The Train at Wood’s Crossing

Brendan Wolfe
28 min readJan 18, 2020


In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, the author looks back at a lynching and wonders: can a city be traumatized by its history?

Western Maryland Station, Thomas, West Virginia (source)


On Monday morning, July 11, 1898, Julia Hotopp rode into Charlottesville to have her horse shod. She left between eight and nine o’clock and returned a short time later, following the Earlysville Road out past Cochran’s Mill and then through a patch of woods to the family farm. It was still cool out, or at least as cool as a midsummer’s morning in Virginia allowed. But as she approached the gate she likely had to wipe a little sweat from her brow.

The sun was beginning to climb.

Up until this moment — it was still before ten — everything about Hotopp’s short errand had been routine. Charlottesville had been quiet because, let’s face it, Charlottesville was always quiet. There’d been a lawn party on Ridge Street over the weekend, and a businessman had been thrown from his buggy on West Main Street Friday morning. Both events had made the front page. And of course the war was on, but most folks assumed it would end in short order. Word had begun to circulate of a young woman appearing at a recruiting office in search of a husband who had disappeared, leaving her without any means of support. When she learned that he’d enlisted, she “swooned” — that’s the word the paper used — so that the captain put her up in a nearby hotel and then paid for her ticket home.

That was down in Lynchburg, though.

Back up north, as Hotopp approached the farm she noticed something out of place. Rather than fastened with a latch, the gate was bound with wire. Why? What was the point of that? She turned in her saddle and looked around for farm hands, for anyone, but the area was deserted.

After dismounting, she unwound the wire and freed the gate.

“As she turned to remount,” the Daily Progress newspaper reported in that afternoon’s edition, “someone approached her from behind and struck her, and then grasped her by the neck, forcing her to the ground, when she became unconscious.”

When she came to, it was about ten o’clock. Her assailant had disappeared and so had her horse. A few minutes later, though, she spied her brother Carl running in her direction, the rider-less mount having tipped him off. She scrambled to her feet and walked gingerly in his direction.

“Upon meeting her brother,” the paper wrote, “she swooned again.”

Back at the house and off her feet, Julia Hotopp was finally able to describe what had happened to her. Her assailant, she said, had been “a very black man, heavy-set, slight mustache,” who had worn dark clothes. His toes, she recalled, had stuck out of his shoes.

“After making this relation,” the Daily Progress told its readers, “Miss Hotopp again became unconscious, and was still in that condition, attended by several physicians, at last accounts.”

By this time, the sun was beating down.

From Gilmers in America by John Gilmer Speed (1897)


Hotopp was twenty years old that summer and living with her mother and several siblings at Pen Park, one of the oldest homesteads in Albemarle County. The Lynch family had staked out the property first, selling to Dr. George Gilmer about 1777. He’s the one who called it Pen Park, after the English estate of his friend, the slave-trader John Harmer.

A fierce Patriot and sometime politician, Dr. Gilmer served as Thomas Jefferson’s personal physician. His son Francis later would travel to Europe to recruit the founding faculty of Jefferson’s University of Virginia, while his grandson Thomas would become governor. In the Gilmer days, the plantation at Pen Park stretched across four thousand rolling acres and its owners likely coerced labor from scores of enslaved men, women, and children. By the time the Hotopps arrived, slavery had been abolished and all but about six hundred acres immediately about the house had been sold.

Julia’s father, William Friedrich Hotopp, had emigrated from Germany, bringing with him a love of wine. He covered what was left of the estate with grapes and in 1873 founded the Monticello Wine Company. The four-story brick headquarters stood on Charlottesville’s north side, with the manager living on what is still known as Wine Street. “Hotopp’s wines were very popular,” one memoirist, R. T. W. Duke Jr., recalled of his time at the university, “& quite in evidence at our caucuses.” Hotopp also managed the Woolen Mills and built the Jefferson Theater for the city.

Sadly, though, Herr Hotopp had died only two months earlier, on May 4. His widow and their thirteen surviving children erected an impressive, white obelisk in the estate’s private graveyard, a marker that still stands — although these days it’s surrounded by a golf course. I took my daughter there recently after picking her up from school.

