Every family has those stories. You know what I mean. Those stories. Many genealogists refuse to include those stories in their reports: the unmarried mother, the horse thief, the Army deserter. Undoubtedly, the most famous story coming from our family archives involves the brother of my husband's great-grandfather who was one of the victims in the only lynching to ever take place in Kanawha County, West Virginia. That isn't the way I would want to be remembered, but the story is definitely a true one.
The name Rufus is a Biblical name meaning "red-haired" according to my Funk & Wagnalls. I have never seen a photo of Rufus Estep or read a description of his physical characteristics, so I have no idea what color his hair was. He was the third child of Wesley and Mary (Polly) Pritt Estep. Wesley had been a soldier in the Union Army during the recent unpleasantness, serving in Company E of the 8th Regiment of the West Virginia Volunteer Infantry.
Rufus would have been completely anonymous if it had not been for the lynching. Louis Harlan writes of the environment in Malden at that time in Booker T. Washington in Perspective. The economy was depressed and not diverse, depending on the salt works and the coal mines on Campbell's Creek. In the late 1870s the situation improved a little with the salt works working to fill some orders. Child labor substituted for adult employees; there weren't enough jobs to employ the entire working population of the area. Grown men with much time on their hands spent a great deal of it drinking which led to labor unrest and other violence. "A week seldom passed without a violent death or maiming accident in the coal mines, a drowning in creek or river, or a scalding in the boilers and vats of the salt works." Saturday was payday at the Campbell's Creek mines and that led to drinking and street fights on Saturday night in Malden.
The story has been copied and printed many times. The most often cited report about Rufus is found in the account given by George W. Atkinson's History of Kanawha County, 1876. On Christmas Eve, 1875, a 40-year-old man named Thomas Lee was murdered on an iron bridge crossing Campbell's Creek at Malden, West Virginia. No mention is made about how officials determined who the suspects were in the case. I have my own opinion, but however the investigation developed, on Christmas Day the police arrested Rufus Estep and John Dawson and placed them in jail in Charleston. Kind of ruins the family dinner on Christmas.
Public opinion was so outraged by this unprovoked murder that a mob formed after Lee's family insisted they were not going to let the murderers get off in court. Harlan writes that only one man in 25 years had been hanged for murder even though there were an average of two murders per year. Because of the murmuring mob, the sheriff, Philip W. Morgan, enlisted the help of John Lentz, John Perry, and Silas Morgan, waited until dark and then transported Estep and Dawson to the Cabell County jail in Barboursville. In a version of three-card monty, two days later the prisoners were moved to the Wood County jail in Parkersburg where the prisoners were kept until their court date in January 1876.
The Kanawha County court and the prosecuting attorney determined that there was no longer any danger of mob violence, so back to Charleston came Rufus Estep and John Dawson. Exactly one month after the murder Estep and Dawson were arraigned in the Kanawha County court on the charge of murder. Their attorneys, R. H. Freer and Abram Burlew, requested a change of venue, due to the armed mob knocking on the court house doors. John Kenna and James Ferguson, attorneys for the state, strongly opposed the request, and Judge Joseph Smith adjourned court so that he could consider the request and render a decision the next morning. Estep and Dawson were returned to their cells while a mob of about 450 men continued to assail the court house.
On this same day, another murder occurred on Anderson Street where Thomas Hines, a white man, cut the throat of J. W. Dooley, a black man, in Dooley's shoe shop. Hines was also placed in the Kanawha County jail. That night the mob advanced on the jail and took Dawson and Estep. At the same time a mob of about 50 black men joined in to take control of Hines. The reasoning of the second mob was that Hines would get off his charge of murdering a black man because he was white.
Both of these mobs and their prisoners travelled to the bridge over Campbell's Creek in Malden (the same site of the murder of Thomas Lee), a distance of about six miles. In the minds of the first mob, I suppose it was justice that the lynching would occur at the site of the murder. There was discussion, according to Harlan, that it wasn't right for black men to lynch a white man and that the white mob should lynch all three prisoners. In an equal opportunity moment, it was decided to let the black mob take care of their own business. Dawson and Estep were lynched at the bridge; Hines was lynched on a honey-locust tree about 300 yards above the bridge. The next morning the authorities (unnamed in the narrative) cut down the bodies and buried them. No mention is made of where the men were buried.
Now the story does not end here. George W. Atkinson, the author of this version of the story, was a young lawyer at the time of the lynching and an eye witness to much of the action. It is said that he tried to reason with the lynch mobs before they overran the jail cells. Atkinson became governor of West Virginia in 1896. While he was governor, he was requested to come to the bedside of a dying man in Campbell's Creek who confessed to the governor that he had murdered Tom Lee at the Campbell's Creek bridge. Governor Atkinson did not reveal this information until a few days before his death in 1925. He told a Charleston Daily Mail reporter about the death bed confession and said he didn't reveal it because he "lacked legal evidence". According to the reporter, Atkinson said the dying man was within hearing distance when Estep and Dawson pleaded for their lives. The dying man had held a grudge against Tom Lee and that is why he murdered him.
So there you have it. This is the story as it is told in various sources. I've not reviewed every source or version of the story, and I have many questions. Did Governor Atkinson keep mum because he had an attorny/client relationship with the dying man? Why did that man call the Governor to hear his confession? I'm curious as to what evidence existed that led to the arrest of Rufus Estep and John Dawson. My first guess: a witness who may have been the very person who later confessed on his death bed and was actually in the lynch mob in January 1876, but I'm an extremely suspicious person. A look at the court records would be interesting. Were Rufus and John on the bridge at all that night? Did they perhaps discover the body after Tom Lee had been killed? Where is Perry Mason when you need him most.