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  • Sleuthing for Mr. Crow:Detective William Baldwin and the Business of White Supremacy
  • T. R. C. Hutton (bio)

The lynch mob that formed in Roanoke, Virginia, one day in September 1893 was not the first in the town's brief history, but it was undeniably the largest. After northern capital and the newly consolidated Norfolk and Western Railroad (N&W) had transformed the village formerly called Big Lick into the fastest-growing city in the South, Roanoke's racial and political demographics changed dramatically during the 1880s, creating tensions between employers and workers, as well as locals and newcomers, white and black. The new city had come into being less than twenty years after emancipation, a time when the traditional southern relationship between race and labor was in flux, especially in southwestern Virginia, where most black residents had only recently arrived. Southerners and northerners flocked to Roanoke, ultimately creating a Gilded Age city thrown together without care or planning. In historian Rand Dotson's words, "White migrants from the mountains or countryside and white working-class residents from the North existed in one world, white upper-class natives and newcomers in another, and black residents in yet one more." The year 1893 was particularly tense. City fathers added fuel to the fire by attempting to impose the prohibition of alcohol on a population already suffering from massive unemployment caused by a nationwide economic panic. The sudden revelation of a violent crime allegedly committed by a black assailant was the final catalyst. A white farmer's wife was found bleeding from her head near a midtown produce market. She described her attacker as a young black man wearing a black hat, and soon thereafter a crowd pursued Thomas Smith, a young man loosely matching her description who was seen jumping onto a passing boxcar nearby.1 [End Page 285]

Smith was temporarily rescued by a white man named William G. Baldwin, the N&W's chief detective, who arrived soon after the mob had formed. Baldwin spirited Smith away on horseback to a tavern and then, after the alleged victim positively identified Smith as her attacker, to the city jail. Once Smith's location was made known, the crowd gathered outside the jailhouse and compelled the overawed police force (there were fewer than twenty men patrolling a city of more than 20,000) to give Smith up. As he protested his innocence, Smith was hanged, his body desecrated and riddled with bullets. Roanoke's mayor, Henry S. Trout, had tried to protect Smith, but having been injured himself by gunfire from the crowd, he escaped to Richmond aboard an N&W passenger car with Baldwin by his side. For days afterward, a provisional government struggled to return order to Roanoke, while Baldwin zoomed back and forth on the N&W between the two cities, handling public relations for Trout.2 "The guilt of the negro Smith, doubtless, was evident," a letter to the editor of the Washington (D.C.) Evening Star concluded, but "the most serious outcome of this sad occurrence" was the "suspension of Mayor Trout" and "the encouragement of future violence." There were no victors in the affair save the spirit of white supremacy, but perhaps also Detective Baldwin, the one man who emerged from the affray above reproach. In early 1894 Baldwin arrested "one of the most active participants in the September riots," who, in a seemingly adventitious coincidence, was also under indictment for stealing pieces of brass from the N&W.3

The historiographical consensus on Virginia between Reconstruction and World War I suggests a Jim Crow system dedicated to the good of business elites, moderation, paternalism, social order, and hierarchy; it was [End Page 286] a complex system involving, in the words of historian J. Douglas Smith, "equal parts white supremacy and white responsibility" (in contrast to the populism, herrenvolk democracy, and violence associated with other parts of the South).4 The trajectory of William Baldwin's career roughly between 1885 and 1910 concurs with this consensus but also complicates it. His occupation as an independent contractor in law enforcement (as opposed to a publicly funded policeman) was suitable to a state where...


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