Pen Park, June 6, 2018 (Brendan Wolfe)

Pen Park, as it happens, is now a city park, at 280 acres the largest in Charlottesville. Aside from the cemetery, which is south of the clubhouse and therefore invisible to most visitors, there is no sign that this ground had once been a plantation worked by enslaved people, or that a crime had allegedly occurred here that would, the next day, provoke another crime — this one so awful that most Charlottesvillians have preferred not to remember it at all.

People played tennis, toddlers climbed on the playground equipment, and a group of middle-aged women in white visors chatted around a golf cart.

“Daddy, I’m too old for Pen Park,” my second-grader complained. When I told her we were there for history, not the slides and swing sets, she perked up. But I had trouble explaining what had happened here.

Does she really need to know this? I wondered.


John Henry James had lived in Charlottesville for the last five or six years, working odd jobs such as selling ice cream while otherwise keeping his head down. Where he came from, who his people were, what his story was — no one seemed to know or even much care.

The Freedmen’s Bureau! An Agency to Keep the Negro in Idleness at the Expense of the White Man, a poster from 1866 (Encyclopedia Virginia)

“John Henry James is not a resident of Charlottesville,” the Daily Progress declared, before admitting that James had, in fact, been living in the city for years. Labeling him a “tramp,” however, conveniently distanced the city from James while shackling him to the still-potent stereotype of the “idle negro.” Why won’t these people work harder? wondered generations of slaveholders, their cat-o’-nine-tails at the ready. Why won’t they work longer, work happier?

When Union cavalry arrived in Charlottesville in March 1865, thousands of enslaved people quit their labor to follow the blue-clad troopers to freedom. Frederick Denison, of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry, remembered being met by African Americans singing the praises of Union troops and even offering freshly cooked biscuits.

And yet, when an enslaved man similarly fled from John B. Minor, who taught law at the university, the professor wrote in his diary that the man would have been better off a slave: “I lament [his escape] more on his account than my own.”

Why won’t they understand what’s good for them? wondered generations of slaveholders, their cat-o’-nine-tails frayed from use.

African American refugees in Virginia (Encyclopedia Virginia)

After the abolition of slavery, African Americans crowded the dirt roads of Virginia. While a few stayed on the plantation, many went off in search of family members from whom they had been separated, either by the auction block or the Underground Railroad. Some preferred just to wander.

“Their freedom,” the historian Brent Tarter writes, “overturned a centuries-long racial hierarchy and left many whites concerned about public safety and, more importantly, white social and political supremacy.”

In response, the General Assembly in Richmond passed a law that condemned anyone who seemed to be without residence or steady employment to either jail or forced labor. Most historians agree that this amounted to a kind of legalized pseudo-slavery, and if the Vagrancy Act didn’t result in the actual arrest of many freedpeople, it did help prompt the drafting of the Fourteenth Amendment. It also likely increased the speed by which African Americans left areas like Albemarle County for places of greater safety — urban areas, for example, with jobs and family.

In 1860, the federal census counted 14,522 black people in the county, or 54.5 percent of the total population. By 1900, even with the total population rising, the number of African Americans had dropped to 10,337, or just 36.3 percent.

All of which is to say that in 1898 it still was not safe for a black person such as John Henry James to be seen as “idle,” as a “tramp,” as someone without a fixed address. It was an unwelcome reminder of social chaos, and it placed him outside of the (white) community’s control.

Of course, none of this tells us what James did on the morning of July 11 — where he woke up, what if any errands he accomplished. It’s possible he was staying in a boardinghouse or with friends. Perhaps he paid rent somewhere. He may have had regular work, or perhaps he lifted a hammer only when it damn well suited him.

For that matter, it’s possible that he preyed on young women. He may have spent the morning devising a plan and then walking the two and a half miles from Charlottesville out to Pen Park, where he hid among the trees and vines, waiting for his moment.

Come noon, though, he was in Dudley’s bar on East Main Street. That’s where the authorities found him and determined, according to the Daily Progress, that he “answer[ed] somewhat the description of Miss Hotopp’s assailant. He was taken to jail to await further developments.”

Directly overhead by now, the sun saw it all.

No photographs of John Henry James survive; this is Clifton Roberts, a convict in Richmond who, like many African American men, also answered somewhat the description (Library of Virginia).


He answered somewhat the description.

