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The Man From the Train, Part I

May 18, 2012

                "Buchanan county Va ., in which Hurley is located, is very sparsely settled and is very rugged," reported the Washington Post.   "Communication by telephone and telegraph is decidedly limited and slow, making the scene of the tragedy practically inaccessible, and details of the developments exceedingly hard to secure."    The first newspaper accounts of the Meadows family murders, published the day after the crime, state that "Bloodhounds were rushed to the scene and in a short time they took up the trail of three supposed murderers in a cornfield which adjoined the home.  There the foot prints of three men were found impressed in the soft soil.   A posse of citizens, heavily armed, are following the bloodhounds, bent on lynching the murderers if they are captured."    The murders occurred in a log cabin on a mountain in Virginia in a place that is about five miles east of Kentucky, about five miles west of West Virginia, and—perhaps of more relevance to our story—within a half-mile of the railroad. 

                On the night of September 21, 1909, six persons were murdered, and the log cabin which had been their home was set on fire.   The man of the house, George Meadows, was found outside the cabin with two bullet holes, his body mutilated and his head nearly cut off.    The cabin had belonged to his mother-in-law, Betty Justus.   Her body was inside the charred remains of the cabin, in yet worse condition than George’s; her head was found some distance from her body.   Lydia Meadows, George’s wife, was also inside, also hacked to death with an axe or a hatchet, as were their three children, Will (aged 9) Noah (7) and Lafayette (5).  

                The scene of Meadows family murders was variously identified in the newspapers as Hurley, Knox, Knox Creek and Laurel Creek; let us say that it was Hurley, Virginia, because that at least is a real place that you can find on a map.    Newspaper reports filed hours later say that the posse following the bloodhounds included hundreds of men.    The town’s chief employer, the Ritter lumber mill, shut down for at least two days so that workers would be free to participate in the hunt for the murderers. 

                The bloodhounds followed a trail across the mountains for the better part of a day and for ten miles, arriving finally at the mountain cabin of Silas Blankenship.  At one point the trail led to a sheer rock wall as high as a man’s head, which the hounds and posse had to scramble over.   At last they did indeed find three men, Blankenship and his two sons, who were digging potatoes when they heard bloodhounds baying and looked up to see a large mob of angry farmers descending on them.   The Blankenships rushed to their cabin, bolted the doors, and poked shotguns out of "loopholes" in the walls, apparently designed for exactly such a purpose.   The Blankenships promised to blow the heads off of anyone who approached the cabin.    It was a credible threat, and a six-hour standoff ensued.

                Stop for a minute and think about it.    You’ve got six dead people, bloodhounds, an angry mob of hundreds of men with ropes and guns, and three men barricaded inside a cabin with shotguns.   It’s a hell of a scene; this occurred September 23, 1909, in the mountains near Hurley, Virginia.    Many in the "posse" wanted to rush the cabin and set fire to it.   Cooler heads prevailed.   The Commonwealth’s Attorney, a man named Scores, hurried to the scene with a crew of special deputies, well-armed just in case there weren’t enough guns already on site.    Eventually the Blankenships were promised safe conduct to jail, the mob was dispersed, and the Blankenships surrendered.   But the United Press reported the next morning that "The farmers of Buchanan and adjoining counties are gathering at Hurley and it is believed they will attack the jail and lynch the suspects."

                The Blankenships were arrested on a charge of murder; it is a measure of how different our justice system was a hundred years ago, that three men could be charged with murder based on nothing but the baying of some bloodhounds.    First reports were that blood-soaked clothing had been found at the Blankenship house.   The Blankenships were men of very good reputation, however, and it is fortunate that they were not hanged or set afire; it turned out they were innocent.    They had an alibi for the night in question, and nothing of any substance tied them to the crime. 

The governor of Virginia was Claude Swanson.    On September 27, Governor Swanson offered a $250 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the guilty men.   A process was also established by which citizens could "subscribe", intended to raise another $2,000 to $5,000 in order to pay for detectives to find the murderers.    Before the reward was offered, however, the man who would eventually be convicted of the crime was already under arrest in West Virginia.

Howard Little was ironically named.   At the time of his execution the newspapers referred to him as a "handsome giant", and a photo of him in custody, guarded by six armed men, shows a powerfully built man a head taller than anyone else in the photo.   He was not an inconsiderable man.   He had worked as a United States Marshal in Kentucky, and, after moving to Virginia, had been made foreman of a large lumber company.  He was intelligent, assertive, and he worked hard.   His chief failing, aside from the murders, was that he was a lothario—a Don Juan, as the papers said at the time.  Married with four children, Little had made plans to leave his wife.    He had been carrying on with a married woman, a Mrs. Mary Stacy; Little and Stacy were making arrangements to skip town together.   Little’s wife became aware of this.

