Presbyterian Cemetery ‘Sunday Stroll’ is April 2

On Sunday, April 2, Lynchburg’s Presbyterian Cemetery will host its first “Sunday Stroll” of 2017. The hour-long, guided tour, “Lynchburg During the Civil War,” will begin at 2 p.m. The cost is $5.

The tour will focus on what life was like in Lynchburg during the Civil War. It also will highlight local Civil War soldiers — more than 200 of which are buried at Presbyterian Cemetery — along with mourning traditions and more.

Augustus Winfield Scott 1843-1905
This weeping angel atop the grave of Augustus Winfield Scott is one of many exquisite monuments that can be found at the historic burial ground.

Presbyterian Cemetery was founded in 1823 on land purchased from Edward Lynch, son of the city’s founder, John Lynch.

Notable people buried there include, among others, Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland Jr. (Civil War), Max Guggenheimer Jr. (local “merchant prince”), Otway Anna Carter Owen (great-niece of George Washington) and Emma Serena Dillard Stovall (the folk artist known as “Queena” Stovall).

While not famous, the four Stephens children also are buried at Presbyterian. Their graves are overlooked by an exquisite statue, one of many beautiful monuments at the cemetery. I wrote about them a few months ago.

For full disclosure purposes, I’m a member of the Friends Board at Presbyterian Cemetery.

A Tale of Two Lulas

After I finished writing my last blog post about Miss Lula Gooch’s trunk, in which I mentioned that I hadn’t been able to find evidence of Lula after 1910, I stumbled upon this article from the Dec. 2, 1913, Richmond Times Dispatch:

Two Indicted - Lula Gooch Murder RTD dec 2 1913 - cropped
Chronicling America newspaper archive, Library of Congress

This isn’t a great copy, so I’ll paraphrase: On Dec. 1, 1913, a man calling himself James Gooch, with an alias of James Rogers, was indicted in Richmond, Va., for killing a woman named Lula Gooch on Nov. 24, 1913.

The article doesn’t say how Lula was murdered or anything about her family, and I couldn’t find any more articles about the case online. In other words, I was having trouble connecting this particular Lula Gooch to the one I wrote about previously, who lived with her family in Richmond in 1900 and worked as a cigar roller.

I’ll admit, when initially researching Lula and her trunk, I found numerous Lula Gooches from all over the U.S. on FamilySearch. But what was the possibility, three years after I can last place Lula in a census, that this murdered Lula Gooch — in Richmond, where she lived, no less — wasn’t her?

Could this be the Miss Lula Gooch who once owned my trunk? Murdered, in Richmond?

So, on the off chance that the case was heinous enough to have made it into the Lynchburg newspaper, I went to Jones Memorial Library, a great (and free) local resource for genealogical and historical research.

There, the mystery unraveled, but not in the way I expected. On page 2, column 1 of the Tuesday, Nov. 25, edition of the Lynchburg News I found this story:


Richmond, Va. Nov. 24 — (Special.) James Rogers, a negro, this afternoon shot and instantly killed his wife Lula. They had separated, and today the man went to where the woman was employed and when she stepped out into an alley he shot her in the back of the head. The man was captured by mounted officers.

One might be tempted to shout, “Whee hoo!” at this point, but not so fast. While I was glad to find the article in the Lynchburg newspaper, the Lula I was looking for was white.

In 1913 Richmond, it wasn’t likely that James and Lula were an interracial couple, and at that time in history I imagine the newspaper would have reported that fact if they were. During my research, I’ve noticed that newspapers, even into the 1960s, were quick to note if someone was “negro” or “colored.”

Also, even though murdered Lula was called “Lula Gooch” in the first article, she wasn’t actually a Gooch. She was a Rogers, with the maiden name Broadus.

When I found Lula Rogers’ death certificate a few minutes later on — with the cause of death “homicidal shooting, apparently” — all questions about the identity of murdered Lula were put to rest.

Lula Rogers Death
Death Certificate,

According to the death certificate, Lula Broadus Rogers was “about 24” years old when she died and worked as a cook. She was the daughter of Willie and Elleanora Broadus, and she was born in North Carolina.

The death certificate says she was killed “in an alley near … 16 E. Marshall St.” I found this address on Google Earth. In the photo below, there’s an alley to the right of the building. Perhaps that was where Lula Rogers died.

16 east marshall street richmond
16 E. Marshall St., Richmond. Note alley to the right.

As for what happened to James Rogers after his indictment, I haven’t been able to find anything (at least not without traveling to Richmond to look at court records, which I’m probably not going to do, to be honest).

He isn’t on this list of executions in the state of Virginia during that time period and I haven’t found him on the 1920 U.S. Census, where he (hopefully) would have shown up as a prison inmate.