You can’t help but wonder which parts fit and which parts didn’t. Perhaps James’s skin was “very black” but he was tall and big-chested more than heavy set. His clothes were dark, sure, but could you really say whether a mustache was coming in? And what about his shoes? Did the toes stick out?

You might think the paper would have noted. The victim claimed to have scratched her attacker on the neck, but there was no mention of that, either.

One hundred twenty years later, such details matter. We play detective, but we also play novelist. We want to know these characters, to picture them, to chart their pasts and explain their fates. To get inside their heads. In 1898, however, it was different. There was a script to be followed, and the identities of the players mattered not one bit.

In example after example, the script played out like this:

  • A violent crime is alleged to have been committed, often against a white woman.
  • The attacker is identified as a black man, often with little other description.
  • He is demonized by the press and situated in some way outside the community, as we’ve already seen.
  • And because its sense of justice has been so profoundly betrayed, the (white) community decides that it must respond with like violence.
Roanoke Times, February 11, 1892 (Encyclopedia Virginia)

What happened in Roanoke, just six years earlier, was pretty typical. The newspaper there reported that a white girl had been assaulted and described the assailant as a “very black” man wearing a light gray suit and rubber boots. The next day, amidst criticism of the police for not acting quickly enough, a suspect was publicly identified. “His name is Allen Stevens,” the Roanoke Times wrote, “and he loafs around Cave Spring.”

Except that the day after that, a different man was accused, this one described as being “thick-lipped and black.” He wore a gray suit and rubber boots — as had the previous day’s suspect.

The play, not the players, was all that mattered.

In Charlottesville, John James comes off as little more than a dime-novel villain. Upon waking up in custody the morning after his arrest, having been accused of a brutal sexual assault, he “professed to have rested well and smoked a cigarette with cool indifference.” I’m reminded of a scene from my own family’s history, when a relative was shot dead and set afire on the western plains in 1882. The accused murderer hastily fled only to be found later in a saloon, “with no apparent thought of the blood upon his hands, engaged in a game of cards.”

The roles here are big and archetypal because that’s what the script called for. It existed not in service of individual justice — “he answered somewhat the description” — but as a hedge against the chaos of 1865, of an entire social and racial hierarchy having been turned on its head. If the cat-o’-nine-tails no longer obtained, then why not the noose?

Of course, it was important to continue to observe certain niceties. After James was arrested at Dudley’s, police officers transported him to Pen Park, where Julia Hotopp positively identified him as the man who had attacked her. “They also carried him to the scene of the outrage,” the Daily Progress reported, “and ascertained by trying his shoes in the tracks found there that they could have been made by no other.”

But what about whether his toes stuck out of his shoes? What about the deep scratch on the alleged perpetrator’s neck?

“He was then brought back and lodged in jail,” the paper tells us, “a large crowd following the entire way. The officers were chary of admitting that he had been identified, but the crowd could not be deceived, and angry mutterings and threats of lynching were heard on every side.”


The play, not the players, was all that mattered.

No photographs of Julia Hotopp are publicly available; this is Miss Elizabeth Henry, photographed in Charlottesville by Rufus W. Holsinger on July 5, 1917 (University of Virginia Library).


“Did something happen here in history?” my daughter wanted to know as we tromped around Pen Park. “Did it have to do with Pocahontas or George Washington?”

She’s eight — well, eight and three-quarters by her own more impatient accounting — and still naïve, in many respects still helpless. She’s mine and I would do anything to protect her.

This strikes me as normal. When you immerse yourself in stories like the ones involving Julia Hotopp or “Little Alice Perry” of Roanoke you can’t help but imagine your own daughter. You think that making it personal in this way might help you better understand what happened.

Here’s the thing, though. It doesn’t.

I searched for images of James and Hotopp and found nothing, but still I yearned to picture them. So I downloaded substitutes — the convict Clifton Roberts and the spinster Elizabeth Henry. It occurred to me that this was not only an offense against history (they had nothing to do with the events of July 11th and 12th); it was also deeply unfair. Whatever crimes Clifton Roberts may have committed, he did not rape Julia Hotopp. Nor was Miss Henry any kind of victim, at least not in this case. Featuring their portraits implies that they were something they were not, no matter what caveats you write into the captions.

