The eighth in a series of posts revealing the fallability of records (or, in this case, secondary sources.)
My great-aunt Julia Allen Maclin told me that her grandfather Jasper Holmes‘ brother, Joseph R. Holmes, a politician, was shot and killed at Charlotte Court House, Virginia. Before I found contemporaneous newspaper articles detailing the murder, I had only a couple of brief mentions in scholarly works to establish his death date. The accounts varied so widely as to be completely irreconcilable.
First, in Luther P. Jackson’s Negro Office-Holders in Virginia 1865-1895, published in 1945:
Joseph R. Holmes, Constitutional Convention, 1867-68, Charlotte and Halifax. SHOEMAKER. Born a slave in Charlotte County. Was hired out by his master to engage in shoemaking by traveling from plantation to plantation. Joseph R. Holmes’ brother Watt was likewise a shoemaker. Joseph learned to read and write and was very intelligent. After the war he received some training in law from his former master. About 1870 he met a tragic death by a gun shot on the grounds of the Charlotte County court house. According to one report his former owner shot him because of an offensive political speech; according to another report he was killed by mistake. During the period of his activity in politics, Holmes bought a farm home consisting of 8 1/2 acres.
Then, in Virginius Dabney’s Virginia: The New Dominion, published in 1971:
… In 1892, Joseph R. Holmes of Charlotte County, a black who had served in the Underwood convention more than two decades before, decided to run for the legislature. He was shot dead by a white man in the audience he was addressing.
Dabney’s account is so far off the mark as to boggle the mind. By 1892, Joseph Holmes had been dead more than 20 years. He never ran for any legislative seat and, while his murderer was certainly a white man, he was not giving a stump speech when he was shot.
Jackson’s version is much closer to the truth, though some the details of Holmes’ life cannot be confirmed and neither of the motives for his assassination are correct.
Here are newspaper accounts of the murder, which themselves vary a bit on the facts. However, based on comparisons with other sources, to be detailed soon, the New York Times‘ 8 May 1869 version of events (reprinted from the Richmond Dispatch, set forth below, seems closest to the truth:
The Recent Homicide at Charlotte Court-House, Virginia
From the Richmond Dispatch, May 5. From persons who were present at Charlotte Court-House on Monday we gather the following particulars of a most lamentable homicide which occurred there on that day, resulting in the death of JOE HOLMES, a colored man, well known to our readers as a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention. Early in the morning, Mr. JOHN MARSHALL JR. met a colored man named MINNIL, who was formerly a slave of Captain GILLIAM, and asked him if he was the man who attempted his life some time ago. The negro, without making any reply to the question, immediately raised his bludgeon as if to strike MARSHALL, who drew his pistol. The negro then took to his heels, and was pursued by MARSHALL and some of his friends, and it was rumored during the day that he had been killed by them. Such, however, was not the fact, for he was alive and well and his work yesterday. About 2:30 o’clock on Monday, while the rumor was rife, the question of arresting MARSHALL was agitated, and HOLMES made himself very officious in regard to it. MARSHALL spoke to him about it, and he made some insulting reply, when Mr. BOYD, a friend of young MARSHALL, struck him with a stick. HOLMES then drew, or attempted to draw, his pistol, when he was fired at by some unknown party. HOLMES immediately retreated, and, when near the Court-house door, turned and fired at the young man, when several shots were fired at him, only one, however, taking effect. HOLMES had strength enough left to walk to the Court-house, and fell dead. The deceased was a prominent member of the late Constitutional Convention, prominent rather from the merriment he created on rising to speak rather than from any participation in the serious work of the body. He was good-natured, polite, and a great favourite with the reporters, to whom he was specially courteous, and whose daily appearance he always greeted with a broad laugh. The nearest we ever knew of him to come to a quarrel was a laughable row with Dr. BAYNE over the disputed ownership of a law book. JOE’s death will be regretted by all who knew him in the Convention, and by those who have laughed over him in the Humors of Reconstructions, where he figured as the “great fire-eater.”
To celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 2013, Virginia’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission created a roll call of the African-American men who were elected to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868 and to the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate during Reconstruction. Unfortunately, it picked up Virginius Dabney’s wildly inaccurate date:
Joseph R. Holmes, a native of Virginia, was a shoemaker and farmer who represented Charlotte and Halifax Counties at the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868. He ran for a seat in the Senate of Virginia, but was killed in 1892.