I did find a 1916 newspaper article from Paris, Tenn., in which police were seeking a James Rogers who was wanted for murder. This James Rogers also was African American, but there’s nothing else in the article that points at him being the murderer of Lula Rogers.

Actually, while researching this story, I found several different men named James Rogers, white and black, who were accused of murder during the same decade. Interesting, huh?

In the end, though, it was a tale of two Lulas: one a cigar roller, who might have taken her trunk on an exciting trip far away, and the second a cook trying to escape a bad marriage and shot to death in an alleyway.

Miss Lula Gooch’s Trunk

Miss Lula Gooch’s Trunk

My next door neighbor, Kathy, has been doing some spring cleaning and over the weekend she gave me a trunk that had worn out its welcome in her basement. When husband John and I went over to pick up the trunk — which he was so excited about — Kathy said she’d noticed something stamped on the side.

“It looks like it says, ‘Missoula Coach,’” she said, thinking the trunk’s destination, at some point, had been Missoula, Mont.

Upon closer inspection, however, I noticed it wasn’t a city and state stamped on the end of the canvas-covered, wooden trunk, but a name: MISS LULA GOOCH.

miss lula gooch cropped
It’s pretty faded but (at the same time) clearly says “Miss Lula Gooch.”

Loving a good mystery, I couldn’t wait to get on the computer.

After doing some laundry — the one household duty that gets done consistently at my house — I got on the computer. I typed “Lula Gooch” into FamilySearch and got a bunch of different Lula Gooches. Who would have thought? How many Lula Gooches could there possibly be?

excited john and trunk
As you can see, husband John is very excited about bringing a huge, 100-something-year-old trunk into our house.

Apparently, there were a pile of them, born in several states, among them Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, Missouri, Iowa, Kentucky and Georgia. Most were born in the late 1800s or early 1900s, but none of that information helped narrow down who my Lula Gooch was.

When I told John about all of the Lula Gooches, he remarked that stamped under “Miss Lula Gooch” there appeared to be some more words, more specifically what looked like “OND” followed by what looked to be “VA.”

My immediate thought: “Richmond, Virginia!”

Back on the computer, I looked for Lula Gooches, between 1850 and 1930, living in Richmond. I figured using a date range when people used shipping trunks might result in some more useful hits.

I also checked the little boxes next to “Lula” and “Gooch” so I wouldn’t get a host of near-matches that I’d have little patience to sift through. While I enjoy research, I’m not as patient as I should be, especially when faced with 10,000 hits.

In the 1900 U.S. Census, I found a Lula Gooch living at 2313 Venable Street in Richmond. She was living with her father, Archibald, a barber, and mother, Susie. Lula also had a few siblings. You can find their house on Google Earth, that is assuming the house numbers haven’t changed in the past 117 years.

Lula job 1900
Apparently “chervot roller” isn’t a thing. “Cheroot roller” is, though.

In 1900, Lula was 20 years old and single. Her occupation, and that of her two sisters, Estelle and Bessie, appeared to be “chervot roller.”

Chervot roller? What the heck is that? I’d never heard of that occupation before — or the word “chervot” for that matter. I wasn’t even sure I’d deciphered it correctly, so I did what any sensible person would do: I resorted to Google.

While I didn’t find “chervot roller,” I did find “cheroot roller.” Lula and her sisters were actually cheroot — or cigar — rollers. Richmond is a big tobacco town, too, so that makes sense.

By the time the census taker came around in 1910, Lula was no longer living on Venable Street. She was living with her younger sister, Bessie, and her husband. Lula’s mom, Susie, was listed in the same household, but she’s also in a separate listing with Archibald.

Perhaps Susie was visiting her daughters that day and the census taker just wrote down everyone present. Without a time machine, it’s impossible to know.

As for what type of trunk it is, I’m not quite sure. This Wikipedia page has a description of the types of trunks made between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, and there are more types than you’d imagine.

The page helps you identify what type of trunk you have based on things like the size, whether or not the top is dome-shaped or flat, etc.

full trunk
The trunk, which moved from my neighbor’s basement to mine.

I initially thought my trunk was a steamer trunk, but after reading the description, I don’t think it is. According to Wikipedia, a steamer trunk is about 14 inches tall, “to accommodate steamship luggage regulations.” Mine is 25 inches tall — almost twice that.

It’s also 36 inches long and 21 inches, front to back. It’s a big trunk. If I was more flexible and not claustrophobic, I could get inside of it.

I came to the conclusion that my trunk is probably a Saratoga or barrel-stave trunk, both of which are described in more detail on the Wikipedia page.

As for whether or not the trunk once belonged to Richmond cigar roller Lula Gooch, it’s a good possibility, but hard to know for sure. I’d like to think so, though. And as for what happened to Lula after 1910, if I find out anything else, I’ll let you know.

