Accusation and Arrest
On the morning of July 11, 1898, Julia Hotopp, then twenty years old, reported having been assaulted by a black man near the gate of her family’s estate, Pen Park, about two and a half miles east of Charlottesville. According to her account, which appeared in that afternoon’s edition of Charlottesville’s Daily Progress newspaper, she had ridden into town between eight and nine o’clock to have her horse shod. Upon returning, she noticed that the gate, normally latched, was instead bound with wire. She freed the gate, but as she turned to remount her horse, “someone approached her from behind and struck her, and then grasped her by the neck, forcing her to the ground, when she became unconscious.”
Hotopp’s brother Carl found her and they reported the assault to the authorities. Julia Hotopp described her attacker as “a very black man, heavy-set, slight mustache, [who] wore dark clothes, and his toes were sticking out of his shoes.” Word quickly spread of the incident and about noon an African American man, John Henry James, was arrested at Dudley’s barroom on East Main Street. According to the paper, he “answer[ed] somewhat the description of Miss Hotopp’s assailant.”
The Daily Progress on July 11 reported that Hotopp had “resisted the fellow to the extent of scratching his neck so violently as to leave particles of flesh under her fingernails and so effective was the resistance that he failed of accomplishing his foul purpose.” The next day, however, the paper noted that, according to the commonwealth’s attorney, Captain Micajah Woods, “it was one of the most atrocious rapes ever committed, the circumstances of such a character and so revolting that [Woods] was unwilling to state them in detail—of a character to stir any community to its deepest depths.”
After James’s arrest, authorities transported him to Pen Park, where Hotopp identified him. His shoes also were matched to footprints found in the mud near the gate. Accounts of his arrest and lynching provide no other evidence of his guilt, including no mention of whether his neck was scratched or his shoes open at the toes. His clothes, skin color, and build are never mentioned. According to the Daily Progress, James was “not a resident of Charlottesville,” despite having lived in the town for five or six years. A letter from a white Charlottesville resident to her husband described him as a street vendor of ice cream. Nothing else is known about him.
The Albemarle County sheriff, Lucien Watts, arranged for James to be held in the county jail in Charlottesville, but by this point word had spread of the arrest and a large crowd had begun to gather. “Angry mutterings and threats of lynching were heard on every side,” according to the Daily Progress. The sheriff decided to move James to Staunton, in Augusta County, for his own safety. That night, he and the Charlottesville chief of police, Frank P. Farish, smuggled James over the jail wall, through some private residences and out a wine cellar. They then took a 9 p.m. freight train west to Staunton, arriving about 11:30.
The next morning, about 10:20 a.m., Watts, Farish, and James left Staunton aboard the No. 8 train bound for Charlottesville. An hour or so later, at Wood’s Crossing, about four miles west of Charlottesville, the train slowed for a scheduled stop. An armed mob of between 100 and 150 white men, their faces uncovered, gathered at the crossing, located on the edge of an estate owned by Warner Wood. The editor of the Waynesboro Herald witnessed, and perhaps participated in, 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.'” Various accounts attest that Watts and Farish protested, but according to the Waynesboro editor, “in less than two seconds three ropes were around the negro’s neck and[,] pleading, praying and fighting, he was dragged from the car.”
In front of a 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.”
The editor wrote that James, “in wailing accents,” admitted to the crime, while the Daily Progress reported that he claimed innocence. The noose, the Waynesboro editor wrote, was tightened and James given a moment for one final prayer. He was subsequently pulled up, screaming and choking, for perhaps twenty seconds. “Then the leader again gave the signal,” he wrote, “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.” According to an account in the Lexington Gazette, Carl Hotopp arrived on the scene about ten minutes later and emptied his revolver in James’s body. He is the only perpetrator who is mentioned by name in any account. The body, meanwhile, was left to hang until 3:30 that afternoon.
About the same time that James and his guards left Staunton, a grand jury convened in Charlottesville. After hearing from two witnesses, Julia Hotopp and one of her sisters, the jurors retired to deliberate. Even after news arrived of James’s murder, the jury returned an indictment against him for rape. The next morning, on July 13, the members reconvened, this time as a coroner’s jury. They eventually found that James had died either from hanging or gunshot wounds and that he “came to his death by the hands of persons unknown to the jury.”
The Staunton Spectator and Vindicator newspaper mocked the idea that the identities of James’s killers were unknown: “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.” Aroused by the accusation from some in Charlottesville that Staunton citizens might have lynched James before he was removed east, the paper also questioned why the prisoner was placed on the No. 8 train, with several scheduled stops, and not an express. The implication was that the authorities may have deliberately left James vulnerable to the mob at Wood’s Crossing.
James’s alleged attack on Julia Hotopp and his own lynching were reported in newspapers across the country, from Virginia to Alabama, North Dakota, Kansas, Indiana, Ohio, Connecticut, Delaware, California, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The Richmond Planet, the African American paper led by the antilynching crusader John Mitchell Jr., issued a typical protest. After noting that James had claimed innocence, that the authorities had not done enough to protect their prisoner, that the lynchers 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.”
John Henry James was one of at least eighty-six men lynched in Virginia from 1880 to 1930, all but fifteen of whom were African American. During the same approximate period, as many as 4,000 people were lynched across the United States, a practice justified by demonizing African Americans and arguing that the courts provided insufficient protection against their supposed criminal tendencies. James was described in the papers as a “tramp” and a “black brute,” and many members of the white community viewed his murder as essential for the protection of white womanhood and the maintenance of white supremacy. According to the historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage, lynchings involving large, unmasked mobs were generally intended to convey a message of racial terror.
On May 29, 1899, or just less than a year after James’s death, the Daily Progress editorialized against lynching, but blamed whites and African Americans equally for mob violence. According to the paper, the black 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.” In the same issue, the paper’s editor, James H. Lindsay, also reflects, in the context of a discussion of lynching, on the importance of white supremacy. Absent the “negro question,” he said, most votes would go to the Republican Party on policy grounds. “We are forced to vote with the Democratic party to continue white supremacy and to protect our property.” Lindsay was a delegate to the 1901–1902 convention and voted for the new state constitution that largely disfranchised Virginia’s black population.
Over the next century, the lynching of John Henry James was largely forgotten until it was included with about 4,400 other lynchings in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Encouraged by the memorial’s creator, the Equal Justice Initiative, citizens of Charlottesville and Albemarle County gathered soil from the site of Wood’s Crossing, located through the efforts of the historian Jane Smith. This was then taken to Montgomery and exchanged for a coffin-shaped pillar that will be the centerpiece of a new lynching memorial.