News & Features » Cover Story

The Fighting Editor

part II


Mitchell combined journalism and protest. He used sensational stories to build up the Planet's circulation while at the same time taking advantage of his position as editor to champion black causes.

The Simon Walker case began on May 1, 1889, when Mary Ann Quill, a 12?year?old white girl from Ettrick, a settlement in Chesterfield County on the outskirts of Petersburg, took a shortcut home through the woods after a trip into town to sell eggs. Ettrick was the site of the state's publicly supported black college, Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. While away from the road, Quill was accosted by a black youth who allegedly pushed her to the ground and raped her at knifepoint. When she reached home she told her story to family and friends, who grew furious at the sight of her torn clothing and talked of a lynching.3

Two days later authorities arrested Simon S. Walker, a 15?year?old black youth who had no connection to the college. Walker was taken to the Petersburg jail for safekeeping and early on the morning of May 14 was escorted under heavy guard to Chesterfield Courthouse, where his trial took place quickly and without incident. Walker did not testify in his own behalf; he appeared listless and "paid no special attention to what was going on." The jury at first was unable to reach a verdict but after being sequestered overnight found him guilty of rape and asked for the death penalty. Judge W. J. Clopton of the county court sentenced Walker to be "hanged from the neck until he be dead" at Chesterfield Courthouse on Aug. 30.4

The Simon Walker case contained all the elements of high drama, but white dailies made only passing mention of the trial. Mitchell said later he knew nothing of the matter until the week before the scheduled execution when he saw a brief notice in a white paper. Though he had no information about the crime, he was convinced it would be a "disgrace to the commonwealth" to execute a 15?year?old boy no matter what his offense. "It was not a case of race or color," he said, "it was one of humanity."

Determined to stop the execution, he appealed to Democratic governor Fitzhugh Lee (the nephew of General Robert E. Lee) for a reprieve. As it happened, Lee was vacationing in the Virginia mountains to escape the summer heat. Mitchell, showing the sort of initiative that would become his trademark, rode the train 250 miles to Dagger's Spring, a resort west of Roanoke, where he found Lee and persuaded him to grant Walker a 30?day stay of execution. Lee signed the papers, and the hanging was rescheduled for Sept. 27.5

As the date for the execution neared a second time, Mitchell met again with Lee, this time at the Executive Mansion, but the conference was not entirely cordial. He sensed that the governor found his forward manner irritating. As he explained in the Planet, he decided to "apparently drop out" and work behind the scenes to furnish the "sinews of war." He met in Petersburg with E. S. Robinson, the white lawyer who had been appointed by the court to defend Walker. Robinson agreed to resume work on the case, and Mitchell promised to pay his fees out of his own pocket if necessary. Mitchell also persuaded black attorneys James H. Hayes and Giles B. Jackson to help.

Unfortunately, Governor Lee was again out of the city, this time vacationing at Natural Bridge, but he arrived back in the capital on the evening before the scheduled execution. After conferring with Robinson and Hayes at the Executive Mansion, Lee signed a second stay of execution, this one for two weeks. The two lawyers rushed across Broad Street to the Planet office, arriving with the official papers around 10 p.m.6

Next ensued the sort of swashbuckling adventure that Mitchell relished and that sold copies of the Planet. The last train having left for Chesterfield, he was forced to find some way to deliver the papers to the sheriff before dawn, or Walker would hang. He borrowed a horse from Dr. Robert E. Jones, an Alabama?born physician who had come to Richmond from the University of Michigan. Jones was the "first colored physician to drive around in his own buggy," and according to the Planet "no one would presume he was colored by the style in which he lives."7 Jones volunteered his horse but was reluctant to lend his expensive carriage because of the bad condition of the road to Chesterfield. Mitchell then woke Henry Cook, a merchant friend, who offered his sturdier buggy. Cook's son John agreed to accompany the Planet editor on his journey. It was nearly midnight when Mitchell and John Cook crossed the James River by Mayo's Bridge and began the 16?mile trip to Chesterfield Courthouse. The unpaved road was deep in mud, and there was a light rain. They arrived at the jail just as dawn was breaking.

go to part III


3. Petersburg Daily Index Appeal, May 4, 1889.

4. Commonwealth v. Simon Walker, May 14?15, 1889, County Court Order Book, Chesterfield County Courthouse. See also Petersburg Daily Index Appeal, May 4, 15, 16, 1889; RT, May 16, 1889; RD, Sept. 18, 1889. The jurors' names appear in the county court order book, but they were not identified by race. The 1889 personal property tax books for Chesterfield County (LVA) indicate that at least ten of the twelve jurors were white. The remaining two were not listed in the tax books, and their race is unknown.

5. The fullest account of Mitchell's involvement in the case appears in RP, Nov. 16, 1889, LVA. (Thanks to James B. Walthall of Richmond who alerted me to the survival of this issue and John T. Kneebone who located it at the LVA.) Mitchell published a pamphlet about the case that has not been found but probably was the basis for the account in Adams, "John Mitchell Jr.," 297. There is a broadside at Duke University: Emergence of Advertising in America: Broadsides, Simon Walker (Planet, 1889). The other major source about the case is a collection of letters and documents in Walker Papers, Nov. 1889, Executive Papers of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, LVA.

6. RD, Sept. 27, 1889; RP, Nov. 16, 1889.

7. RP, Jan. 5, 1895.

Add a comment