A murder in Charlotte Court House
The 1869 murder of Joseph R. Holmes, a former slave and delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention brought international attention to the plight of freedmen during Reconstruction.
Although the killers used guns instead of a rope, Holmes was for all intents lynched for daring to demand equality for all. Beginning with contemporary accounts and continuing into the 21st Century, much of what has been written about his death is incorrect. The discovery of long-lost, first-hand witness accounts have shed a light on what really happened in Charlotte Court House on May 3, 1869.
Joseph “Joe” Holmes was born into slavery in Charlotte County, Va. circa 1838 to parents Peyton and Nancy Holmes. Some stories state that Joe was a butler or body servant to Judge Hunter Holmes Marshall of Roxobel plantation but to date I have found no documents to support that. There are records that suggest Hunter Marshall’s cousin, Captain John H. Marshall, may have been his owner.
About 1865 he married Mary Clark, daughter of Simon and Joanna/Jina Clark, and they quickly had four children: Peyton, Louisa, Joseph junior and William R. Holmes. Holmes was a shoemaker with his own shop but when son William was born in August 1868, his father’s occupation was listed as “Radicalism.”
HON. JOSEPH R. HOLMES
After the Civil War, Holmes became an outspoken supporter of the radical wing of the Republican Party which demanded equal political and legal rights for all, as well as public schools for the newly freedmen. He gained notice by the party and was named a delegate to the Virginia Republican convention held in Richmond in August 1867.
As a rebelling state, Virginia was required by Congress to write a state constitution incorporating the 14th Amendment and the rights of freedmen as a condition of rejoining the Union. On Oct. 23, 1867, Holmes was elected to the Virginia Constitutional Convention as one of three African American delegates representing Charlotte and Halifax counties.
The constitutional convention met in Richmond from Dec. 3, 1867 through Apr. 17, 1868. Holmes served honorably, almost always voting for the most radical reforms. Although deemed “good-natured” by some in the press, his outspokenness brought unfavorable attention from others who ridiculed and belittled him, describing him as “ignorant,” of “bad character,” and a figure of comic relief; descriptions that would follow him after his death.
That Holmes was far from ignorant is evidenced by a surviving well-written exchange of letters with Thomas Leahy of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Holmes worked with the Bureau to establish a school for freedmen in Keysville.
Following the convention, Holmes returned to Charlotte County and his work as a shoemaker. A letter that appeared in the Nov. 23, 1868 Richmond Whig above the signature “Roanoke” states, “I passed by the shop of our former representative, “Hon.” Joseph Holmes, a few days ago. He was busily at work pegging away at a pair of boots. I told him I thought he was much better at making boots than a Constitution…”
Holmes must have been successful at his craft as on May 29, 1868 he was able to purchase 11½ acres of land adjacent to present day Antioch Church, south of the town of Keysville. He paid $92, an amount equivalent to $1,656 in today’s money; quite a sum for someone just three years out of bondage.
Holmes continued to speak out for reform and the rights of the freedmen and in March 1869 once again represented Charlotte County as a delegate to the Virginia Republican Convention in Petersburg. This did not sit well with many white citizens of the county. In his memoir, Charlotte County native H. C. Williamson. Sr. described with approbation seeing a picture of a skull-and-crossbones – “the sign of the Ku Klux Klan” — nailed to the door of Holmes’s shop.
DEATH OF JOSEPH HOLMES
Joseph Holmes’s campaign for justice and equality was brought to a halt on May 3, 1869 when he was shot to death on the courthouse steps in Charlotte Court House. John Marshall and Griffin Stith Marshall (sons of Judge Hunter Holmes Marshall of Roxobel), William Boyd and Macon C. “Mac” Morris were indicted by a jury for the murder of Joseph Holmes. According to court records, on June 9, 1869 a “true bill” was returned against all but Griffin Marshall and warrants were issued for their arrest. But it was too late — the Marshall brothers and Boyd had made their escape immediately following the shooting and Mac Morris, who had been arrested at the scene, had skipped bail and likewise disappeared.
Differing accounts of the event were published in newspapers as far away as Australia. Through the years most southern writers have blamed Holmes for the incident, painting the accused men as unfortunate victims of circumstance, some even declaring them totally innocent. This author’s 2012 discovery at the Charlotte County Clerk’s office of original manuscript pages of witness statements made to the justices of the peace the night of the attack and the following day tell a different story. Unfortunately, the first six pages are missing but the remaining statements together with a published interview with one of the witnesses whose sworn statement was in the missing papers reveal the truth.
It was about 5 o’clock in the afternoon on a court day and the small village was crowded. Accounts differ as to why Joseph Holmes was there that day but it appears to have been connected to an altercation between John Marshall and another African-American man earlier in the day. Marshall had shot at the man and boasted that he had killed him (the man survived). Holmes spoke out publicly about the incident, saying this shooting on the streets had to stop, he wanted peace.
John Marshall believed Holmes was going to the courthouse to obtain a warrant against him. One informant stated that Marshall’s party had boasted in the days leading up to the shooting that they would kill eight of the leading African-American Republicans and that John Marshall was heard specifically asserting his intention to kill Holmes. John Marshall, Griffin Marshall, William Boyd and Mac Morris confronted Holmes near the steps that crossed over the fence into the courthouse yard. Words were exchanged and then Boyd struck Holmes with his cane. John Marshall pulled out his pistol and struck Holmes on the head with it. Holmes fell back a few steps and then John Marshall fired point-blank, hitting Holmes in the breast.
As Holmes clambered over the steps, he was hit by a second bullet and he cried out “Oh, Lord!” Holmes ran up the courthouse steps and partially turned towards his attackers. He was shot a third time. Holmes staggered into the courthouse doorway and collapsed, dead.
