle), author of the Bancroft Prize-winning The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860), re-creates the subsequent trials, introducing the defendants, their prosecutors, and the witnesses and placing the proceedings within the context of the black and white communities and deteriorating conditions for African Americans in the post-Reconstruction South. Here historical narrative is every bit as intriguing as fictional mystery but more edifying for the information it gives its readers concerning race relations and criminal justice in the latter part of the 19th century. As readable and riveting as John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; recommended for public and academic libraries of all sizes.-Theresa R. McDevitt, Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Bancroft Prize-winner Lebsock (The Free Women of Petersburg, 1984) takes us to a sweltering Dixie courtroom where African-Americans stand accused of murdering a white woman. It would be a cliché as fiction, but this case really happened. More than a century ago, in 1895, when slavery had been dead only one generation, deep in Virginia tobacco country in a place no longer on any map, a farmer’s wife was struck down with several brutal blows of an ax. The farmer, it should be noted, had a hoard of $800 in $20 bills. Soon Solomon, a black mill worker caught spending a couple of $20 bills, was arrested. He promptly implicated three black women: Mary, a mother of nine who "looked a lot more like a mammy than a murderer"; another Mary, also a mother of nine; and her quick-witted daughter Pokey. They had planned the whole thing, he claimed, but every time Solomon told the tale, it changed. His only consistency concerned a lone white man who had forcibly enlisted him in the grisly murder and robbery, but if that man existed he certainly never went on trial. The four unlettered blacks did, surrounded by an armed militia; they were quickly convicted with scarce, tainted evidence and without counsel. The inevitable verdicts were just the beginning of this narrative, which also covers the women’s eventual release, Solomon’s execution, and the bizarre journey of his remains. Retrials in a racially divided courtroom with speechifying southern lawyers waxing rhetorical as only they could, feuding sheriffs, eager reporters, and a stalwart governor all play integral roles in this deeply researched chronicle. Lebsock (History/Univ. of Washington, Seattle) reconstructs the story of an admirableAfrican-American newspaper publisher and depicts the personalities of all the other important players with considerable understanding and intelligence. Finally, she offers a reasoned argument regarding the identity of the most likely perp. True-crime with continued resonance, given America’s troubled racial history. (15 illustrations)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393326062
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/28/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 442
  • Sales rank: 814,290
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Suzanne Lebsock is a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship and professor of history at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Her work winning The Free Women of Petersburg received the Bancroft Prize. She lives in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

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Table of Contents

List of Characters 9
Prologue 13
1. "Murder Most Brutal" 23
2. Chase City 32
3. Flight 45
4. Independence Day 58
5. Solomon on Trial 68
6. Quick Work 82
7. The Prince of Liars 93
8. "Mirabile Marable" 109
9. The Rise of Edward Pollard 120
10. The Thirteenth Juror 136
11. Taking Sides 147
12. Baptisms 161
13. White Man Stories 172
14. Nunc Pro Tunc 184
15. New Life 196
16. "A Gone Case" 206
17. Egg-Sucking Dog 226
18. Tracks 241
19. One Shall Be Taken 257
20. Messages 270
21. Solomon's Body 276
22. Common Sense 291
23. The Pitcher to the Well 304
24. Who Killed Lucy Pollard? 318
Afterword 333
Acknowledgments 341
Notes 345
Index 425
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2007

    A must read for anyone who is not a historian

    I had this book for two years sitting on my shelf and finally pulled it down to read. I was really glad that I did not toss it. Lebock gave the reader an insight into southern society about justice, sexism and race relations. A must read for anyone.

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