Thoughts on a Book: ‘American Uprising’

A few weeks ago, I was perusing the nonfiction section at the Lynchburg Public Library — truth be told, looking for a book about the Abraham Lincoln assassination — when I stumbled on a book titled, “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.”

A woodcut depicting the Nat Turner Rebellion, 1831. Library of Congress.

My first thought was it was a book about the Nat Turner rebellion, which occurred in Southampton County, Va., in 1831. After all, that’s probably the best-known slave uprising. Books have been written about it and at least one movie made, including the 2016 film, “The Birth of a Nation.”

As a side note, I thought calling a film about the Nat Turner rebellion “The Birth of a Nation” was brilliant because the last movie by that name — a silent film from 1915, originally titled, “The Clansman” — was sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan and contained all sorts of racist portrayals of African-American people. So, take that!

But “American Uprising,” written by Daniel Rasmussen, isn’t about the Nat Turner rebellion. It’s about a slave uprising that happened in 1811 on Louisiana’s German Coast, a stretch of sugar cane plantations along the east side of the Mississippi River, just north of New Orleans.

Husband John and I drove down what’s also called the River Road a couple of year ago, while in New Orleans for a family wedding. There are still a lot of plantation homes there and what looked like sugar cane fields, but there also are a lot of refineries and industrial sites.

Still, while reading “American Uprising,” it was nice to be able to see the German Coast in my head.

Destrehan Plantation figures prominently into the “American Uprising” story. Some of the approximately 500 slaves involved in the revolt were from Destrehan, a sugar cane plantation owned by Jean Noel Destrehan.

Also, after the revolt was put down by federal troops and local planters, one of the three trials condemning the rebels was held was at Destrehan.

Slave dwellings at Destrehan Plantation, circa 1938. Photographer: Russell Lee. Library of Congress.

Another thing I learned while reading “American Uprising,” something I’d never thought about before, was that some of the slaves who were brought from Africa had actually been soldiers in their homelands.

Tribes would war against each other and sometimes the losers were sold into slavery. At least two of the German Coast rebels fit into this category and had apparently been planning to revolt since they first touched American soil.

I also learned that the Haitian Revolution, which took place from 1791 to 1804 and ended slavery in what was then called Saint-Domingue, would have inspired fear in Louisiana planters and hope in their slaves.

You can watch a presentation by author Daniel Rasmussen here which talks more about that.

In the end, a handful of white planters and more than 100 slaves were killed, either during or after the revolt. As a deterrent to others who might consider taking up arms against their masters, the rebels’ decaying bodies were displayed along the Mississippi River for months.

Recently, I wrote about a slave revolt that happened along the James River near Lynchburg, Va. In that post, I mentioned a website where U.S. executions from the 1600s to the 1970s are listed. While not named, many of those executed after the 1811 German Coast revolt are included in that list.

Frank Padget: Hero Batteauman

Frank Padget: Hero Batteauman

This week, I’ve invited Sandi Esposito, a local historian and friend who’s been helping me with my “Big Idea,” to write a guest blog post. What follows is the story of Frank Padget, hero batteauman. (Note: Some people spell it “batteau” and others “bateau,” but for this blog entry, we’re going with the two-T version.)

The incident began on Jan. 21, 1854. A freshet, due to heavy rains, caused dangerous conditions on the James River. At the time, the canal boat Clinton was being towed in the open river at the mouth of the North — now Maury — River.

The mouth of the Maury and James rivers, where the ordeal began.

The Clinton was part of a fleet owned by A. S. Lee & Co. of Richmond. Its captain was A.C. Wood. The boat was carrying approximately 45 people, mostly African Americans who were possibly hired to work on the railroad at Covington, Va.

The towline broke and seven men jumped into the water. Three drowned, including two unnamed African Americans and Reuben Payne of Fredericksburg, Va. Four men survived: teenager Sydnor Royal of Lynchburg, Va.; E.F. Flagg of Caroline, Va.; and two unnamed African Americans.

With encouragement from those onshore, Capt. Wood got the boat over Balcony Falls dam, but after the boat went over the dam it rested near some rocks. The captain and four or five people jumped onto the rocks and became stranded in the middle of the river. Roughly 32 or 33 men remained on the Clinton.

Watercolor painting depicting African-American men, probably slaves, directing a batteau through the rapids of the James River at Richmond, circa 1798. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, An Essay on Landscape, 1798-1799, Accession 25060, Personal Papers Collection, Library of Virginia.

A rescue team was organized. It included enslaved African-American and skilled batteauman Frank Padget and two other African-American men, named Sam and Bob. Two white men, William Matthews and Matthew McColgan, also volunteered, for a total of five.

Although the rescuers were initially driven back to shore by a squall, they eventually saved the captain and the men on the rock.  At about the same time, the Clinton drifted again and an African-American man — possibly named Edmond — jumped on to a rock and was stranded. This left 31 or 32 men on board the Clinton.