Witnesses agreed that John Marshall fired the first shot and that the two other shots came from the group but differed as to who fired, some accusing Griffin Marshall, others Boyd or Morris. They also disagreed as to whether or not Holmes had a pistol with one claiming Holmes had one in his hand before he got to the courthouse door and others saying they never saw it until the doctor took it from his dead hand. No one said Holmes fired.
The Marshall brothers and William Boyd fled immediately but the sheriff grabbed Mac Morris by the coat collar on the courthouse porch and placed him under arrest in the building. The next day Morris was freed on bail and disappeared.
A post-mortem examination of the body was conducted by two doctors but their testimony is in the missing pages. Local undertaker John N. Schmidt was paid $29 by the court for the burial expenses of Joseph Holmes. It does not say where he was buried but it was likely in the small family burial plot that is on the land Holmes owned near Keysville, Va.
The killers of Joseph Holmes were never brought to justice. But then the authorities never looked that hard for any of them. Once Mac Morris skipped bail the court seemed to have forgotten about him. He’s not mentioned again in the court records. Morris went to Kentucky for a while but by 1878 was in Mecklenburg County, Va. He married twice, had at least four children, spent years in Roanoke, Va. working as a policeman – using his real name — and ended up in Alexandria, Va. where he died circa 1909.
Arrest warrants were issued almost every quarter for John Marshall and William Boyd, the last one in February 1873. I have been unsuccessful in finding Boyd in the records but the travels of John and Griffin Marshall were documented in a memoir written by Griffin’s daughter, Margaret Marshall, first published in The Hudson Review in 1971 and reprinted in True West magazine in 1972. Margaret wrote that she heard the Holmes story from her mother – not her father. As Margaret was born in 1900, this means she heard it secondhand more than 35 years after the fact. Though the memoir gives a largely inaccurate account of the murder of Joseph Holmes (an account that unfortunately would be picked up by later authors), Margaret does shed some light on what happened to the Marshall brothers after they fled Virginia with the assistance of several local people. Some of her story of their travels is borne out by the records.
According to the memoir, John and Griffin escaped to Texas, assumed the name “Wilkes” and then moved further west as far as San Francisco before turning eastward and settling in Elko, Nev. for a time. From there, the brothers travelled north to Montana working as cowhands. John became a successful rancher in Montana, where he lived until his death in 1883, but Griffin, a.k.a. “Jim Wilkes,” moved on to Albion, Idaho and became a partner in a cattle ranch.
Although the evidence against him was strong, the jury had not returned a true bill against Griffin Marshall. He could have returned to Virginia but did not. He did keep in touch with his mother and sister by letters (signing his real name). In December 1884 Griffin married a young woman named Kate Parke. Though he continued to be known as “Jim Wilkes,” Griffin told Kate his real name and a version of what had happened in Charlotte Court House.
The couple had nine children; Margaret was the only daughter. According to the memoir, in 1888 Griffin (using his real name) was elected to a two-year term as sheriff of Cassia County, Idaho. By June 1900 the Marshalls had moved to Ogden City, Utah where Griffin became a sheep farmer. The family returned to Idaho in 1912 and Griffin died in Pocatello, Idaho on May 12, 1924.
There is another strange twist to this story. Margaret Marshall’s flawed account of Joseph Holmes’s murder has caused much confusion not only because she invented a participant (she states that a “Fred Beal” was the true killer, a name not mentioned anywhere else), but because she actually merged two completely different stories into one. Margaret Marshall claimed that one of the people involved in the Holmes affair was a cousin of the Marshall brothers, “David Morton.” She went on to describe how he became a fugitive out west, rode with Billy the Kid, and was ultimately shot and killed by the Kid. She cited her source for the latter part of the story as The Saga of Billy the Kid written in 1926 by Walter Noble Burns. She mentioned that Burns referred to Morton as “Billy,” but said that she was sure it was “David” Morton and he had been involved in the Holmes murder. She was wrong on both accounts.
There was a Charlotte County cousin of the Marshalls who was killed by Billy the Kid – his name was William S. “Buck” Morton. Buck was the eldest of eight children of David Holmes Morton and Joanna Cabell Morton, thus related to some of the most prominent families in Virginia. His father David was a dry goods merchant who kept a store in Charlotte Court House, however, like so many others, the Civil War and its aftermath ruined him. When Buck’s mother took ill and died in 1867, the children were sent to live with various relatives. By the time David died in New York in 1870, Buck was already living with his cousin Samuel P. Daniel of Stockdale and working at the family store across from the courthouse (now known as Tucker’s Store).
On the day Joseph Holmes was shot Buck Morton was 13 years old. As it was a busy court day, Buck was likely working at the store and may have seen the event unfold but there is no indication that he had any involvement. None of the Mortons were mentioned in connection with it in any way until Margaret Marshall’s memoir. Buck certainly did not leave Charlotte County immediately after the shooting – the 1870 census, enumerated on Aug. 26, 1870, shows him still living with Samuel Daniel, albeit with the servants.
Though still a young teenager, Buck Morton did head out west not long after that census, working a variety of jobs but mostly cowboying. He did cross paths with Billy the Kid, and he and two others were killed by the Kid in Blackwater Draw, New Mexico on Mar. 9, 1878, arguably sparking the Lincoln County cattle war. A fascinating story, but one for another time.
Joseph R. Holmes is a name that deserves to be remembered. Holmes was a man who believed that all were created equal and deserved to be treated as such. In his own words he wanted “peace.” He should be remembered and honored as a man who stood up for, and died, for his convictions.
Kathy Lee Erlandson Liston is a retired professional archaeologist and archival researcher living in Charlotte County. Her email address is kle1993@ gmail.com.