The legal legends of Rappahannock County

The Rappahannock County Historical Society last week hosted a presentation at Washington’s town hall by distinguished local attorney Doug Baumgardner. Movers and shakers in the Rappahannock legal world were present, including commonwealth’s attorney Art Goff and the ever-irascible Bill Fletcher.

After his presentation, Doug Baumgardner (right) tells a few more of his many stories to (from left) Mary Ann Kuhn, John Fox Sullivan and Carolyn Thornton. Photo by Chris Doxzen.
After his presentation, Doug Baumgardner (right) tells a few more of his many stories to (from left) Mary Ann Kuhn, John Fox Sullivan and Carolyn Thornton. Photo by Chris Doxzen.

Baumgardner, a man passionate about history and noted for his historical acumen (and a former president of the historical society), regaled the well-attended hall with stories of a few hundred years of Rappahannock County legal machinations. Baumgardner said he’s been fascinated with history since he was a boy of 12 or 13, and is particularly fond of Virginia history.

He has been practicing law since 1976, is a graduate of VMI and has held virtually every distinguished legal leadership role in the county over the years, including commonwealth’s attorney, county attorney and commissioner of accounts. He is a well-respected man, thoughtful and principled, a true Virginia gentleman.

Standing at the front of town hall’s small but hallowed hall, framed by pale yellow walls decorated with photos and paintings of distinguished Virginia leaders, Baumgardner opened his presentation to smiles and laughter.

“Be forewarned,” he began, “this talk involves a lawyer talking about lawyers. It may therefore depart from a long-standing view of lawyers in Rappahannock County, which is not entirely favorable.” He went on to mention that “lawyers know where the bones are buried,” and the audience took the bait, enraptured.

He spoke of the colorful cast of characters, the prominent families of men and women, family dynasties, names etched upon hillsides in the county today, including the Moffetts, Fletchers, Browns, Grimsleys, Sneads, Easthams and Carters, many of whom became prominent attorneys and played significant roles in the history of our state.

Robert Eastham, for example, was born near Flint Hill and rode with Mosby’s rangers. Judge Raynor Snead of Washington became the youngest circuit court judge in the history of Virginia, and wrote “The Hollow Boy,” a favorite local book celebrating the life of a rural country boy and his family growing up in turn-of-the-century Rappahannock.

Baumgardner reminisced about his days studying law, observing his first court case with a larger-than-life attorney commanding the room. He was impressed, he said, and knew then that he wanted to be like him. That man was Jim Bill Fletcher.

The practice of law was like a vortex, a force of nature calling into its center the life of the county. Indeed, “during the 19th century, the proximity to a courthouse dictated the formation of a county location,” he said. The legal world was the center of life for a town: Folks came into a hamlet for trials, attorneys dotted the courthouse square and played poker, while the taverns brimmed over with townfolk.

“It was a time where little public entertainment was offered for the common man,” he said, and “there were no parties nor balls.” Music and dancing were occasional pleasures so the legal world created a social fabric; the court was the community’s theater.

The crowd was fascinated as he spoke of hangings being a favorite 19th-century pastime. “The Johnson trial of 1858, for example, drew 5,000 attendees to witness the execution. Folks were literally hanging out of windows.” The case, he said, was the “O.J. Simpson case of Rappahannock County.”

“It had everything: illicit love and sex, an unwanted pregnancy, a secret birth and burial, a brutal murder and a convicted killer who went to the gallows protesting his innocence.” Baumgardner included fascinating details in his story, noting that the length of hanging rope was determined by the size of the victim, and that the gallows were located where the lovely pond now sits on the edge of town, near where the old Willis home stands.

Historical and humorous vignettes abounded. He spoke of the dashing exploits involving Robert Eastham, aka Bob Ridley, a name that originated with a little jingle he sang while playing the fiddle to entertain his fellow troopers during the Civil War. His horse was called “Steamboat.”

He described Ridley as a man of great stature, 6-foot-4, who became a scout and wound up under the command of Col. John Singleton Mosby. He carried out, according to Baumgardner, a number of highly dangerous assignments. After the war, Ridley was hard-pressed to fit into rural country and impoverished farm life.

He married and moved to West Virginia and ended up involved in local politics, was well liked but had some enemies as well. In an altercation over a controversial judgement against the local citizenry, a shooting resulted involving Ridley and Frank Elmer Thompson. The latter was shot by Ridley and died of his wounds.

The ensuing trial, Baumgardner related, came to be counted among West Virginia’s best known, possibly to this day. Ridley was a respected man in many quarters, and while in the county jail, before sentencing, reportedly received a note from his former commander, Mosby, who asked if he could be of any assistance.

Baumgardner told the audience that some of the finest legal talents from two states, including Rappahannock County commonwealth’s attorney Horatio Moffett, were drawn to the trial. The West Virginia courtroom was packed. Ridley was found guilty.

Legend has it that not long after the trial, Baumgardner said, Ridley’s cell was found unlocked and empty. A saddled horse was found down the street; another one 25 miles farther away; and so on, until the route reached Rappahannock.

Baumgardner had the undivided attention of everyone in the room. “It was reported that a West Virginia posse came into Warren County, inquiring as to how to get to Rappahannock,” he said, “perhaps dropping a hint they were looking for Ridley.”

“Let me give you a little advice, boys,” replied the man to whom they spoke, according to Baumgardner’s tale. “There’s no trouble finding Rappahannock County, but somehow posses returning from Rappahannock have a poor record of finding their way back.”

A favorite saying to this day, Baumgardner said, is: “In Rappahannock, we take care of our own.”

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Chris Green
About Chris Green 130 Articles
Chris Green (formerly Chris Doxzen) is an an executive recruiter by profession who enjoys exploring and writing about all things Rappahannock. Friends and neighbors with potential stories for her Sperryville column should email her at chrisdoxzen@gmail.com.