And yet another thought occurred to me: in some respects this inaccuracy, this clever bit of conflation is the very point. If I really wanted to understand what happened that summer of 1898, then these words — the play, not the players — must be my guide. Clifton Roberts or John Henry James? What mattered to the (white) people of Charlottesville is that they were black men. Liz Henry or Julia Hotopp? They were young white women. No more, no less.

When Julia Hotopp was attacked by a black man on the morning of July 11, all white women were attacked. By all black men.

Smart Set, 1906 (Library of Congress)

According to one scholar’s count, about 40 percent of all lynchings in Virginia between 1880 and 1930 involved accusations of rape or attempted rape against white women. Whites believed that African Americans were particularly prone to commit this crime, an attitude borne out of two longstanding white southern traditions — demonizing blacks and defending white womanly honor. In the post-emancipation South, black men were often caricatured as subhuman, ruled by their appetites, and disposed to commit violent crime. The definition of rape was broad, so that the mere presence of a black man with a solitary white woman might generate an accusation and possible punishment. The repeated suggestion that, given the opportunity, black men were likely to rape white women has been described by Michael Ayers Trotti as a “fixation” and by numerous other historians as a myth, one that dated back to slavery and, in particular, a romanticizing of white womanhood and a paranoid distrust of enslaved African Americans.

“There is something strangely alluring and seductive to [African American men] in the appearance of a white woman,” wrote the Virginia historian Philip Alexander Bruce in The Plantation Negro as Freeman (1889); “they are aroused and stimulated by its foreignness to their experience of sexual pleasures, and it moves them to gratify their lust at any cost and in spite of every obstacle.” The Virginia writer Thomas Nelson Page claimed that while enslaved, African American men better understood their proper relationship to white women. Only during Reconstruction, he argued, did they become infected with the idea of equality. “This was followed,” Page wrote, “by a number of cases where members of the Negro militia ravished white women; in some instances in the presence of their families.”

The slave preacher Nat Turner rising up in 1831 was awful enough for many white Virginians. That the one person he killed should have been a white woman tapped into a deep well of fear and anxiety that was then used to justify decades of horrific violence. This helps explain why many African Americans fiercely objected to the way in which William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel imagined a sexual connection between the black rebel and his white victim. And why white communities such as in Charlottesville themselves rose up to defend what they considered to be a young white woman’s honor.

The commonwealth’s attorney — apparently contradicting an early report that the attacker had “failed of accomplishing his foul purpose” — now told the Daily Progress that what had happened to Miss Julia Hotopp “was one of the most atrocious rapes ever committed, the circumstances of such a character and so revolting that he was unwilling to state them in detail — of a character to stir any community to its deepest depths.”


It’s interesting what stirs a community to its deepest depths and what doesn’t.

Pen Park, June 6, 2018 (Brendan Wolfe)


On the ride home, my daughter asked whether he did it. I had just finished explaining to her that a young woman had been hurt at Pen Park a long time ago and that a man had been arrested for the crime.

“Was he guilty?” she asked.

“I’m not sure.”

“But what’s your opinion?”

The novelist in me wants to connect with these characters as real people while the detective in me wants to grasp the truth of what happened. The truth, though, is that we have no idea. When I told this to my daughter, she was confused, and I don’t blame her. Even for a second-grader it seems intuitive that we should know whether John Henry James actually raped Julia Hotopp. It shapes how we see James and also how we see his accuser — whose finger pointed in his direction as surely as if it were the barrel of a loaded gun.

The truth matters, and yet it doesn’t. Either he raped her or he didn’t. We’ll probably never know and what would that change anyway?

Because all we really need to know is what happened next.


As the sun sank in the western sky, those “angry mutterings and threats of lynching” began to worry the chief of police, Frank P. Farish, and the county sheriff, Lucien Watts. A mob had surrounded the old jailhouse and violence seemed less like a threat than just a matter of time. “In consequence of this,” the Daily Progress reported, “it was thought best to remove the prisoner to Staunton for safety.”

At about eight thirty that evening he was pushed up and over the north wall of the jail yard, then through a private home and out a wine cellar. At Union Station he boarded a westbound freight belonging to the Chesapeake & Ohio, which left at nine and was off, the paper wrote, “before the people knew anything about it.” The crowd remained until past eleven, “and it became necessary to take some of them through the jail to satisfy them that the negro was really taken away.”

