- Murder, Honor and Law: 4 Virginia Homicides from Reconstruction to the Great Depression
How did the South and the nation differ? Did the southern system of justice operate fairly? What role did honor and chivalry play in the actions of those involved in judicial matters? How did the national and regional press portray southern violence and one state's laws and customs? How did newspapers show, shape, and stress ideas of southern exceptionalism? And, finally, how did journalists within one state—Virginia—present homicides and how did that vary from the way the rest of America viewed the same cases? Those and other questions form the core of what Richard F. Hamm examines in this microhistory approach, in which he uses four case studies to illustrate larger themes.
Since Bertram Wyatt-Brown's 1982 Southern Honor appeared, numerous writers have examined in more depth the interplay of honor and southern violence. Edward L. Ayers, Dickson D. Bruce Jr., Elliott J. Gorn, Kenneth S. Greenberg, Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohon, and others have enriched the understanding of the region. Recently, authors (such as this reviewer) have begun to focus on more specific cases of violence, and have used those examples to draw broader conclusions, ones that focus new light on a still-murky story. Hamm's work continues that trend.
His first example occurred in 1868. Like all four of the case studies, it shows how outside interests played a role, how each homicide drew much attention from the local, state, and national press, and how coverage in all cases often reflected both fact and fiction. In 1868, for example, editor Henry Rivers Pollard's scandal-laden Richmond Southern Opinion published an article which attacked the honor of the sister of James Grant. The scion of an established family, Grant used a shotgun to ambush and kill Pollard. The jury's decision, says Hamm, showed the strength of honor in the Old Dominion and, by extension, the South.
Almost a quarter century later, in 1892, Democratic politician J. T. Clark killed Danville minister John R. Moffett in another affair involving honor and the law. Moffett, a prohibition crusader, had used words that attacked the established order and threatened the existing color line: "I would rather be governed by a good Negro than by a drunken white man." (p. 71). When the two men met after that, a fight had occurred. Rev. Moffett later struck out at Clark in the columns of a paper. Clark responded by shooting and killing the minister. The jury's decision suggested that the politician had not acted fully in accord with the demands of honor. [End Page 804]
Fifteen years after that, honor—in the form of the unwritten law—played a key role in a case. Although different in several ways from honor, the unwritten law gave social sanction to violence when the purity of women became involved. In this instance, former Nelson county judge W. G. Loving was told by his daughter that Theodore Estes had taken her on a carriage ride, had drugged, her, and "had forced himself" (p. 132) upon her. The distraught father killed Estes, and used the unwritten law as his defense. With a favorable press behind Loving, he found much sympathy. A friendly ruling by the judge also kept out any testimony that might have revealed that the daughter's story had many weaknesses. The resultant decision surprised few.
Hamm's final case study focuses on the so-called "Slipper Slayer" in 1935. After twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher Edith Maxwell of Pound, Virginia, came home late one night, her drunken father berated and struck her. She hit him with her shoe. Maxwell claimed that her father would later fall and injure himself, and that the fall—not her slipper—killed him. The case became a vehicle for stereotypical coverage by the press, which stressed the clash between the view of women in traditional Appalachian culture as opposed to modern society. The National Women's Party helped with the...