The five-man rescue team ventured out to save the remaining people. They tried but were unable to get Edmond, but they reached the others on the Clinton after it became lodged on an island. They were taken to safety.

Again, the crew tried to reach Edmond. As they were preparing to go, two more men joined the rescue team, one unnamed African American and Thomas Oney. The team of seven headed toward Edmond. Unfortunately, just as Edmond jumped into the rescue boat it crashed into a rock.

Frank Padget and Edmond were washed down river and drowned. Sam grabbed a piece of the boat and floated to shore. The remaining five men jumped onto the rock.

Another effort to take a batteau out and rescue the men on the rock failed, when it was washed out of the hands of the man preparing the boat. The water was still rising and daylight was waning, so the men remained stranded on the rock until morning.

The next morning, another batteau, headed by Samuel Evans, ventured out with a crew. They found all five men alive but severely frostbitten. All told, five men were lost during the tragedy, including four passengers of the Clinton and Frank Padget.

The monument in Glasgow, Va.

A monument, honoring Padget and his sacrifice, was later commissioned and paid for by Capt. Edward Echols. Echols, a Lynchburg native, wrote the first published, eyewitness account of the tragedy.

Initially, the monument was placed near a lock in the Kanawha Canal, but in 1997 it was moved to the village of Glasgow, Va., where it remains.


Ad. “For Lynchburg-Boat Clinton.” Richmond Dispatch, Feb 27, 1854: 1. available from

“For Lynchburg-Boat Clinton, Captain A.C. Wood.” Richmond Dispatch, Mar 31, 1854: 3. available from

Boyle, Brian D. Embrace our Local History. May 27, 2003. (accessed Feb 8, 2017).

Correspondent of the Lexington Star, “Honor to Whom Honor,” Richmond Dispatch, Feb 6, 1854: 1. available from

Herbert, Paul N. Slave’s Heroism Recognized. May 3, 2008. (accessed Feb 8, 2017).

Kimball, Gregg D. “The African American Presence in Virginia Cavalcade, 1951-1996.” Virginia Cavalcade Vol 46, no. No 2 (Autumn 1996): 85-86.

Lynchbrg Virginian. “The freight boat Clinton,.” Richmond Dispatch, Feb 15, 1854: 1. available from

Lynchburg Virginian. “The Accident at the Mouth of North River.” The Richmond Mail, Jan 30, 1854: 2. available from

Miller, Lynda Mundy-Norris. Glasgow, Virginia: 100 Years of Dreams. 1990. (accessed Feb 8, 2017).

Morton, Oren Frederic. “Echols.” In A History of Rockbridge County, 251-252. 1920. available from

Richmond Dispatch . “The Canal Boat Clinton.” Jan 27, 1854: 1. available from

Richmond Dispatch. “The Accident at the Mouth of North River.” Jan 27, 1854: 3. available from

Richmond Dispatch. “The Accident on North River.” Jan 28, 1854: 1. available from

Robertson, Gary. A Hard Life on the Water/ Exhibit Recounts History of Blacks on State Rivers. Sept 26, 1999. (accessed Feb 8, 2017).

Scribner, Robert L. “In Memory of Frank Padget.” Virginia Cavalade Vol 3, no. No 3 (Winter 1953): 7-11.

Staunton (Va) Spectator. “Thrilling and Melancholy Casualty.” Poughkeepsie Journal, Feb 11, 1854: 2. available from (This version appears in several other papers in NC, NY and PA.

The Daily Express. “In the Circuit Court.” Dec 7, 1855. available from

Undersigned Owners and Captains of Canal Boats. “Notice.” Richmond Dispatch, Mar 1, 1854: 1. available from

W. E. Trout, III. The Upper James Atlas. Virginia Canals & Navigation Society, 2004., pp. 58-69.

A visit to the Virginia Historical Society (and doughnuts)

A visit to the Virginia Historical Society (and doughnuts)

Recently,  my good friend and fellow blogger Paula and I traveled to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. I needed to look at some letters for a project I’m working on, and Paula — lured by the prospect of going to Sugar Shack for doughnuts and just getting out of town in general — agreed to come along.

Prior to visiting the VHS, I had to buy a membership. Because I’m a researcher, I was able to get an annual academic membership, which costs $50. I could have paid less for a short-term membership, but figured this would not be my last trip to Richmond.

Before leaving home, I also filled out the forms required to research and take photos. Because research is so tedious and time-consuming, I wanted to be able to take photos of the documents, rather than make copious, handwritten notes. Filling out the forms in advance would save me valuable time for research once I got to the VHS.

After stopping at one of Sugar Shack’s locations on the outskirts of Richmond — the apple cake doughnut rocks, by the way — Paula and I went to the VHS. We found the parking to be free and plentiful, which was a big plus. I’m a freelance writer and researcher, but often not a paid one, so anything free is awesome.

