I first heard a version of the story of Joseph Holmes’ assassination from my great-aunt, Julia Allen Maclin. Joseph Holmes was brother to her grandfather Jasper Holmes, and she kept a small oval portrait of the slain man in her photo album. I later found a few references to the murder in books about Virginia’s political history, but details conflicted widely. A few years ago, I found these digitized articles, which firmly established the date of the incident and seemed to offer better insight into what actually happened. Last summer I visited Charlotte County and, with the invaluable assistance of archaeologist Kathy Liston, began to explore the landscape of Joseph and Jasper’s lives and shine light on the aftermath of his assassination.
Tragedy at Charlotte Court House – A Negro Shot by a White Man – Particulars of the Affair – Result of the Inquest – Order for the Arrest of Those Concerned.
Richmond, May 4, 1869.
A tragedy occurred at Charlotte Court House, Va., yesterday, in which Joseph Holmes, a negro member of the late Constitutional Convention, lost his life. A few weeks since John Marshall, a son of Judge Marshall, of that county, was fired at in the night while in his residence by some unknown person. Yesterday being court day, Mr. Marshall was at the village, and there recognized a negro whom he suspected of having attempted to assassinate him. Marshall charged the negro with the crime, and he at once fled into the woods and was pursued without avail. A few hours afterwards, Joseph Holmes, who was formerly body servant of Judge Marshall, encountered young Marshall and threatened to have him arrested. A fight thereupon ensued, and both parties having pistols, firing commenced – Marshall aided by his friends. Holmes was shot through the breast, and staggering to the Court House fell dead. An inquest was hold, the jury returning a verdict that the deceased came to his death from a gunshot wound at the hands of some person unknown. The affair creates the greatest excitement in the county, where Holmes was exceedingly popular among the negroes, having been elected to the convention by a 2,000 majority over a white candidate. An order has been issued for the arrest of Marshall and party, but they have not yet been apprehended. — New York Herald, Wednesday, 5 May 1869.
THE WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS IN VIRGINIA. –
Soon after the shooting of Joseph Holmes by young Marshall, in Charlotte county, Virginia, a meeting of the republicans of the county was held, speeches were made by prominent members of the party, and among the speakers were John Watson, George Tucker and Ross Hamilton. These parties were arrested and committed to jail under an indictment which charges that they did, on the 20th May, “feloniously conspire one with another to incite the colored population of Charlotte to make war against the white population by acts of violence,” &c. A petition for a writ of habeas corpus was on Monday presented to Judge Morton of the Circuit Court of Henrico, at Richmond, wherein it is alleged that the parties are illegally detained in the custody of the Sheriff of Charlotte county, and they are innocent of the charge brought against them. This writ was granted and made returnable on Tuesday. In accordance therewith the prisoners were brought before Judge Morton on Tuesday afternoon and after discussion of certain points of law the prisoners were hailed for their appearance before the County Court of Charlotte, Va., to answer the indictment. — New York Herald, Friday, 25 June 1869.