Although the county sheriff, Watts took responsibility for the custody of prisoners even in independent Charlottesville. Another incident in Roanoke, this one five years earlier, in 1893, provides a sense of what was at stake for Sheriff Watts and Chief Farish. An African American man, Thomas Smith, had been arrested and charged with assaulting a white woman, at which point the city’s mayor, Henry S. Trout, ordered the entire police force and members of the local militia to protect the jail. A mob was formed and initially rebuffed. During the second attack on the jail, however, authorities opened fire, killing eight and injuring a few dozen others, including the mayor, who was shot in the foot.

The mob, which numbered between fifteen hundred and four thousand citizens, still managed to capture its man, possibly with the help of the police. After Smith was lynched, the crowd hung a sign from his neck: “Mayor Trout’s Friend.”

Play this thing wrong, I imagine Watts and Farish thinking as the C&O rumbled west to Staunton, and we could end up shot or worse.

Tremble by Donnie Nunley, 2013 (Flickr)

What’s worse than being shot? you ask. Being seen to betray your community in defense of a man the script has dismissed as a mere brute, a beast, a ravisher of young white women.

“Sheriff Watts’s Friend.”

The terrifying possibility must have run through his mind that night.

After pulling into Staunton at eleven thirty, the sheriff arranged for his prisoner to be locked in a cell at the county jail. Chief Farish rounded up sandwiches, and a grateful James mentioned that it was the first food he’d had since the sun was still rising.


The next morning came. It had been twenty-four hours since Julia Hotopp had run her errand into Charlottesville only to return and find the gate mysteriously bound with wire. It was July the twelfth now and events had begun to move quickly.

At the courthouse a grand jury of seven white men had been empaneled to consider whether to indict John Henry James for assault. After being sworn in at ten forty-five they heard from two witnesses, Miss Hotopp and her sister. The jurors then retired to deliberate.

Across the mountain in Staunton, Chief Farish and Sheriff Watts accompanied James back to the train station. “He didn’t seem disposed to give the officers any trouble,” the Daily Progress wrote, “and when they boarded the train this morning, for Charlottesville, it was not considered necessary to handcuff him.”

It was a local train, with stops. An express was scheduled, but they decided against taking it. A few minutes before eleven thirty the train approached a spot known locally as Wood’s Crossing. About four miles west of Charlottesville, it was there, according to the paper, that “officers noticed a crowd at the station, and at once took in the situation.” According to one report, a letter from Florence Bishop to her husband, a man in the crowd who was “dressed in womans clothes signaled the Train & stopped it before any body knew what they even wanted.” Chief Farish raced back to the car where his prisoner was located, and as he did so he could feel the train heave and begin to slow. The screeching of brakes pierced the air.

The intrepid historian Jane Smith has concluded that Wood’s Crossing was located on what is now the property of Farmington Country Club. The land had once been owned by the Peyton family; Major Moses Green Peyton had worked as an engineer on the railroads under William Mahone and had taken his enslaved servant, Humphrey Shelton, with him to fight the Yankees. In 1898, “Uncle Humphrey,” as he was called, was working as a janitor over at the university. Remembered as caring for his former owner’s “wants as earnestly after the emancipation as he had while a slave in his master’s possession,” Shelton had charted his own course in life, made his own decisions on who and how to be. There was a steep cost to be paid for this, of course, but on the day the mob came for John Henry James — who worked for no man, who swung the hammer only when it damn well suited him — that price at least bought Uncle Humphrey a slight reprieve.

Anyway, Warner Wood owned the plantation now, with its Jefferson-designed manor, servants’ quarters, and horse stalls. At the crossing, when the train didn’t drown it out, you could hear the rhythmic banging of a nearby blacksmith’s shop.

A story that began on a former plantation will now end on one.


The mob of between 100 and 150 white citizens took to the tracks and crowded around the train as it made its scheduled stop. The editor of the Waynesboro Herald witnessed the event and later described how “a number of men crowded in at each door of the car with grim, determined faces and[,] flourishing revolvers[,] demanded the officers in unmistakable tones, ‘Gentlemen, we want this negro.’”

Here the editor notes that Chief Farish and Sheriff Watts “made a stout show of resistance,” although not stout enough. Perhaps not even particularly stout, because “in less than two seconds three ropes were around the negro’s neck and[,] pleading, praying and fighting, he was dragged from the car.”