Apparently on September 24 or September 25, 1909—days after the murder—Mrs. Little approached the police to report her suspicions about her husband.    He had been away from the house on the night of the murders, she said, and he had a cut on his leg and blood on his pants. He had recently borrowed a revolver from a friend.    Little was arrested a few miles away in Bull Creek, West Virginia, probably on the day that his wife made these allegations, although police kept his arrest quiet for a week to circumvent another lynch mob.    Little was held for a week in Welch, West Virginia, 37 miles west of Hurley.  

He was arrested by a detective named Lee Feits, who told reporters on October 1 that "he believes that Little committed the crime single-handed."     Meadows, in addition to having his skull crushed with an axe and his throat cut nearly through, had also been shot twice.    He had been buried with the bullets.   Detective Feits now ordered that the body be exhumed and the bullets removed.  

On October 2 police dug up the body and removed the bullets from the body, and announced immediately that the bullets fit the revolver in question.  There were no ballistics in 1909; what was meant by the statement that the bullets "fit" the revolver was that they were of the right size, the right weight and caliber, that they could have been fired from that pistol, which was a .32 caliber pistol.

   Little was moved to a jail in Grundy, Virginia, 16 miles south of Hurley, and then, fearing another effort to lynch him, to a jail in Lebanon, Virginia, about 55 miles to the south of Hurley.   Between Grundy and Lebanon is the small town of Honaker, Virginia.   Getting word that the prisoner was to be moved, a mob of 75 to 100 armed men gathered in Honaker, planning to intercept the police officers as they came through.  The mob cut all the telephone wires between Grundy and Lebanon, to prevent word getting out of their plans, but police officers sniffed out that the effort was afoot and pulled off the road into the mountains, moving the prisoner 30 miles through the mountains with the aid of horses and mules. 

Mrs. Little had told police that she could show them where her husband had hidden the money from the robbery.    She was unable to deliver on this promise.    The money was never found, and, in fact, there is no real evidence that any money was ever taken. 

A lawyer named Bert T. Wilson was retained to defend Little.    Wilson traveled to Richmond to ask the governor to provide troops for Little’s defense before and during the trial.   The governor referred the matter to the court; the court requested troops as well, and troops were provided for Little’s protection.   Little was indicted for the murders on November 16, 1909, seven weeks after the crime.    The trial began on November 25 in Grundy, which is the county seat.  The first witness was Senate Justus, the son of the murdered Betty Justus.   Justus had worked with Little at the Ritter Lumber Company; Little was his foreman there.    Justus claimed that Little had asked him "frequently" how much money his mother carried around with her.  Another witness—not identified by name in the reports of the trial—said that Little had said to him that she shouldn’t keep money around like that, because it would be an easy matter for someone to rob her, murder the family, and set fire to the house. 

Mary Stacy, the woman with whom Little had been planning to leave town, testified that Little gave her $20 on the day before the murder in order to buy clothes to get ready for the trip, and had told her that they would be ready to go as soon as he was able to get some money out of his bank.

The most important witness of the trial was a woman named Mary Lee.   Mary Lee, for reasons unknown, lived with the Little family; she may have been a governess or house keeper.   The common understanding of the law at that time was that a wife could not testify against her husband; it is unclear whether this was the actual state of the law, or whether it was merely that a wife could not be compelled to testify against her husband.   In any case Mrs. Little did not testify.   Miss Lee, who was her close confidante and who lived in the house with the Littles, became the most important witness because she could testify to what the wife could not.

Mary Lee testified that Little had been absent from the house on the night of the murders.  A lamp was left burning; she awoke several times during the night, and the lamp was still burning (the implication being that, had Little come home and gone to bed, he would have put out the lamp.)  She arose about 6:00 the next morning to find Little asleep on a couch.   There was a lantern on a table that did not belong to the family, and his jacket was hanging up wet, as if it had been washed.    After breakfast he took out a file and began to file on the lantern.   She asked him why he was doing that, but he offered no explanation.   He went out to work near the house, cutting some brush, and took the lantern with him.   After a couple of hours he came back in and asked for some bandages, saying that he had cut his leg.   The wound appeared to be dry.  

Mary Lee also testified that after the murders Little appeared very restless.   He would wake up in the night, she said, and he and his wife would have long conversations in their bedroom in the middle of the night.

