Paul Johnson told the revelers at his house Saturday night that he didn’t want a typical Halloween party or a birthday party as he prepared to turn 58.
A lawyer for a local non-profit, he wanted instead to conduct a jaunty reexamination of the arrest and execution of J. Samuel McCue, a former mayor who, in 1905, became the last man hanged in Charlottesville.
“I wanted a spirit walk party,” Johnson told over 30 guests at his downtown townhouse. “After you hear the story, I want you to vote. Pretend like you’re the jury— you’re trying to figure out who did it.”
What is known is the 44-year-old McCue was accused of murdering his wife, Fannie, in their spacious Park Street home on the night of Sept. 4, 1904.
Just four days out of the mayorship at the time of the crime, the accused McCue told investigators that an intruder knocked him out with a blow to the head shortly after he and his wife returned to the house from a Sunday evening church service.
Testimony by the family servant showed Mrs. McCue had been heard to have exclaimed something like, “Sam, Sam, he’s killing me.”
The coroner’s inquest found that a single shotgun blast from the 12-gauge that Mr. McCue kept in the couple’s bedroom finished off Mrs. McCue after several blows from a baseball bat failed to do the job.
The jury was out just 27 minutes before finding McCue guilty of murder, according to a contemporary account in The Daily Progress.
A man with secrets
As an attorney, Johnson said he’s well aware that the husband is always a prime suspect, but Johnson contends that McCue, who was also a lawyer, did not get a fair trial.
“Nine times out of ten that’s who it is,” mused Johnson.
He noted that McCue had racked up scores of enemies by working as a debt collector and that the jury was allowed to read newspapers, or at least their headlines, during the three-week trial.
Another curious aspect of the trial, he said, was that it failed to include testimony over the fact that McCue had been carrying on an affair with a 22-year-old woman.
On the way to his execution, McCue would leave cryptic clues possibly alluding to a woman’s participation in the killing. For instance, after his conviction, McCue told the judge, “I am as innocent as any other man in the courtroom.”
A lawyer is a sworn member of the court system and is often known to choose his words carefully to avoid lying. (Think of Bill Clinton carefully defining the word “is.”)
Another cryptic McCue comment was on the morning of the hanging. On that day, Feb. 10, 1905, McCue told three prominent men, as they later wrote, “that he did not wish to leave this world with suspicion resting on any human being other than himself.”
“Are we to believe that a guilty man, just hours from death, was worried that someone else might later be suspected of the crime?” asked Paul Forrest Jones, a South Carolina-based researcher. “The only reason could be that Sam knew who the actual murderer was and that she was still at some risk.”
The research by Jones included poring through trial files in the Albemarle County Courthouse and contacting relatives of the key players. That research later became the basis for a revisionist 1996 cover story in C-ville Weekly and a booklet that Jones self-published nine years later.
He contends not only that it wasn’t a fair trial but that McCue was innocent.
“The guy was hanged for something he didn’t do,” said Jones. “The family had to live under that shadow.”
A “lad” seen leaving the house
Out on Park Street, Johnson is crediting Jones as he regales more than 30 rapt attendees with tales from the scene of the crime.
“They actually held one day of the trial right here,” said Johnson, who notes that the McCue mansion is now a 12-unit apartment house called Comyn Hall.
Johnson notes that court records show that a witness with a speech impediment submitted a written statement about seeing a “lad” dressed in a hat and boots leave the mansion shortly after the sound of the gunshot.
“The man that the witness saw run out of the house?” asked Johnson. “That might have been Hattie.”
But who was Hattie?
It seems that McCue had been representing one Hattie Marshall in a divorce, had rented her a nearby apartment, and may have inadvertently let her think he’d be by himself that evening by walking past her apartment alone on the way to meet his wife at church.
Johnson then revealed a blockbuster letter that The Daily Progress published after the trial that Hattie had sent to the imprisoned Sam McCue.
“The letter she wrote was, ‘I miss you. I have just your picture to remind me of you,’ recounted Johnson. “’And I have something else, that has your eyes, that reminds me of you.’”
“Ohhhhhh,” went up a collective reply from this ghost tour’s attendees.
So maybe the illicit lovers had a baby?
“One theory is that she came over to surprise Sam, but instead she surprised Fannie,” explained Johnson outside the Park Street mansion. Other tour stops included the church (now just a parking lot), the Albemarle County courthouse (where most of the three-week trial was held), and the old jail off High Street (where McCue was incarcerated and hanged).
Guests split on verdict
Back at Johnson’s house, theories flowed like the green tea, wine, and seltzer that Johnson’s wife, Betsy Groeschel, has served alongside 10 delivery pizzas. Her spouse arranged three blue buckets as the voting booth, and each guest was given a little cedar ball to drop into a bucket marked with a possible verdict.
Four found McCue guilty; 14 voted that he was innocent, and 18 votes suggest that McCue and Hattie Marshall somehow plotted together.
“I believe in the system, and the system at the time, which had the most germane information, most likely, found him guilty,” said Richard Zakin, who voted guilty.
“Sam did not commit the crime,” countered Vivian Groeschel, sister-in-law to the hosting couple. “There was a witness who saw somebody leave.”
“I think he was in collusion with Hattie, and it was a crime of passion,” said Meg Zakin. “And he was hated by the community because he was a debt-collector.”
Johnson had noted earlier in the evening that in a town with a population of under 7,000, a whopping 1,000 had signed a petition calling for a special prosecutor.
“It was probably the biggest thing to happen in a while,” said Johnson, who noted that 1904 was the year that the first automobile arrived in Charlottesville.
Party-goer Keith Cain recalled the assertion that McCue and his wife had urged a relative to come inside for a visit just a moment before the fatal attack.
“Why would he invite someone into their house if he was going to murder his wife in just a few minutes?” asked Cain, who contends that the real killer was Hattie’s estranged husband, Lester Marshall.
“Sam was taking his wife from him, so he was going to take Sam’s wife from Sam,” says Cain. “It wasn’t a woman running out that the witness saw; it was Lester.”
Johnson, who voted for a Sam-and-Hattie conspiracy, conceded that three buckets of cedar balls is no way to run a trial. But he said that the event got ideas flowing and accomplished something else for him in his new downtown townhouse.
“It was a chance to meet my neighbors,” said Johnson. “We have lived over here for two years, and I really wanted to get to know them.”