Once inside, I ordered the records from one of the librarians and got to work.

For a couple of years now, off and on, I’ve been transcribing letters that Amherst County, Va., slave owner William Macon Waller wrote to his family and friends while taking a group of slaves to Mississippi. They traveled the overland route through Virginia, Tennessee and Mississippi.

Waller and the slaves — India, Ellin, Henry, Sarah, Lucy, Louisa, Sarah Ann, Susan, Emily, McDonald, Nelson, Foster, Anderson and others — traveled more than 900 miles during the fall and winter of 1847 and 1848.

From what I’ve read in the letters, Waller rode a horse or mule most of the time, while the slaves — some young children — walked 20 to 30 miles a day.

This drawing, made in the mid-1800s by Lewis Miller, shows what the Waller party might have looked like. The original is in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.

One of my goals with this project is to find descendants of the slaves so I can tell them what an amazing and brave walk their ancestors made almost 170 years ago. I haven’t found any descendants yet, but I’m hopeful I will.

In transcribing the letters, of which I had only photocopies, there were words and in some cases big passages I couldn’t read. My hope was that seeing the originals I could fill in the blanks. With Paula’s help — “Does this word look like ‘murmuring’ to you? — we’d filled in all the blanks we could in a couple of hours.

It’s a good thing, too, because I find transcribing old handwriting somewhat exhausting, and didn’t know if I could hold out if it took six or eight hours.

One might say, “Exhausting? Seriously?” Sure, it’s not ditch digging, but staring at handwritten documents, trying to figure out, by looking at the letters or through the context — or both — what someone wrote (and meant by it) almost two centuries ago is quite tiring. At least it is to me. Maybe I’m wimpy, who knows?

Since we were done early, Paula and I had the opportunity to spend a little time exploring the collections of the VHS. In addition to the research library, there’s a museum that has lots of information and artifacts concerning Virginia history and material culture.

One thing we saw was the “Woodson musket,” a 7-foot-long musket that was supposedly used by a Lt. Col. Thomas Ligon to defend the Woodson home, in Prince George County, Va., from an Indian attack in 1644.

The Woodson musket, third from top. Virginia Historical Society.

Another story I’ve read is that while Ligon — who’s also been described as a “shoemaker” and “schoolmaster” — used the musket, Sara Woodson — some kind of great-great-great relative of mine — “brained” and threw boiling water on Indians that climbed down the chimney.

While Sara did this, one of her sons hid in a “potato hole” and the under a washtub. Because of this, Woodson descendants are known as either “potato hole” or “washtub” Woodsons. Right this second, I can’t remember which one I am. I’m thinking “potato hole” but could be wrong.

Sara’s husband Dr. John Woodson was killed during the uprising, reportedly within sight of his home.

The “Crown of Thorns” bureau or chest of drawers. Virginia Historical Society.

In another room at the VHS, there was a circa 1890 chest of drawers that’s been called the “Crown of Thorns.” This “tramp art” piece obviously got its name from its spiky appearance.

Here’s the VHS’s description of it:

A folk type popularized by African Americans “Tramp Art” took its name from its use of ordinary woods. This type embodied the ideals of this period: it was new and expressive with varied surfaces and materials and abundant decoration. This piece was owned by George G. Lander, a black physician in Lynchburg.

Paula, a much more avid housekeeper than I am, pointed out that it would be a nightmare to dust. Indeed, it would be.

Paula and I also visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It’s located next door to the VHS and has free admission. The VMFA currently has an exhibition of Faberge items, many of which belonged to the last Russian royal family, the Romanovs.

Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra, along with their children, were executed in 1918 during the Russian Revolution. Many of the Fabrege items owned by the Romanovs were later acquired by Lillian Thomas Pratt. In 1947, Pratt bequeathed hundreds of Fabrege items to the VMFA. If you’re a fan of Russian history or just opulent objects, it’s worth a look.

My ‘Big Idea’

I get a lot of big ideas, some of which I actually follow through with.

For example, I’ve run several ultra-marathons, biked the 184-mile Chesapeake & Ohio canal trail, and about 10 years ago, I wrote, directed, edited and starred in my own short film, “Spook Baby.”

The 28-minute horror/comedy is about the ghost of a dead baby that wreaks havoc at an Appalachian family reunion. You can watch it on Vimeo if you’re interested.

My most recent ambitious project involves the letters of Amherst County, Va., slave owner William Macon Waller. Over the fall and winter of 1847-48, Waller walked 20 or so slaves more than 900 miles from Virginia to Mississippi, where he sold them. Along way, he wrote letters home to friends and family.

Off and on for the past couple of years, I’ve been transcribing Waller’s letters and researching every aspect of them: the route they took, the people they met along the way, the towns they passed through, what happened to each slave, etc. My plan is to write a book, but the research could take years, even decades.