The sheriff had made his choice. John Henry James, under the brutal gaze of a midsummer Virginia sun, was not going to be his friend.

In front of the blacksmith’s shop the mob spied a small but sturdy locust tree with a limb hanging about ten feet off the ground. “Under this tree the doomed man was dragged and the end of the rope thrown over the limb,” the editor wrote. “Above the hoarse shouts of the enraged men arose the leader’s voice in stentorian tones informing the doomed wretch that he had but two seconds to live and asking him if he was guilty of the crime.”

Daily Progress, July 12, 1898 (University of Virginia Library)

This all went perfectly to script. The lynching ritual calls for an opportunity of atonement, reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition’s auto-da-fé. Back in 1892 the Roanoke paper had described how the prisoner, with a noose around his neck, uttered “an almost incoherent jumble of denial” until a half-hanging brought on “a rambling confession.”

According to the Waynesboro editor, James skipped the denial: “In wailing accents he answered yes, that he did it.” The Daily Progress told a slightly different story. “Before God, I am innocent,” James said, with the paper going on to explain, “Some reports declare that he avowed his guilt, and hoped to be forgiven, but when the officers pleaded with the mob, to let him come to a trial, he grasped at the hope thus extended and made the above declaration.”

The noose, the Waynesboro editor wrote, was tightened and James given a moment for one final prayer. He was subsequently pulled up, screaming and swinging and choking for perhaps twenty seconds. “Then the leader again gave the signal and twenty or thirty revolvers rang out on the morning air and the body of the wretch was perforated with perhaps forty or fifty bullets.”

Who was this leader? Did anyone ever attempt to identify him?

The play, not the players, was all that mattered.

“In eight minutes from the time the train stopped,” the Waynesboro man wrote, “the ghastly deed was done and the avengers of Virginia women’s lives and honor mounted their horses and vehicles and drove quietly away, leaving the body of the black brute swaying gently in the morning breeze, a fearful example of swift and sure retributive justice.”


The Lexington Gazette reported that Carl Hotopp arrived about ten minutes late and emptied his revolver into the dead body. He is the only participant ever identified.


All of this was happening as the Charlottesville grand jury sat behind closed doors. News soon arrived that the issue had been rendered moot, but the gentlemen of the jury continued to deliberate. The proper application of justice was of paramount concern to everyone.

With John James still hanging from the locust tree they issued a true bill.

Indictment of John Henry James (Library of Virginia)


It’s interesting what stirs a community to its deepest depths and what doesn’t. The citizens of Charlottesville and Albemarle who lynched John Henry James, mutilated his body, and left it to dangle until three thirty that afternoon did so in the open, their faces uncovered. And not a single one of them was brought to justice. This was typical, of course, and summoned the indignation of only a few people in the area. The Staunton Spectator and Vindicator newspaper, angry that some in Charlottesville had suggested violence was in the offing in that town too, mocked its neighbor to the east:

The jury summoned by the coroner to sit upon the body of the late James […] found that “deceased came to his death by the hands of persons unknown to the jury.” 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.

R. T. W. Duke Jr., that same memoirist who once had binged on Hotopp’s wine at the university, was more succinct. In a diary entry dated July 12, he wrote: “The negro who ravished Julia Hotopp lynched at Wood’s Crossing today. Horrible crime — both him & the lynchers — ”

In telling her husband of the events, Florence Bishop describes a town ready to explode with violence. “The whole town negroes & white rushed up there,” she wrote, referring to Wood’s Crossing, “and we expected to have a fight, but the whites were in a perfect frenzy — and I believe if it had commenced — there would have been a battle equal to what is going on in Cuba.” That didn’t happen, though. “The black devils,” she wrote, “soon slunk out of sight when they smelt the ‘brimstone in the air.’”

John Mitchell Jr. (Encyclopedia Virginia)

The crimes, both of them, were reported in newspapers across the country, from Virginia to Alabama, North Dakota, Kansas, Indiana, Ohio, Connecticut, Delaware, California, Pennsylvania, and even the German-language press of Baltimore, Maryland. The Richmond Planet, the African American paper led by the antilynching crusader John Mitchell Jr., issued its usual, full-throated protest.

