Hal Roth - August 2007

The Assault on James Jones


Hal Roth

   Some crimes that occurred on Delmarva during the nineteenth century received widespread media attention, being headlined in newspapers from coast to coast. While the case of an assault on James Jones offers considerable intrigue and suggests the concealment of even more heinous crimes, it received little publicity, even on the local scene, but that was not unusual when the victim of the crime was black and the alleged perpetrators were white.
    The story begins with an erroneous headline, disproved by the text of the article itself: “A FIENDISH MURDER––A MAN KILLED FOR FEAR HE WOULD TELL OF A CRIME.”

   Denton Journal, November 30, 1878––A crime was last week perpetrated near Townsend on the Queen Anne & Kent County R. R., which has thus far no equal.
    From the facts that can be ascertained, it appears that a short time ago, two daughters of a lady by the name of Dodson, living at Chestertown, Md., gave birth to illegitimate children, and in order to hide their shame, the children were murdered, and an old colored man by the name of James Jones was hired to bury or dispose of the bodies in some way. At the time he was hired, he was threatened that if he should ever divulge the secret, he would be killed.
    A short time ago he so far forgot himself as to tell the story of his crime to an old colored woman, who, in turn, soon spread the news around the neighborhood. On Tuesday of last week he was on his way to Chestertown and was met by two men named Philip Vincent and W. Newcomb, who seized the old man and drove him to the residence of Mrs. Dodson.
    Arriving there, he was taken before Mrs. Dodson, who ordered him to be locked up in an outhouse, which was accordingly done.
    During the afternoon he was visited by the mother and two daughters, who informed him that if he would leave the state, nothing should happen to him, but if he persisted in remaining, they would kill him. The old man agreed to depart from the neighborhood, and late in the evening a team was got in readiness. Mrs. Dodson and the two men named above then drove off with the colored man.
    About midnight they arrived at a dense woods near Vandyke’s Station, where they stopped, taking the colored man out of the wagon, tying him to a tree and informing him they were going to kill him. They then fired two shots at him, one taking effect in the forehead and the other in the back part of the neck. The men then jumped into the wagon and drove off, but after proceeding a short distance, they stopped and called the man in order to see if he was dead. Receiving no answer, they then drove home. In a short time the old colored man revived and succeeded in reaching the house of a colored family residing near Caldwell, to whom he related the circumstances of the crime.
    Constable Truman Rose, of Townsend, was sent for and took the statement of the dying man down in writing. The perpetrators of the crime have been arrested and lodged in the jail at Chestertown. Constable Rose visited Governor Cochran and procured a requisition on the Governor of Maryland for the parties named.
    James Jones, the victim of this extraordinary crime, remains at the house of the colored man at whose door [he appeared] bleeding and dying. Surgical care and attention have done much to counteract the effects of the wounds, and Dr. Tarbutton, holding his pulse this morning and looking into his face, said: “James, I believe you will get well.”
    The wretched man drew a long breath and replied: “Mars doctor, I don’t believe I will.”
    Jones’ story in detail is perhaps the most remarkable contribution to the literature of crime that the last decade has furnished. And were it not for the two bullet wounds in his head and the sound of pistol shots that were heard by the people living near the spot were the deed was committed, it could scarcely be credited.
    The Dodson family, whose fearful skeleton has just been exposed, resides, as before, on a farm which John F. Dodson owns. The husband and father is a simple-minded, hard-working man who goes to church on Sunday with the same regularity that he goes to daily tasks at daylight on weekdays. There are four children that came from the union of a Cecil County girl to the Kent County farmer––two girls and two boys, the latter scarcely old enough to appreciate the terrible blow that has destroyed the reputation of a hitherto respected family and brought the charge of conspiracy to kill even to the door of the mother.
    The story of the buried babies, both said to be the children of Vincent, one each of the sisters, has been told, but it lacks confirmation in many particulars. In fact, it has no relation except the negro, James Jones, who repeats it with many asseverations of its truthfulness. While proof is lacking in the particular of this black chapter of this very black history, it may not be set aside as untrue. Since the exposure on Wednesday night, little bits of scandal have leaked out about the Dodson… [This ends a column of newspaper text, but when we jump to the top line of the next column, it is clear that the typesetter has omitted part of the story.] …there been any movement in that direction, but she has disappeared from Kent County, and her simple-minded husband and less simple-minded daughters all declare that she has gone visiting, but just where they claim not to know.
Mrs. Prettyman says that the story of a liaison and illegitimate birth is false. Dora protests that it is not true as relating to her, but she and her elder sister maintain that the man Jones has not been seen on the place since Monday of last week. [Mrs. Prettyman and Dora are the Dodson daughters.]
    Out of such a mass of contradictory stories, of which these are but a sample, there is no reason to doubt that Mrs. Dodson, the men Vincent and Newcomb, with their prisoner, made that fearful midnight journey that ended in the terrible scene near Vandyke Station. There is no room to doubt that, but there are two reasons given for the attempted murder of the negro: First, that having scandalized the family, the justly enraged mother and daughters demanded a terrible punishment. Second, that his stories having foundation in fact, they thought to silence him by murder. The last theory finds the most supporters. The young men are still in jail at Chestertown, making no replies to any question either by yer [sic] or nay, but being pressed hard, say: “We are not guilty. We can prove an alibi.”
    There were rumors current around Townsend that efforts would be made to kidnap Jones and thus get him out of the way and prevent his testifying against the accused men. To guard against such an event, a number of colored men remain constantly in the hut where Jones now is and are well prepared to resist any attempt to take the wounded man away. Sam Townsend has provided Jones with quite a number of things needful to him in his present condition and has given him an order on a neighboring store for anything he may want.