As daunting as this project sounds, I read a book recently that gives me hope, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” by Timothy Egan. It’s a biography of photographer and anthropologist Edward Sheriff Curtis. Curtis is perhaps best known for his photos of Native Americans, many of which are included in his 20-volume book series, “The North American Indian.”

Curtis, a self-taught photographer with a grade-school education, worked on what he called his “Big Idea” for about 30 years, from around 1900 to 1930. Thinking Native American culture, language and even the people themselves would soon disappear, Curtis traveled the continent, taking photographs and documenting the language and culture of North America’s first people.

He worked at a frenetic pace, making 40,000 photographs and 10,000 audio recordings. Along the way, he became not only a photographer and anthropologist, but an activist. But it all came at a great personal cost.

Over the years, he sacrificed all of his money and energy, and in the end received no compensation for his seminal work. He was so determined to finish his “Big Idea” that he sold the rights to his books, sold his photos and plates, and took no salary. His marriage ended and other relationships suffered, but on he went.

If nothing else, reading about what Curtis went through gives me hope that my “Big Idea” also can happen.

So, in 2017, I plan to travel to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond and to courthouses in Mississippi and Louisiana. There are university archives to visit in various states, and I won’t be surprised if I end up at the National Archives. I’ve already spent countless hours online, searching genealogy websites and newspaper archives, and I’m sure I will spend countless more.

I also hope to have to have a little luck along the way.

One thing I’m looking for are family papers. There are several family names involved in this project — Waller, Mitchell, Massie, Taliaferro, Davis, Dabney and others. I’ve been able to find some of these papers in university and other archives, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a shoe box crammed full of letters in somebody’s attic.

And hopefully, this shoe box will help solve the mystery of what happened to the enslaved people who made the walk from Virginia to Mississippi with Waller: Sarah and child, Henry, Lucy, Louisa, Sarah Ann, Ellin, India, Foster, Pleasant, Charlotte, Anderson, Susan, McDonald and Emily, and others whose names I don’t yet know.

And hopefully, it’ll lead me to some of their modern-day descendants, who might like to know about the brave, incredible journey their ancestors took almost 170 years ago.

More terrible things discovered by accident

One day, while perusing the Internet when I should have been doing paying work, I happened upon a website that lists people executed in the U.S. from 1607 to 1976.

If you read my blog regularly, you know I’m drawn to morbid subjects. I can’t help it.

A few months ago, I wrote about “The ‘terrible death’ of Conrad Cramer,” a boy who was trampled to death by a mule. More recently, I investigated a church “stampede” that happened in Lynchburg, Va., in 1878. Eight women were killed, one of which leaped from a window to her death.

Seriously, though, what drives me isn’t entirely morbid curiosity but a desire to tell little-known stories from history. Some of them just happen to be gruesome.

The execution website includes slaves as well as free people. While browsing the section on Louisiana — you can search by state and other criteria — I found lots of people put to death for the crime of “slave revolt.”

The preferred method of execution for this crime in Louisiana, between 1730 and 1754 at least, appears to have been something called “break on wheel.” I’d never heard of this, so I did what all good, amateur historians do: I Googled it.

The breaking wheel, as it was called, was a torture device used to execute people. As one might expect, it used a wheel — think wagon wheel — to which the condemned was strapped. Then, the executed person was bludgeoned to death. Bones were broken, sometimes it took days, and sometimes breaking on the wheel was followed up with the person being drawn and quartered.

There were all kinds of variations.

At least one website claimed the French term “coup de grâce” comes from the breaking wheel. Translated as “blows of mercy,” it refers to when an executioner lands a fatal blow to make the execution go quicker and thus, more mercifully.

In short, death by the breaking wheel sounds terrible and you can read more about it here. There also are pictures.

Numerous Central Virginians were on this execution list, too, including six slaves who were hanged in 1863 for murdering their master. Their names were Armstead, George, Seaton, Bet, Jane and Sarah. Their owner was Gen. Terisha Washington Dillard, an Amherst County lawyer and farmer.

H.J. Stephens (1824-1882) lithograph, “Blow for Blow,” dated 1863. Library of Congress.

The U.S. Civil War Soldiers Index on FamilySearch lists a Terisha W. Dillard, who served as a colonel in the 90th Regiment (Amherst County), Virginia Militia during the Civil War. Perhaps one of those ranks, general or colonel, was a 19th-century typo. I guess it’s not all that important, but I get bogged down in stuff like that sometimes.

Dillard and his family lived at Islington, a James River plantation near the Stapleton community in Amherst County.

As reported in the May 13, 1863, edition of The Daily Virginian (the Lynchburg newspaper) the murder took place on May 9, while Dillard was supervising work on an island near his home.

