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John Henry James’ 1898 indictment dismissed in Charlottesville

Lynching of John Henry James marker
Charlottesville Tomorrow
The historical marker commemorating the lynching death of John Henry James was installed in Albemarle County's Court Square in July 2019.

An Albemarle County judge tossed out the 125-year-old charge, which was first issued after James had already been killed. 

In 1898, a grand jury indicted Charlottesville resident John Henry James, an ice cream vendor accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. The indictment was issued despite the grand jury’s knowledge that he’d already been killed by a lynch mob.

No one was charged in his killing, but James’ July 12 indictment endured — until Wednesday, when Albemarle County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins heard Commonwealth’s Attorney James Hingeley’s request to dismiss the charges.

“The court finds that this indictment was improperly issued … intentionally,” Higgins said.

Hingeley told the court that the grand jury’s indictment was a violation of the standards that prosecutors are required to follow in seeking charges. He said the prosecutor at the time did not have probable cause or sufficient evidence to support a conviction, nor did the court withdraw the indictment after learning the defendant was already dead, which Hingeley said is required by law.

Higgins granted Hingeley’s motion, calling the posthumous proceedings a mockery of the judicial system.

“The indictment was not an instrument of justice; it was used as a sanction and to approve the lynching of a man simply because he was Black.”

According to Encyclopedia Virginia, a day before James’ lynching just two miles west of Charlottesville, 20-year-old Julia Hotopp reported that she’d been assaulted by a Black man near the gate of her family’s estate.

Hotopp described her attacker as “a very black man, heavy-set, slight mustache, [who] wore dark clothes, and his toes were sticking out of his shoes.” James, allegedly matching some of Hotopp’s description, was arrested at a local bar hours later.

The day of his indictment, James was attacked by a mob at a train station as local law enforcement transported him from a jail in Augusta County back to Charlottesville.

Law enforcement determined that James’ lynching had been carried out by “persons unknown” and that it was reportedly impossible to know who was involved.

However, Hingeley noted the record shows 150 unmasked people took part in the lynch mob — and that public officials were present and involved in the attack.

A historical marker about James and his death was installed outside the Albemarle County Courthouse in 2019.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.