   MRS. DODSON ARRESTED [Also dated November 30, 1878]––Since the last report there have been some developments of interest in the case of the attempted murder and infanticide in which the Dodson family and the young men Newcomb and Vincent played such conspicuous parts. Constable Trueman Rose, of Delaware, arrived here at six o’clock this morning with a requisition for Vincent, Newcomb and Mrs. John F. Dodson. The former two had been in jail for several days past and were immediately conveyed to the [railroad] cars in charge of Constable Rose and assistant, to be carried to New Castle, Del., where the Court of Criminal Sessions is now sitting. Sheriff Davis, of the county, immediately upon receipt of the requisition for the body of Mrs. John F. Dodson, went to the residence of her husband and took her under arrest and brought her before a justice of the peace. Immediately afterwards he telegraphed to Constable Rose to meet him at Caldwell, a small village on the line between Kent County, Md. and New Castle County, Del. This will be remembered as near the place of the attempted murder. For this point he has already started and will surrender the prisoner [to] Delaware authorities.
    In justice to the authorities here, it should be said that they have displayed both willingness and capability to assist the Delaware authorities. When the first request for the arrest of Mrs. Dodson came by telegraph, it was signed by an officer of no greater importance than a constable, and the sheriff was loath to comply. He immediately wired the attorney general of Delaware to know if he would make the request, and, though he was in the locality named, he did not make the demand. Mr. Dodson and his attorney then assured the sheriff that when the request was legally made, Mrs. Dodson would be produced. At the same time it was his purpose to keep her away from reporters and interviewing, and it is now believed that she never left her husband’s house. The many reporters who endeavored to interview her and failed immediately gave it to the world that she had fled the state, that justice had been cheated of the principal in this crime through the indifference and contrivance of the authorities here.
    The negro will be produced by the authorities and asked to substantiate the charge of infanticide, which was perpetrated in this county, and should the charge be proven, none but Mrs. Prettyman and the two daughters could be indicted, unless the connivance of others can be shown, which Jones himself does not charge.