After noting that James had claimed innocence, that the authorities had not done enough to protect their prisoner, that the lynchers had acted with seeming impunity, and that the criminal justice system had been operating as it should, without any need of mob intervention, Mitchell observed:

“The lynching of John Henry James will be far more damaging to the community than it will be to the alleged criminal.”


But was it? Has it been?

John Mitchell’s statement implied, I think, that this lynching represented a kind of trauma, one that would haunt Charlottesville long after the authorities cut John James’s body down. Long after the sun finally set on that awful day.

In his book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1994), the psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay defines trauma as an event that people can’t integrate into their moral understanding of the world. It’s something that ought to be explained, justified, and safely stored away, but isn’t. Perhaps it can’t be.

Of course, the people who perpetrated or sympathized with lynching had safeguards in place against the psychological trauma of their actions. They had justifications. Mob violence was a necessary, if unfortunate, means of upholding community standards, they told each other and themselves.

The crude version came from the pen of Florence Bishop, who scolded her husband, “You see I told you that the South needed her men to look after the black devils that the North ‘pitied’ so much — and let loose upon us. Therefore it behooves the Virginia men to be on their guard at all times.”

Hallie Erminie Rives, 1918 (Wiki)

A more sophisticated version arrived in the words of Hallie Erminie Rives, who just a year before John Henry James’s murder published the pro-lynching novel Smoking Flax. Rives hailed from a well-known central Virginia family: her father, a Confederate veteran, had been born in nearby Amherst County and her cousin, the novelist Amélie Rives, had until recently lived in Albemarle. In Smoking Flax Hallie Rives imagines a conscientious opponent of lynching, only to have logic and circumstances prevail on him to change his mind.

The slave trade, his neighbors insist, was Great Britain’s doing, but even so, “slavery was a lifting force to the negro race during the whole period of its existence here.” The white race has always educated African Americans in reading, writing, and religion, at great cost, and yet are thanked only by an ever-increasing string of “outrages against our homes.” When white women are the victims, “man, if man he be, cannot but choose to avenge it.” This, the lynching apologists emphasize, reflects anger against criminals and crime, not against a race — although it happens to be true that if former slaves were to behave with more kindness, loyalty, and respect, and were less inclined to fall victim to their “manifold temptations,” then they would have less to fear from the mob’s righteous anger.

The novel’s protagonist falls in love with a beautiful young woman who is subsequently raped and murdered. Tragically, our hero is not there to protect his love, and although the attacker is captured, tried, and convicted of the crime, his “affected nonchalance and thinly veiled defiance” in the courtroom prove almost too much to bear. He is not so much a criminal as something much, much worse: “The passions of raging fear and terror had driven from his low-browed face every trace of intellectuality or culture, leaving only the cunning cruelty and ferocity of the animal.”

This provides the ultimate and, for many, the most forceful defense of lynching: the inhumanity of the lynched. It is why I desperately wish that James were not such an enigma. I want to go back to Dudley’s saloon, at noon on July 11, when the authorities came through the door looking for their man.

Who was he and what must he have been thinking? Did someone wait for him at home that night, someone who had been too afraid to go looking? When the historical record tells us nothing, it commits against John James a violence mimicking that of his lynchers. It strips him of his humanity.

In Smoking Flax, the governor issues a reprieve of the attacker’s death sentence, at which point the novel reaches its denouement. Handcuffed to the sheriff, the man is placed on a train. “The engine was ready to start,” Rives writes. “Snorting, trembling, as if in frightened pain, she moved off slowly, slowly …”

— but allowing just enough time for vengeance to accomplish its terrible work.


On May 29, 1899, or about a year after John Henry James himself was pulled trembling from a train — and not, as Rives would have it, from a trembling train — the Daily Progress editorialized against lynching. Surprisingly perhaps, the paper blamed whites and blacks equally for mob violence. The African American community had not done enough to control criminal offenders, instead making “martyrs of the assaulter of innocent and defenseless women.” The white community, meanwhile, “shields and justifies the mob that takes the law into its own hands.”

As much as the paper’s editor, James H. Lindsay, recognized the rule of law, he also well understood the importance of white supremacy. He reflected on that point in a discussion of lynching and politics that appeared in the same edition. Absent the “negro question,” he said, most votes would go to the Republican Party just on policy grounds. “We are forced to vote with the Democratic party to continue white supremacy and to protect our property.” Like Philip Alexander Bruce, Thomas Nelson Page, and Hallie Erminie Rives, the editor felt certain that nothing would be safe until the black man understood his proper place.

