Accusation and Arrest
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.
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.
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.
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.
July 11, 1898, 10 a.m. - Julia Hotopp reports being assaulted just outside her family estate, Pen Park, two and a half miles east of Charlottesville.
July 11, 1898, 12 p.m. - John Henry James is arrested at Dudley's bar on East Main Street in Charlottesville for the alleged assault of Julia Hotopp.
July 11, 1898, 8:30 p.m. - Because of a gathering mob, John Henry James is evacuated from the Albemarle County jail and sent west by train to Staunton.
July 12, 1898, 10:20 a.m. - John Henry James and two guards leave Staunton by train for Charlottesville.
July 12, 1898, 10:45 a.m. - A grand jury is convened to consider whether John Henry James should be indicted for assault.
July 12, 1898, 11:30 a.m. - John Henry James is lynched by a mob of white men at Wood's Crossing, about four miles west of Charlottesville.
July 12, 1898, 3:30 p.m. - The body of John Henry James is removed from the site of his lynching, about four hours after his death.
July 13, 1898 - A coroner's jury is convened and finds that John Henry James died of either hanging our gunshot wounds by a mob of unidentified men.
May 29, 1899 - An editorial in the Charlottesville Daily Progress blames whites and African Americans equally for lynching.
Summer 2018 - The exact site of John Henry James's lynching is identified. Soil is gathered and taken to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B. The Lynching of John Henry James (1898). (2018, December 19). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/James_The_Lynching_of_John_Henry_1898.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "The Lynching of John Henry James (1898)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 19 Dec. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: July 10, 2018 | Last modified: December 19, 2018
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.