Murder, Honor and Law: 4 Virginia Homicides from Reconstruction to the Great Depression.
How did the South and the nation differ? Did the southern system of justice operate fairly? What role did honor and chivalry play in the actions of those involved in judicial matters? How did the national and regional press portray southern violence and one state's laws and customs? How did newspapers show, shape, and stress ideas of southern exceptionalism? And, finally, how did journalists within one state--Virginia--present homicides and how did that vary from the way the rest of America viewed the same cases? Those and other questions form the core of what Richard F. Hamm examines in this microhistory approach, in which he uses four case studies to illustrate larger themes.
Since Bertram Wyatt-Brown's 1982 Southern Honor appeared, numerous writers have examined in more depth the interplay of honor and southern violence. Edward L. Ayers, Dickson D. Bruce Jr., Elliott J. Gorn, Kenneth S. Greenberg, Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohon, and others have enriched the understanding of the region. Recently, authors (such as this reviewer) have begun to focus on more specific cases of violence, and have used those examples to draw broader conclusions, ones that focus new light on a still-murky story. Hamm's work continues that trend.
His first example occurred in 1868. Like all four of the case studies, it shows how outside interests played a role, how each homicide drew much attention from the local, state, and national press, and how coverage in all cases often reflected both fact and fiction. In 1868, for example, editor Henry Rivers Pollard's scandal-laden Richmond Southern Opinion published an article which attacked the honor of the sister of James Grant. The scion of an established family, Grant used a shotgun to ambush and kill Pollard. The jury's decision, says Hamm, showed the strength of honor in the Old Dominion and, by extension, the South.
Almost a quarter century later, in 1892, Democratic politician J. T. Clark killed Danville minister John R. Moffett in another affair involving honor and the law. Moffett, a prohibition crusader, had used words that attacked the established order and threatened the existing color line: "I would rather be governed by a good Negro than by a drunken white man." (p. 71). When the two men met after that, a fight had occurred. Rev. Moffett later struck out at Clark in the columns of a paper. Clark responded by shooting and killing the minister. The jury's decision suggested that the politician had not acted fully in accord with the demands of honor.
Fifteen years after that, honor--in the form of the unwritten law--played a key role in a case. Although different in several ways from honor, the unwritten law gave social sanction to violence when the purity of women became involved. In this instance, former Nelson county judge W. G. Loving was told by his daughter that Theodore Estes had taken her on a carriage ride, had drugged, her, and "had forced himself" (p. 132) upon her. The distraught father killed Estes, and used the unwritten law as his defense. With a favorable press behind Loving, he found much sympathy. A friendly ruling by the judge also kept out any testimony that might have revealed that the daughter's story had many weaknesses. The resultant decision surprised few.
Hamm's final case study focuses on the so-called "Slipper Slayer" in 1935. After twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher Edith Maxwell of Pound, Virginia, came home late one night, her drunken father berated and struck her. She hit him with her shoe. Maxwell claimed that her father would later fall and injure himself, and that the fall--not her slipper--killed him. The case became a vehicle for stereotypical coverage by the press, which stressed the clash between the view of women in traditional Appalachian culture as opposed to modern society. The National Women's Party helped with the defense, and the decision attracted much national attention. In fact, reporter Ernie Pyle covered the case, and editor Virginius Dabney wrote his first editorial on it: "Most of the news stories on the Maxwell case," he said, "have been written in hotel rooms with a bottle of 'corn' in one hand, and 'The Trail of the Lonesome Pine' in the other" (p. 185).
Throughout the book, the author generally presents a fairly straight-forward summary of what occurred, then analyzes the state of journalism in each era, the case itself, and the decision. He follows that with a discussion of the arguments, the press' view, and the role of honor and law. Out of that presentation Hamm draws three general conclusions: 1) That what starts out in Reconstruction as attacks on southern barbarism metamorphized into more muted criticism in a time of reconciliation, then re-emerged in economic and social criticism in the twentieth century; 2) That Virginia responded to such criticism, first, with a self-defense mechanism that portrayed its culture as superior to that of the attacking North, and then, later, with a defense that stressed that the Old Dominion, in fact, did not differ at all from the nation; and 3) That honor, over time, lost its place as the focus of decision-making, due to the changing role of women in the twentieth century and the growing integration of the South into modern market capitalism. While no great surprises emerge from all those conclusions, the author's stress of change over time and the specific aspects of that change do add good detail to the emerging understanding of how the South viewed itself and how the nation saw the South.
The writing is clear, the errors few--Jenkins, Kentucky, is more properly not a mill town as much as a coal camp company town--and the conclusions sound. Some might quibble over the selection of cases, and others about whether the "unwritten law" conclusions could apply to American society as well as southern, but few would argue that the author has not done well in putting those cases in historical context and drawing solid insights from all that. In these four case studies, two of those on trial won their freedom, while two did not. Hamm, in at least one instance, tells the reader the eventual outcome in the first paragraph of the story, thus reducing the suspense and lessening the desire to read on to find the answer. In contrast, this review will not reveal the decisions, but will instead suggest that readers should examine Murder, Honor and Law themselves to discover what happened. The result will be worth the read. After all, such studies form the core of the approach of the historian as detective--in this case, answering many questions and trying to solve the continuing mystery of the southern mind.
James C. Klotter
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|Author:||Klotter, James C.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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