Lindsay served as a delegate to the 1901–1902 convention and voted with the majority for a new state constitution, a document that almost completely disfranchised African Americans in Virginia. Whether by cat o’ nine tails, noose, or pen, the object was the same.

“I am a friend of the colored man,” Lindsay is quoted as saying on May 29, 1899, and that, I suppose, is how he justified himself, how he personally avoided the trauma of lynching.

Chesapeake & Ohio train traveling through the mountains of Virginia, 1881 (source)

It may have been enough for him. The Hotopp family had more difficulty moving on, however. In 1900, the wine company caught fire under what authorities believed to be suspicious circumstances. A year later, Carl Hotopp apparently jumped to his death from a speeding train, which had been traveling west from Charlottesville. A year after that, Carl’s younger brother Heinrich died in an equally mysterious manner. According to the Richmond Dispatch, while at Pen Park he “attempted to jump out of the window” and became entangled in the sash, which wrapped around his legs and held him “suspended head downward” until he died.

Then, in 1911, Julia Hotopp made the headlines again. Thirty-three years old and still unmarried, she was living in Washington, D.C., and working as an artist. According to the Washington Times, she called police headquarters on December 20 “and asked for protection from persons she said annoyed her whenever she tried to paint.” She “also wanted the police to assist her in getting a position with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, so she could travel around the country and sketch horses.”

Miss Hotopp’s behavior became so erratic that she was hospitalized and later institutionalized.

Perhaps some form of mental illness ran through the Hotopp line, and John Henry James was only the first of several victims. Or perhaps his violent death had unhinged something in the family. Over the years, the papers noted the state of Miss Hotopp’s health but never mentioned the attack that may or may not have happened or the lynching that definitely did.


What, then, of Charlottesville?

Until recently Charlottesville and Albemarle County had chosen not to remember John Henry James at all, or to reckon with what a mob did to him here. Historians have preserved the record, of course, and written scores of books about lynching in all its gruesome detail. But the landscape of our community — from the rolling fields of Pen Park to the manicured lawns of Farmington — have remained free of any reminders of that history, or of any hints at all.

“Amnesia is common for traumatic events,” Shay writes in Achilles in Vietnam. That’s because memory tends to take the form of narrative, and narrative is itself the sensible ordering of events. The Smoking Flax version of lynching has largely disappeared, one hopes because it was craven and immoral but certainly because it was inadequate to the lived experience of communities like Charlottesville.

A new narrative is required, one that encompasses not only the enslavement of African Americans, the Civil War, and the terrorism that followed it, but also the city’s more recent history. In fact, that history, including another brutal murder perpetrated by a white supremacist, can be seen as an almost frantic attempt at making sense of the past. Of integrating memory.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice, 2018 (Flickr user Shawn)

The new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, may help with that. It inspired a group of citizens from Charlottesville and Albemarle to gather soil from the site of James’s murder and travel to Montgomery in July 2018 to deposit it at the memorial, eventually to be exchanged for a heavy, black, coffin-sized column, one of 4,400 and reserved especially for the lynching of John Henry James. It will provide something tangible by which we might remember this particular crime.

What would it take for people to know their history?

I wrote that in a 2017 essay about the deadly battles over the Robert E. Lee statue in downtown Charlottesville. The problem, though, is not whether we know this history. We do, or at least we could. The problem is whether we choose to remember. Important, too, is who we allow to do that remembering in public.

Traumatic memories, Shay argues, master their keepers. What we are searching for when we seek to build a new public narrative is authority — authority over those memories, the authority to craft them into a story that helps us to acknowledge and even explain these awful parts of our history and the condition in which they have left our community.

What has this lynching wrought, not simply on white folks but on the black people who knew John Henry James or lived near him or simply had the same color skin?

Can we avoid the damage predicted by John Mitchell Jr. by ignoring his murder or will that just make it worse?

And what, I wonder, do we tell our kids?

“Daddy, I don’t really understand,” my daughter said as we pulled into the drive.

Which is fair because, honestly, neither do I.



Brendan Wolfe

Author of Finding Bix (2017), Mr. Jefferson’s Telescope (2017), and Wolfe’s History (2019). Iowan in Virginia.