On the night of January 26, 1880, a black Virginian named Richard Woods was lynched because he was found to be living with a white woman named Nancy Williams. He was the second black man in a week to be lynched for miscegenation in Virginia. This time, it was in Franklin County, a rural locale in the southwestern portion of the state.
In last week’s post, we learned about Arthur Jordan, who was hunted down and lynched for marrying a white woman.
The lynching of Richard Woods, however, required no interstate manhunt. A group of white supremacists fell upon Mr. Woods and Ms. Williams in the imagined safety of her home. Let’s take a closer look at this senseless killing and how the newspapers spun the story.
The First Report
It’s understandable that the first news to be released about a lynching is short on details. In many cases, the short paragraphs printed in smaller newspapers across the country were boiled down from longer pieces sent out via the wire services. In those instances, the newspapers themselves could selected the pertinent information, going to print with a very edited story.
This was exactly what the Burlington Free Press out of Vermont did.
Richard Woods, a negro, who had deserted his wife and children, and who was living with a white woman in Franklin County, Virginia, was taken from his cabin by a mob on Monday night and hung. 1The Burlington Free Press; Burlington, Vermont; Wed, Jan 28, 1880 – Page 3. Here.
As we’ll soon see, there was a lot of information that was likely available to these smaller papers. Regardless, they decided to run this single sentence instead. Let’s break it down.
First, it’s established that Woods was a black man who deserted his wife and children. To readers of the time, trading in the racialist stereotypes of lazy black men filled with lust, this must have sounded both abhorrent and expected. It was a fine way to separate white readers from “negroes” in ways more than simply skin color. It allowed their confirmation biases to be satisfied, reassuring them that racial equality could never truly exist.
Next, we learn that “the negro” who had deserted his family did so to live in sin with a white woman. They were told nothing of this white woman, of course, but what more did they need to know? There was no question of them being married – such a thing was impossible between the races. The readers were then left to conclude that she was either being held hostage by the black man or had fallen from grace and allowed herself to be ruined by him. Either was a well-trod trope of the time.
In the end, it didn’t matter. He was lynched, and while lynching was bad and wrong, especially to Northern readers, their thoughts would likely have been “well, he shouldn’t have shacked up with a white woman.”
This article, in a single sentence, allowed the readers of the 1880s to justify to themselves the lynching of a man, an American citizen.
The Rest of the Story (Mostly)
But that sentence raised many more questions than it answered, even though the justification probably tamped them down.
Many of these questions are answered in the full report, which, by its conclusion, paints a fairly different picture than the much shorter version.
A Virginia Tragedy.
Murderous Work by a Band of Regulators in Franklin County.
Richmond, Va., January 27 – Information reached here tonight of an outrage committed last night in Franklin County, in this State, the particulars of which are:
About ten or eleven o’clock seven or eight men went to the house of Nancy Williams, near Wade’s store, in that county, and, knocking at the door, demanded admittance. 2Though “Wade’s Store” couldn’t be located, “Wade’s Mill” was along the Big Branch River, four miles west of Rocky Mount, the county seat. Wade was a fairly popular name in the county. This being refused, they attempted to break the door down, and failing in this at first, they went around to the window and commenced throwing stones and fence rails at the window.
In the house were Richard Woods, Nancy Williams and her two children. Richard Woods raised the floor and got under it. The men then returned to the door, and, after shooting through the door several times, finally succeeded in breaking it down.
Nancy Williams, then taking the children, went to the house of Eliza Woods, wife of Richard Woods, who lives some one hundred and fifty yards distant. Very soon a man and two boys came for her and took her back home.
Woods then came out and gave himself up. They were both tied and told to go in the direction of Mr. Elijah Wade’s, the men following with drawn pistols. Nancy gained permission to get her shoes, but Richard was refused a request for his boots.
They went on in the direction indicated, when after a little they stopped, and Richards was ordered to strip. He undressed partially, but asked one of the men to unbutton his shirt, as he could not reach the button behind. 3According to the Baltimore Sun, this was “owing to one of this hands being tied to the woman.” The Baltimore Sun; Baltimore, Maryland; Thu, Jan 29, 1880 – Page 4. Here.
Upon this they knocked him down and beat him. 4The Baltimore Sun states that Woods’ request to be helped undress “was regarded by the man to whom it was addressed as an insult, for he instantly knocked the negro down, and he was set upon by several of the gang and severely beaten.” He made an attempt to break away, and did run for a short distance, but fell. They then shot him several times.
After beating the woman, they released her to go home, but said if she did not leave the county in three days they would hang her. 5The Sun states that she “was administered a severe whipping.”
This report is made up from the evidence at the Coroner’s inquest. Nancy Williams, the paramour, and the wife and child of the murdered man being the only witnesses. There are various rumors afloat as to the murder.
Woods as considered a very bad negro and was confined in the jail here soon after the war. Only two months ago, he was released from jail in Floyd County. He had deserted his children and was living with Nancy Williams, who is a white woman and of very bad character. 6The Cincinnati Enquirer; Cincinnati, Ohio; Wed, Jan 28, 1880 – Page 4. Here.
Little is What it Seems – Analyzing the Article
This article, like the short version, seems to justify the intentions of the lynchers by insisting that Richard Woods deserted his wife and children. But two things seem a bit strange.
