There’s a new turn in the case of Albemarle County’s most notorious lynching, the 1898 murder of John Henry James, a Black man yanked from a train, hanged and shot. Next week, 125 years after his near-simultaneous death and indictment for sexually assaulting a White woman, James will likely gain a cleared criminal record.
“It certainly doesn’t undo the injustice, but it is a kind of belated recognition by the judicial system that a wrong was committed,” University of Virginia scholar Jalane Schmidt told The Daily Progress.
Schmidt plans to be in Albemarle County Circuit Court this week to present the historical evidence to Judge Cheryl Higgins, who has agreed to hear a motion by Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley to strike the indictment against James, which was filed despite his death.
“It was invalid on its face,” said Schmidt. “You can’t indict a corpse.”
Schmidt said she abhors the fact that James was indicted after the grand jury reportedly learned of the lynching.
“It shows the animus of the system,” said Schmidt. “If they were going to indict anyone, it should have been the people who murdered him.”
An associate professor of religion, Schmidt was a key player in the resistance to the fatal Unite the Right rally, which brought hundreds of White nationalists and two days of rioting to Charlottesville in 2017. She now directs UVa’s Memory Project, an ongoing examination of the troubling history of racism in Virginia.
The life of James ended on July 12, 1898. One day earlier, a young horsewoman named Julia Hottop was riding back to Pen Park, her family’s 407-acre estate just outside Charlottesville, to find the farm gate inexplicably secured by a wrapped wire. Hottop dismounted her steed to open the gate when she was allegedly ambushed and sexually assaulted.
“It is said that the young lady 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,” according to an account in The Daily Progress at the time.
The woman supposedly fainted at least three times that morning and claimed unconsciousness during the height of the attack. Between swoons, she allegedly claimed her assailant was a thin-moustached, dark-skinned Black man whose toes poked through his shoes.
“About noon,” wrote The Daily Progress, “a negro named John Henry James was arrested in Dudley’s barroom as answering somewhat the description.”
The Daily Progress described James as a “tramp,” but a local woman described him in a letter as an ice-cream vendor.
While Charlottesville newspaper accounts later alleged that Hottop positively identified James as her attacker, a Staunton newspaper claimed the opposite.
Despite such contradictions, White antipathy for the suspect intensified, and James was whisked away for his safety to Staunton. The next day, however, James was placed on the 10:20 a.m. train headed back to Charlottesville. Three miles west of the city, at the edge of what is now Farmington Country Club, there was a stop on the line called Wood’s Crossing. There, roughly 150 angry White men pulled James from the train’s smoking car.
“Gentlemen, we want this negro,” the mob is reported to have said.
The mob allegedly bound the hands of the Charlottesville police chief and shoved a pistol in the face of the Albemarle County sheriff, who made a futile plea for the rule of law.
“But he was powerless in the hands of so many,” according to The Daily Progress.
A rope was thrown around the neck of James who, again depending on the newspaper, either accepted or rejected blame.
“Before God, I am innocent,” The Daily Progress quoted him.
After hanging James from a locust tree, some of the lynchers shot the dead or dying man, whose body remained hanging for as many as four hours.
“I found thirty bullet holes in the body,” a mortician told a subsequent coroner’s inquest.
While the newspapers treated the lynching as regrettable, several scribes were quick to report that the prosecutor, Micajah Woods, considered the rape case airtight. Today’s Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney disagrees.
“The Commonwealth believes this was a false accusation,” Hingeley writes in his motion.
Along with several other prosecutors, Hingeley traveled in April to America’s leading lynching museum, the Equal Justice Initiative, in Montgomery, Alabama.
The museum’s Community Remembrance Project has already made several strides to recognize what happened in Albemarle. In 2018, the project accepted soil from the lynching site. The following year, the project helped erect a plaque at Court Square telling what happened to James — including details of a vain effort by Blacks to stop the lynching and about the successful effort by Whites to pluck gruesome souvenirs from the body.
“Despite the presence of the Charlottesville police chief and Albemarle sheriff, no one was ever charged or held accountable for the murder of John Henry James,” concludes that plaque.
Schmidt bristles at the conclusion of the coroner’s report, which laid blame on “unknown parties.”
“There were 150 people there all unmasked,” said Schmidt. “In a town this size, you can’t say ‘unknown parties.’”
The Richmond Planet, a Black newspaper, warned at the time: “The lynching of John Henry James will be far more damaging to the community than it will be to the alleged criminal.”
The Albemarle County supervisors appear to agree. Last month, they declared July 12, 2023, John Henry James Day, to recognize “our shared community history and as a demonstration of our commitment that this tragedy will be neither forgotten nor repeated.”
Hingeley came away from his April meeting in Montgomery with the idea of undoing the indictment in a public hearing. Slated for 4:00 p.m. Wednesday, the hearing comes precisely 125 years after James’ killing.
“The perpetrators of this racial terror lynching acted with impunity because they knew that the Albemarle County authorities would not hold them accountable,” Hingeley wrote in his motion.
Schmidt will read from the historical records, including the contradictory allegations, the context of local racism and the apparent disinterest in prosecuting James’s killers.
“Most of what will happen will be her testimony,” said Hingeley, noting that the Wednesday afternoon hearing is open to the public.
In Virginia, although they’re typically called prosecutors, Hingeley notes that the foremost task for a commonwealth’s attorney is justice, something that will be furthered, he said, by his motion.
“I feel honored,” he said, “to have an opportunity to participate in the Community Remembrance Project in this way.”
As for the accuser, Julia Hottop would make headlines again. In the latter years of the new century’s first decade, she reportedly drew acclaim for walking from Atlanta to Chicago.
In 1911, however, at the age of 33, she reportedly called police near her home in Washington, D.C., to allege that a crowd of men would gather to prevent her from painting whenever she would try to pursue her artistry.
“Her talk became so erratic that she was finally taken to the office of Sanitary Officer Linn, and a charge of insanity preferred against her,” according to an 1911 article in the Washington Times.