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Judicial CP - October 2007

Corpun file 19750

Staunton News-Leader, Virginia, 20 October 2007

Whipping post was preferred punishment

By Terry Shulman

Staunton's first integrated jury met on a Saturday, of all days, in mid-April of 1880, to hear the case of Lizzie Harris, a black woman caught stealing from J. T. Pritchard's downtown store.

Thanks to County Judge Smith's recent decision, which no doubt appalled many whites, Harris' fate was handed over to the closest thing to a jury of her peers that Southern proprieties would then allow. There were no black women among the jurors, but there would be several black men, whom the Valley Virginian condescendingly described as "intelligent and respectable."

Lizzie Harris' defense was as old as starvation itself. After pleading guilty to the theft, she told the jury that she had taken the food from Pritchard's store so that her children wouldn't go hungry. But like Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," Harris garnered no sympathy from the court. Possibly the blacks on the jury were tougher on the woman then they might have been otherwise, in order not to seem different from the white jurors. Or maybe they didn't think there was any valid excuse for stealing.

In short order, Judge Smith remanded Harris into county custody, whereupon "30 stripes" were to be administered before setting her free. In other words, she was to be flogged ("stripes" being a common word for "lashes" in those days), a punishment traditionally reserved for blacks.

Most of the cities and county seats of the commonwealth still had their old whipping posts stuck in the ground, and they would keep on using them until the Virginia legislature abolished the practice two years later. In 1890, the Whipping Post Bill, which sought to restore the punishment, was introduced into the House of Delegates, and in early February it came up for a vote.

The outcome made national headlines. "In accordance with the sentiments expressed by the Democratic caucus last night," The New York Times reported, "the Virginia House of Delegates put itself on record as unanimously opposing the infliction of stripes as a punishment for crime. ... The sentiment has all along been that the State cannot, in this advanced age of civilization, afford to be placed in the position to adopt any such retrograde legislation. The white people are as strongly against the restoration of any such relic of barbarism as the negroes are."

But supporters of public whippings refused to give up. A group of Virginia legislators doggedly tried to revive the bill in 1892 and 1897.

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