   Chestertown Transcript, December 5, 1878––The most dreadful, improbable and monstrous stories in reference to Mrs. Dodson and her two daughters are afloat in the community and, strange to say, find numbers of persons credulous enough to believe them; and the more wild, sensational and outrageously filthy in conception and detail, the more eagerly are they listened to and apparently believed. Never was the character of a family more ruthlessly assailed and torn to shreds to be cast all over the land by sensational Bohemians of the press, whose business it is to pander to a vicious, corrupt and depraved taste, and yet the sufferers have no remedy, though their good name has been hopelessly destroyed.
    The Attorney General of the State of Delaware, John B. Pennington, Esq., came to Chestertown last Thursday evening and on Friday, accompanied by H. W. Vickers, Esq., our State’s Attorney, rode out to the vicinity to hunt up evidence for the prosecution, and we learn that he was successful in [the] search. Vincent and Newcomb, it is expected, will be tried this week.
    Mrs. Amelia Dodson, William Newcomb and Philip Vincent were arraigned under an indictment of an assault with intent to kill James Jones, colored. Mrs. Dodson was dressed in black, with no ornament upon her person. She and the “boys” appeared possesed [sic] and answered “not guilty” in firm and clear tones. Charles B. Lore and Geo. Gray appeared for the defense. John P. Pennington, Attorney General, will conduct the trial on the part of the State.

   Trials in the nineteenth century were generally conducted much more promptly than they are today and obviously with a minimum of preparation. In this case only twenty-two days intervened between the crime and its presentation to a jury.

   Special dispatch to the Baltimore Sun, December 10, 1878––Though the opinions expressed by counsel on both sides yesterday were to the effect that a continuance until next term would be asked in the Dodson case, it was evident on the meeting of court this morning that the case would be taken up. Mrs. Dodson sat directly behind Messrs. Lore and Gray, counsel for the defense, inside the bar enclosure and in front of the dock were her daughters, Mrs. Alice Prettyman and Miss Dora Dodson. At 10:35, Mrs. Dodson, William Newcomb [Throughout this dispatch, Newcomb’s name is misspelled as Newcombe. The error has been corrected in the transcription.] and Philip Vincent were placed in the dock, and a jury was impaneled.
    James Jones, the colored man wounded at the hands of the accused, as is alleged, was the first witness and appeared to have entirely recovered from his injuries. He testified to his residence at Dodson’s for nearly four years; [that he] went to Chestertown on Tuesday, November 18; [that] Mr. Dodson came after him, and he walked down the road with him and talked with him, and then he got in the carriage and returned to his house with him. During the afternoon he was tied by Newcomb and Vincent, whipped and put in the meat-house.
    Mr. Gray urged the witness be allowed to tell his story without being led by questions from the attorney general, but the court ruled that the State had a right to put its own questions, and what the defense wished to bring out, they could do in their cross-examination.
    Witness was put in the meat-house, tied and kept there till 7 o’clock in the evening. Then he was taken out by Newcomb and Vincent and put in a carriage, and Mr. Dodson asked if he would promise––if they took him away from the state––never to come back. Vincent, Newcomb and Mrs. Dodson got in the carriage with him, and Mr. Dodson went on and opened the gate.
    They drove past Vandyke Station, when Newcomb asked Mrs. Dodson what to do, hang him or shoot him. She replied, “The quickest way.”
[In the next several sentences there appear to be typesetting errors, words omitted and elements misplaced. For ease of reading I have ordered sentences as I believe they were intended and made what I consider to be obvious corrections.]
    [Jones] told Newcomb [that if he] let him go, he, [Jones], would [leave the area], but Newcomb said he came to kill him and was going to do it. Then he let go and witness [Jones] heard four shots, and one of the bullets struck him in the forehead. Newcomb was about three feet from the witness when he fired, and Vincent was right behind Newcomb. It was about twenty-five feet from the carriage.
    The next thing [Jones] knew, they were rolling him over and taking the ropes off. His hands were tied behind him, his feet tied, and a rope [had been tied] around his waist. Then they talked to him, but he did not answer. After taking the ropes off, Vincent, Newcomb and Mrs. Dodson got in the carriage and went back the way they came. [Jones knows] the point where the shooting took place was in Delaware, [but he] doesn’t know what county.
    After they had gone, [Jones] got up and went to a house near Vandyke Station. It was a cloudy night, [but he] didn’t remember that it rained. He described his hunt for assistance and how he finally reached the house of his brother-in-law, Andrew Cook.