According to the book “More Passages: A New History of Amherst County, Virginia,” by Sherrie S. McLeRoy and William P. McLeRoy, the island was called Buffalo Island. It was located in the James River, across from Islington.

Doug Harvey, director of the Lynchburg Museum System, said some plantation owners had gardens on islands in the James River. The well-known Cabell family, for example, owned several islands for this purpose, he said. The Cabells owned Point of Honor, a grand home in Lynchburg’s Daniel’s Hill neighborhood that overlooks the river.

Dillard’s murder was reported in several newspapers, including The Richmond Sentinel, the Alexandria Gazette and The Abingdon Virginian. Here’s what The Daily Virginian had to say about it:

Brutal Murder — Gen. Terisha W. Dillard, of Amherst Co., was brutally murdered by some of his servants, on Saturday last. We learn that he was superintending some work he was having done on an island in the James River, near his residence, in which six hands were employed — four women and two men — when the fiendish purpose of his murder was executed.

He was caught and held by the men, and the women inflicted the fatal blows. His body, we are informed, was horribly cut and mangled, presenting a shocking spectacle of mutilation. After the diabolic deed had been performed, the remains were covered up in the sand, but soon two of the women made confessions of the crime, and with the two men, were arrested. The others are yet at large.

Gen. Dillard was a gentleman of high standing, and much esteemed. At one time, he was director of one of the banks of this city.

The news of Dillard’s grisly murder even made it to Winchester, Tenn., where the Daily Bulletin reported it this way:

Horrible Murder in Amherst, Va. — The distressing intelligence that General Terisha W. Dillard was brutally murdered by two of his own slaves on Saturday evening last reached us yesterday. No particulars of this foul deed have been received, other than the fact that one of the murderers had been arrested and confessed his crime, and the other had made his escape.

General Dillard was a lawyer of prominence and a gentleman of fine talents and popular manners, and the announcement of his untimely and cruel death will fall with crashing force upon his numerous family connections and a number of friends. — Lynchburg Republican, 12th

As usual, newspaper accounts varied, with some papers reporting two suspects and others six, and the number of male and female suspects differing as well. According to the MeLeRoys, some people even thought Dillard’s wife was involved, too. “One local legend,” they wrote, “says the murder was inspired by Dillard’s cruel nature [and] that even his wife Mary Elizabeth was implicated in the plot.”

When the slaves were hanged a few weeks later, the number also differs at five as opposed to the six listed on the executions website. On June 22, 1863, the Richmond Daily Dispatch reported, “The negroes of General Dillard, five in number, convicted of his murder, were hung at Amherst County Court House, Va.”

As described by the McLeRoys, the slaves were hanged at the aptly named “Gallows Field,” which was located “near the modern Amherst Junior High School.” Though it was rumored that Mrs. Dillard was hanged as well, the McLeRoys found no evidence of that.

Notes: For readability purposes, I corrected some misspellings/punctuation issues in the newspaper articles. And thanks to Doug Harvey and the Lynchburg Museum System and Chuck Bradner with Jones Memorial Library for their help with this article.

DNA Results are Back!

Kiss me, I’m four-percent Irish!

OK, don’t kiss me — unless you’re my husband, and then you can kiss me all you want — but I am four-percent Irish. That’s according to the “ethnicity estimate” on my AncestryDNA test results, which I received via email a few days before Christmas.

A few weeks before that, I blogged about sending off my DNA sample. At the time, I wondered what surprises might be contained in that small vial of saliva. Well, I’m here to tell you the results weren’t earth-shattering, but were definitely interesting.

According to my DNA test, I am composed of the following:

36 percent Western Europe (Germany, France, Switzerland, etc.)
34 percent Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales)
11 percent Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal, northern Morocco and Tunisia)
8 percent Scandinavia
4 percent Ireland
3 percent Italy/Greece
2 percent Finland/Northwest Russia
1 percent Caucasus (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, the “Stans,” etc.)
Less than 1 percent Eastern European

The three surprising things  — I figure the Scandinavians were Vikings who sailed to Britain or somewhere like that — were the 11-percent Iberian Peninsula, the one-percent Caucasus, and the fact that there was not even the tiniest bit of Native American.

The lack of connection to America’s first people blows apart some of the oral history from my mom’s side of the family, particularly that my great-great grandpa, John Wesley Miles, was half Native American. It’s a story I heard a lot, growing up, but according to my DNA test, there’s nothing to support it.

I blogged about John Miles, who was a colorful character to say the least, several months ago and you can read that article here.

john w_0001
Oral history in my mom’s family says John Wesley Miles, my great-great-grandpa, was half Native American.

My great-great-grandma, Josephine Lee Miles, always looked Native American to me, but alas, there’s nothing in my DNA to prove that either. You can see a picture of Josephine, taken with her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, here.