Had the Woods’ Been Enslaved?
First, the timeline of Woods life, as far as we know, is curious. Woods status before and during the Civil War are unstated. It’s likely that he was enslaved. While 44% of Virginia’s black population was free in 1860, they were mostly in urban areas like Richmond and Petersburg. Franklin County was about as rural as you could get.
Franklin County’s closest metropolitan area was Lynchburg (Roanoke was not yet established). In 1860, there were 3,051 black people living in the town. Of which, 88% were enslaved. With only 357 free blacks living in Lynchburg, the odds of Richard Woods being a freeman are incredibly thin. In all likelihood, Woods, along with his former wife and child, were enslaved. 7Ted Delaney Free Blacks of Lynchburg, Virginia, 1805-1865 (Lynchburg: Warwick House Publishing, 2001) 31. I could not find any available information on the slave population of Franklin County, Virginia. Of course, we don’t even know for certain if Richard Woods and his previous family were slaves in Franklin County, though it does seem likely. The other county mentioned, Floyd, is adjacent and even more rural.
This would indicate that the marriage of Richard and Eliza Woods, like many in slavery days, was arranged by the masters. This explanation could go a long way towards understanding the strange living situation (more on that in a bit).
Of Children and Jail
Both newspapers claim that Woods “abandoned his wife and children.” It’s as if Woods scampered off, leaving behind a crying young woman and a screaming infant or two. But according to the timeline, that couldn’t have been the case.
Woods was “confined to jail here soon after the war,” and was released only two months prior to the lynching. Two months is hardly time to conceive at least two children with Eliza, so it’s obvious that their children were born sometime before the close of the war. By 1880, they were, at their youngest, in their twenties. 8This assumes that they were born before the end of slavery. It’s possible that they were born following the war, but before he was in jail – there’s no way of knowing.
We have no indication why he was in jail. Following the war, black men could be thrown in jail for indefinite amounts of time for almost no reason at all. Despite that, it’s understandable why a marriage – even a good marriage – would fall apart after a fifteen year separation.
150 Yards of Arrangement
And yet, the situation as given in the article doesn’t show a marriage that has fallen apart. However, what it depicts is fairly strange.
We’re told that when the Regulators broke into the home, Nancy Williams, Richard Woods’ white “paramour,” fled “to the house of Eliza Woods, wife of Richard Woods, who lives some one hundred and fifty yards distant.”
The living situation was, then, that after he was released from jail, Richard Woods began living in the home of Nancy Williams, who lived only 150 yards from Eliza Woods, his wife. This was no normal living situation.
Whether it was made so due to an arranged slave marriage or to an extended jail sentence is unstated. However, that Nancy fled to Eliza’s house for safety speaks to the nature of the situation.
Despite any agreement or arrangement between Richard, Nancy and Eliza, the Regulators took it upon themselves to deal with this new problem – by lynching the black man, and whipping and threatening the white woman. Each paper made certain to cast Nancy Williams in a damning light. 9Even the Baltimore Sun made it a point to mention that she was “the mother of two illegitimate children.”
Richard Woods’ only crime was living with a white woman. Each of the newspapers give readers reasons for the lynching, expecting them to nod along in understanding. The lynching was, by the headline of the Cincinnati Enquirer, “a Virginia tragedy,” but there’s little in any of the articles that makes it seem tragic.
The reader is lead to believe that Woods abandoned his family to live with an already-disgraced white woman. But a closer examination of the evidence shows us how the press allowed the readers to justify even the most pointless of lynchings.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||The Burlington Free Press; Burlington, Vermont; Wed, Jan 28, 1880 – Page 3. Here.|
|2.||⇡||Though “Wade’s Store” couldn’t be located, “Wade’s Mill” was along the Big Branch River, four miles west of Rocky Mount, the county seat. Wade was a fairly popular name in the county.|
|3.||⇡||According to the Baltimore Sun, this was “owing to one of this hands being tied to the woman.” The Baltimore Sun; Baltimore, Maryland; Thu, Jan 29, 1880 – Page 4. Here.|
|4.||⇡||The Baltimore Sun states that Woods’ request to be helped undress “was regarded by the man to whom it was addressed as an insult, for he instantly knocked the negro down, and he was set upon by several of the gang and severely beaten.”|
|5.||⇡||The Sun states that she “was administered a severe whipping.”|
|6.||⇡||The Cincinnati Enquirer; Cincinnati, Ohio; Wed, Jan 28, 1880 – Page 4. Here.|
|7.||⇡||Ted Delaney Free Blacks of Lynchburg, Virginia, 1805-1865 (Lynchburg: Warwick House Publishing, 2001) 31. I could not find any available information on the slave population of Franklin County, Virginia. Of course, we don’t even know for certain if Richard Woods and his previous family were slaves in Franklin County, though it does seem likely. The other county mentioned, Floyd, is adjacent and even more rural.|
|8.||⇡||This assumes that they were born before the end of slavery. It’s possible that they were born following the war, but before he was in jail – there’s no way of knowing.|
|9.||⇡||Even the Baltimore Sun made it a point to mention that she was “the mother of two illegitimate children.”|