The lantern became critical.   The lantern was found by police in a barn outside the Little’s house, either hidden there or simply abandoned; in any case the police insisted that it had been hidden.   A long string of witnesses, twenty or more, appeared in court to testify that the lantern had belonged to a neighbor of the Meadows’ family, had been borrowed by George Meadows, and had been in the possession of George Meadows prior to the night of the crime.  Witnesses bounced in and out of the witness box at a high rate of speed, as was common in trials at that time, perhaps 50 witnesses in a day.   Reporters didn’t get all of their names.   Allegations were made that Little had attempted to file blood off the lantern, which doesn’t seem to make any sense; why would you file blood off of a metal lantern, rather than simply washing it off?    

The railroad line that runs through Hurley was the N & W railroad, the Norfolk and Western.  On the morning after the murders, Little allegedly bought a newspaper from a N & W news agent named French, and paid for the newspaper with a bloody penny.   French saved the penny, and introduced it into evidence at the trial.   This apparently had a huge impact, and was said by some newspapers to be the strongest evidence against Little (although the New York Times reports, more sensibly, that the critical witness against Little was Mary Lee.)

Little insisted that he was innocent, but did not take the stand and apparently did not put on a defense.     His attorney relied on tearing down the prosecution’s case in cross-examination, rather than offering an affirmative defense.   Little offered no explanation for where he was on the night in question.  There were two days of testimony, and on the morning of the third day, November 27, Little was convicted of six murders.   The jury deliberated for 20 minutes. 

                He was sentenced immediately, and taken to Richmond under heavy guard immediately after sentencing.   He was to be executed in Richmond on January 7, 2010.  The New York Times reported, after the trial, that "The crime for which Little was convicted was a particularly atrocious one.   The only motive which can now be conceived by the authorities is that of robbery.   They believe Little sought to obtain the money which he thought was in the house, amounting to $1,300, and that murder and arson followed, but since the crime was committed none of the money has been found."  

                In late December, 1909, Samuel Baker, who was George Meadows’ neighbor and brother-in-law, was murdered in a separate and essentially unrelated incident.   Baker’s wife, who I believe was a sister of the murdered Lydia Meadows, was also wounded in that attack.  Their attacker (the murderer of Samuel Baker) was strung up by a hundred armed men, and his body, hanging from a steam pipe in the middle of town, was riddled with bullets.  

                Little was granted a one-month reprieve by Governor Swanson while his case was appealed.   Higher courts affirmed the verdict, and Little was executed in the electric chair in Richmond on February 11, 2010.  He went to his death calmly, composed and dignified.   He denied any involvement in the Meadows’ murders until the last moments of his life.  He was buried in his family cemetery in McDowell County, West Virginia.   

                Now, here’s the kicker; when I first read this I thought that it had to be a mistake, but apparently it isn’t.   Little had been convicted of another murder, almost 20 years earlier.   In June, 1892, while working as a US Marshal, Little murdered a man named Jacob Kinney (name also reported as George McKinney) in Pike county, Kentucky, which is just across the border from Hurley.  Little was 38 years old at the time of his death, which would mean that he was 20 years old at the time of the earlier murder.  He was convicted of that crime, sentenced to a life term in prison, but had been paroled by the governor of Kentucky.   

                It appears that no one knew of this earlier crime.   I have read every newspaper article that I can find about the Meadows murders, hundreds of articles.   I have found no mention anywhere of the earlier murder, until Little confessed to that murder to the minister who was with him as neared execution, a Baptist minister named J. R. Johnson.    Little confessed that he did kill Jacob Kinney, and he did confess to several other crimes of a less serious nature.

                While locked up awaiting trial for the murder of Jacob Kinney, Little had been held with three other men (Levi Prater, William Looney and Ellison Prater, not that the names matter.)   They were held on a charge of robbing and murdering an old woman named Martha Roberts, after which they set her house on fire.  






Addendum and Comments


                The story of the Meadows family murders is NOT a famous crime story; very little information about the murders appears on the web, much of what does appear has been written  by members of the Justus family and related families, and a great deal of this information is incorrect.  

                A web site about the murders called "The Laurel Creek Murders", created by Robert M. Baker, is an orphan and appears to have been abandoned several years ago, although it can still be found on the web.    Baker appears to be a serious and honest researcher, but burdened by very bad source material.    In the Justus family cemetery there is a large marker summarizing the story.   The marker states that Howard Little was executed on January 7, 1910, which is incorrect; January 7 was the date originally scheduled for his execution, but he was in fact executed on February 11.

                The Espy file, a data base of information about executions, has the execution date correct; however, some of the "family" articles about the murder report the execution date as 11-2-1910, because the Espy file lists the day of the month before the month.  

