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 admirable African-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)