    Jones was cross-examined at great length as to the particulars of the crime, his previous life, whether he had ever been in the locality of the crime or at his brother-in-law’s house before (which was answered in the negative), whether he had not once stolen a suit of clothes etc. Finally, Mr. Gray put a question as to what occurred between Mr. Dodson and the witness, tending to bring out the whole story as to the motive of the assault, to which Mr. Pennington objected that they were trying the prisoners for the assault only and did not propose to go into all the side issues which led to the assault. A majority of the court ruled the question admissible.
    The witness said that Mr. Dodson told him to get in the carriage. The question was then asked whether Mr. Dodson did not say to him to go home with him and prove the tales that had been told. The witness hesitated, and finally asked: “Must I tell?”
    A long argument followed between counsel, Mr. Gray contending he had a right to bring out the motives that caused the whipping, and Mr. Pennington claiming that no matter what Jones might have said about the Dodson family, mere words were no justification or excuse for the assault. The court said: “You can make this man your witness afterward and bring out these facts then, but you cannot put questions in cross-examination as to something not brought out in the examination-in-chief.”
    [Three lines of the transcript are partially illegible at this point but appear to say that witnesses were examined who heard shots at the time and place where Jones claimed to have been shot and abandoned for dead, and his hat was placed in evidence with two apparent bullet holes in it.]
Andrew Cook testified to Jones coming to his house wounded and bleeding shortly after midnight on November 19, and others told of seeing him there and testified as to his wounds.
    George Gray, Esq. then opened for the defense, dwelling on the excellent character of the defendants and the bad reputation of Jones for veracity. The defense would show, he said, that Jones was turned out of the meat house early that evening under promise to leave the state and never return and repeat his lies about members of the family, and they would show that Vincent and Newcomb were at the Dodson house during the entire evening and spent the night there. The defense will therefore rely mainly on an alibi, the good character of the defendants and the bad character of Jones.
    The Dodson girls were then placed upon the stand to prove the alibi. Mrs. Prettyman (Alice) testified that her father and Vincent went to Chestertown and returned about twelve o’clock with Jones. He was then taken into the branch and ordered to dig, and he failed to find the things he said were buried there. He then confessed that all the tales he had told about them were lies. They asked him what should be done with him, and he said he would rather be whipped than sent away. Vincent and Newcomb then whipped him and locked him in the smokehouse, where he remained until evening, when he was led out, promising to go away and never come back, and to tell no more lies about them. He then started, and they saw him last passing between the house and the smokehouse about seven o’clock. Vincent and Newcomb then came in and spent the night in the sitting room. About eleven o’clock the girls retired, leaving Vincent on the lounge and Newcomb in the rocking chair, where they remained until morning. Mrs. Dodson was also there and retired about the time the girls did. Mr. Dodson retired at eight o’clock.
    Dora corroborated Alice’s testimony, but the cross-examination developed some contradictions in minor points, such as the articles of clothing the boys wore, and one said they left together while the other said they left separately. Court adjourned about six o’clock.
    The Dodson boys will possibly be put on the stand tomorrow.

   New Castle, Delaware, December 11––The trial of Mrs. Dodson, William Newcomb and Philip Vincent for assault with intent to murder James Jones was resumed this morning. The two Dodson boys were put on the stand and corroborated the alibi testified to yesterday by their sisters. A long array of witnesses, among them some of the best men in Cecil and Kent Counties, were then called, who testified to the good reputation of the prisoners and the mendacious character of Jones, most of them saying that they would not believe him on his oath. The afternoon was mainly occupied by argument of counsel on both sides. Chief Justice Comegys then charged the jury, decidedly unfavorably to the prisoners, and at 7:40 this evening they retired to deliberate upon their verdict. After forty minutes’ deliberation the jury rendered a verdict of not guilty, which was received with slight applause, promptly checked by the Court.

   I conducted a search of newspapers available to me from 1878 to 1920 for any additional news involving the participants in this case and found only a single, small clipping. Some might smile and say, “What goes around, comes around.”

   Denton Journal, January 21, 1899––Governor Lowndes has fixed Friday, March 24, as the day for the execution of Joseph Wright, convicted at the May (1898) term of the Circuit Court for Talbot County for the murder of William Newcomb. The case was moved from Kent County.

You can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com