                Baker’s web site states that Howard Little’s wife testified against him; in fact she did not.   She did accuse him of the murder—in the context of a nasty separation, I would point out—but she did not testify at the trial.  

                More seriously, Baker repeats this story:

My great grandfather, Matt (Baker) claimed that he was the first to arrive at the cabin as it burned. He saw that the youngest child, Lafayette, was still alive and tried to place him away from the burning cabin, then ran to get help. Little Lafayette, however, managed to fall or climb back down to the burning house where he too was consumed by the fire, the sixth and last victim of this horrible crime. George Meadows was found shortly afterward outside near the fence where he had crawled after being shot twice.

                This story is a complete fabrication.    The crimes were not discovered until the following morning.   The fire was out before anyone knew that the crimes had occurred, and all of the children in fact were murdered in their beds.     And George Meadows’ head was caved in with an axe and then nearly severed at the neck, making it entirely impossible for him to crawl anywhere.  

                Baker reports that:

On a hot day in July of 1909, Betty collected $1,300 ($1,650 according to Baker) from Howard Little acting as agent for the W. M. Ritter Lumber Company in Hurley, Virginia, for the sale of some timberland (or perhaps it was for the rights to the timber on her 150 acres on Laurel Creek). She left the Ritter office in Hurley and took it home to do what all mountaineers did: she cached it about her home.


                While Betty Justus did have an amount of money similar to this, there is no contemporary documentation for the rest of this account.    Howard Little did work as a foreman for the Ritter Lumber Company, but not as a purchasing agent.   Had Little in fact given Betty Justus the money which was speculated to be the motive for the crime, this fact obviously would have been introduced against him at his trial.   There was no such testimony.  

                Betty Justus had buried money under her doorsill.   She had reported this to her other daughter, and $960 was found buried under the doorsill.    That money, however, was moldy and had begun to rot, meaning that it was buried there long before July of 1909, and Betty had told her other daughter about the money some time in the past, long before the murders.     It was believed by authorities that she had another $300 or $500 on her person or in her home which was taken by robbers, but no one knows how much money this may have been, and there is no real evidence that there was any such money.  

                Baker reports "It was also discovered that he (Howard Little) had planned on leaving the county shortly before he was captured. Howard had also been found in possession of a large sum of cash."

                Well, yes, Little had planned to leave the county, not "shortly before he was captured" but before the murders.     He was planning to leave the county with a married woman who lived in the town and who testified against him at his trial.  Contemporary sources, however, all state that the missing money was never found.   Mrs. Little, when she reported to the police that she believed her husband had committed the crime, claimed that she could show them where he had hidden the money, but she was unable to deliver on this promise.   


                In July, 1935, there was an article about the crime in Master Detective magazine, an article written by a detective from Bluefield, West Virginia named A. C. Hufford, who claimed to have been the chief detective on the case.   In fact, contemporary news reports name a dozen or more lawmen involved in the case, but I have found no mention of Mr. Hufford.  Little was arrested in Bull Creek, West Virginia, by a detective named Lee Feits, and Mr. Feits reported that "he has collected sufficient evidence to hold" Little.    I believe that Hufford had exaggerated if not invented his role in the case, and also that he had fabricated elements of his account of the story, which are responsible for some of the inaccuracies printed in later years.  

                A woman named Nancy Virginia Baker brushed quickly past the case in a book entitled Bountiful and Beautiful:  A Bicentennial History of Buchanan County.     Quoting now from Robert Baker’s web site, "According to Nancy Virginia Baker, on the night of September 21st, 1909, Howard Little came to visit at Aunt Betty’s and asked if he could spend the night. Since they knew him, they were not suspicious and "opened their home to him" (80). By nine o’clock, the six of them were asleep. It was alleged that Little waited until everyone was asleep before he began his work, using a pistol, a knife, and a hatchet (according to Goldie Baker, Betty kept the hatchet next to her bed for "protection"). Apparently, after dispatching all of the occupants of the house, Little set the cabin on fire and then made good his escape."

                If that had happened, the only people who could have known that it happened would have been the victims of the crime and Howard Little.   Since the victims were all dead and Howard Little denied all involvement in the crime until the moment of his execution, there is no possible source for this account.   Also, since Little lived within easy walking distance of the Justus house and had a larger and more comfortable house than did the victims, it would seem that it might be odd for him to ask the spend the night with them.

                Baker further reports that "Lillie Justice claimed that she heard two gunshots and then saw the orange glow of flames from Aunt Betty’s house. She ran up the holler to the cabin and could see the bodies of Aunt Betty, Lydia, and two of the boys lying on the floor in the flames."   Again, this is entirely inconsistent with contemporary reports of the crime scene, which state that the crime was believed to have occurred after midnight, that the bodies were found the next morning, that the fire was out by that time, and that all of the victims except George Meadows were murdered in their beds.  