As most of the family names I’ve seen in my genealogy are British or German, who these Iberians are is a mystery. It could, however, be related to the “Black Dutch” rumor in my mom’s family. When you Google “Black Dutch,” you do come up with Melungeon, and one of the stories about Melungeons is that they were descendants of Portuguese sailors, or claimed to be.

As for my other family history mysteries — what John Miles was doing in the West for 20 years, for example — maybe I’ll find answers from some of the many cousins I’m now connected to on the AncestryDNA site. It will take a lot of work and luck, but if I unravel anything, I’ll let you know.

The 2016 Book List

In tenth grade, I read “Gone with the Wind” during three weeks of classes. I remember sitting in my economics class — front row to boot — and my teacher saying, “Suzanne, put the book away.”

Looking back, regardless of the hot water I got into for ignoring my teachers for nearly a month, it was totally worth it.

A few years ago, I reread “Gone with the Wind,” revisiting the it’s 1,000-plus pages for the first time in 30 years. While I enjoyed Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-era story the second time around, reading the book as an adult was quite a different experience.

To be honest, based on its negative stereotypes of African Americans, I’m pretty amazed “Gone with the Wind” hasn’t been torched in piles.

It was also during high school that my interest in history was piqued, perhaps by “Gone with the Wind,” but most likely by “Gizelle, Save the Children!”

The nonfiction book, which I checked out of the school library, was about a Hungarian Jewish girl named Gizelle whose mother implores her to save her siblings during the Holocaust.

“Gizelle, Save the Children!” was the first of many books I’ve read since then about the Holocaust and World War II. Most of these books have been biographical, centering on the experiences of specific individuals.

One I read this past year was fictional, but no less gripping.

All The Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr, tells two colliding stories — of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Warner, an orphaned German boy who longs to be an engineer. The story is set in France and Germany during World War II. So I don’t spoil the plot, I’ll just say I mourned a little when the last page was turned.

Here are the other 13 books I read during 2016:

A Walk in the Woods” (Bill Bryson)
The funny story of Bill Bryson’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. This life-affirming book made me believe that I, too, can attempt anything, even if it doesn’t work out exactly as planned.

“The Road to Wellville” (T. Coraghessan Boyle)
A novel set around the turn of the 20th century at the famous Kellogg sanatorium in Michigan. I blogged about this book a few months ago.

“True Grit” (Charles Portis)
The story of an Arkansas teenager determined to avenge the murder of her father in 1870s Indian Country. I also blogged about this book.

Dead Wake” (Erik Larson, who also wrote “Devil in the White City,” another good book.)
This book tells the story of the sinking of the Lusitania during World War I.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven” (Mitch Albom)
A novel about a man who learns lessons in the afterlife. I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did.

My Name is Asher Lev” (Chaim Potok)
The fictional story of a Hasidic Jewish boy who just wants to be a painter, and the struggles that result.

And The Dead Shall Rise” (Steve Oney)
About the 1913 Atlanta murder of Mary Phagan and the subsequent lynching of Leo Frank, the man accused of killing her. (While fascinating, this extremely well-researched tome took forever to read and I blame it for not achieving my 19-book goal this year.)

“The Prince of Tides” and “South of Broad” (Pat Conroy)
The former is my all-time favorite book, and as for the latter, I don’t know why I waited so long to read it. In each book, set in the South Carolina Lowcountry, the late-Pat Conroy tells the story of a dysfunctional family with secrets — and he does it in the most beautifully written way.

Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves” (Sana Butler)
In late 1990s through early 2000s, author Sana Butler was on a quest to interview the children of African-American slaves. And, yes, she finds several still alive.

For the Glory” (Duncan Hamilton)
A biography of Eric Liddell, the famous sprinter from the “Chariots of Fire” story.

Fast Girl” (Suzy Favor Hamilton)
Tells the true story of Olympic middle-distance runner turned Las Vegas call girl Suzy Favor Hamilton and her battle with bipolar disorder.

“The Coalwood Way” (Homer Hickam)
A memoir by NASA engineer Homer Hickam about growing up in West Virginia coal country.

Navajo riders in Canyon de Chelly, photographed by Edward S. Curtis (c. 1904). Published in “The North American Indian.” Library of Congress.

Currently, I’m reading, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” Timothy Egan’s biography of Edward S. Curtis. Curtis (1868-1952) is famous for his iconic photographs of Native Americans, such as the one pictured above.

The photographs were published in his 20-volume book series, “The North American Indian.” Curtis worked on the project for three decades. Photos from the series can be viewed on the Library of Congress website.

Also, I was given several books for Christmas — among them “The Boys in the Boat” and Colson Whitehead’s “Underground Railroad” — so 2017 should be a good year for reading.

Happy New Year and happy reading!

My cat, Hector, tucked in beside one of our many bookshelves.