                The town of Hurley was nearly wiped out by a flood in 2002; there is, however, a Hurley High School, which appears to be thriving.    A web site devoted to the High School, not updated since 2008, lists numerous people on the faculty and staff of the school named "Justus", "Blankenship", and bearing other names associated with the tragedy.    Buchanan County is the poorest county in Virginia, with a median household income just over $20,000, and is one of the 100 poorest counties in the United States.  

                The name "Justus" appears in contemporary news accounts as Justis, Justice, and Justiss; I have chosen to report the name as "Justus", which is the spelling most members of the family now use.   It appears that this was a mixed-race family, mostly white, but a progenitor of the family had a child with a slave woman, and Betty Justus’ husband—dead before the crime—was a descendant of that union.   This account, however, is based on the same sort of family-gossip-history that has irredeemably distorted the story of the murders.   Numerous other people in the story are also listed by various names in contemporary accounts (for example, Silas Blankenship is identified in different reports as Alexander Blankenship, Alexander Blankensop, Silas Alexander, and by other combinations.)    In some cases I cannot be confident that I have the correct name.

                Howard Little is identified in some sources as being from Bull Creek, West Virginia, where he was arrested.  The only Bull Creek, West Virginia shown on modern maps is a ghost town which is up in the northern part of the state, 200 miles from the scene of the crime.    It appears, however, that there was another Bull Creek, located near Hurley, just across the border into West Virginia, and that this is where Little was arrested.   Howard Little may have lived in Bull Creek—either Bull Creek—at some time in the past; however, at the time of the murders he lived and worked in Hurley.


COMMENTS (5 Comments, most recent shown first)

1) Goldleaf. . .yeah, let's blame the computer for that one. It will try to auto-correct "1900" dates to "2000" dates sometimes.

2) Namee. ...great admiration for your research skills.

3) Pike County Kentucky and Buchanan County Virginia--and that part of West Virginia--were essentially a continuous area at that time. The "state line" runs through mountains, and it was then--and is now--nearly impossible to know, at some points, whether you are in Kentucky or Virginia or Virginia or West Virginia. I note that Howard Little was arrested in West Virginia and returned to Virginia with no form of extradition. My understanding is that the law at that time required extradition, but that if the law officers skipped the formality of extradition this did not create a legal basis to challenge the trial until sometime in the 1920s. ..forget what the case is, although I have stumbled across it before.

Anyway, you remember also that the bloodhounds chased the trail for 10 miles to the cabin of Silas Blankenship, but no source says in which direction. If you go four-five miles west of the murder site you're in Kentucky, give miles east you're in West Virginia, 5 miles north you're in West Virginia. It's LIKELY that Blankenship didn't actually live in Virginia, but none of the papers that I saw commented on where Blankenship cabin actually was, probably because they didn't know. My best guess is that it was in West Virginia, since the reports of that standoff emanate from Bluefield, West Virginia.
7:19 PM May 18th
Steven Goldleaf
Well, at least he wasn't executed for 101 years. (Automatic date supplied by your computer program?) Good yarn.
6:51 PM May 18th
Incidentally, there were a ton of William Looneys living in Buchanan County... the 1910 census lists four of them (ages 50, 41, 25, and 22). In the 1900 census, there were two, and they don't seem to be the same guys from 1900 (their ages were 70 and 22).

It's possible that Looney was the man who brought Howard Little to Buchanan County. In the 1900 census, Howard was living in Henrico County, VA (east of Richmond -- the opposite end of the state). By the end of the decade, of course, he's in Buchanan.
3:08 PM May 18th
I submitted this information as a "Hey, Bill" comment, and then I realized that I probably should have put it here... I looked up the other 1892 murderers (Levi and Ellison Prater and William Looney) in the 1910 census, to see what they were up to at the time of the Little murders. I couldn't find Ellison, but Levi Prater was living and working on his father's farm in Pike County, KY. That's 50 miles away from Buchanan County, so I doubt he was involved in the Little case.

William Looney, however, was living in Buchanan County, VA. I'm 99.9% certain that this is the same William Looney who was involved in the murder-arson case back in 1892. He's the right age (42), has the right birthplace (Kentucky), and ended up living right near Howard Little. Seems like more than a coincidence.​
2:58 PM May 18th
There are lots and lots of Blankenships in Southwest Virginia. One of my college teammates, Richie "Goose" Blankenship, was from Hurley and became the football and baseball coach at Hurley High School when he graduated.

1:56 PM May 18th
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