Everyone seems to have a complaint with the justice system today. The fact remains that most of us take our due process for granted. History is filled with proof that a sluggish legal system, is far superior to a swift one. History shows that a public’s impatient outrage caused even the noblest of authorities to give in to baseless hostilities.
One such episode apparently occurred in Buchanan County, Virginia. The case of the “Buchanan County Butcher” is similar to many cases throughout the Appalachians, and the rest of the nation. When emotion supersedes logic, innocent people suffer.
Neighbors found the bodies of the Justus family on the morning of September 22, 1909. One body was found outside the home. The other five lay in the rubble of the incinerated house.
No one could think of any motive outside robbery. Elizabeth “Aunt Betty” Justus, property owner, was known to keep large sums of money about premises. Neighbors and authorities alike were puzzled by this odd compulsion, in an era when robberies were so frequent.
Aunt Betty’s daughter Lydia, her husband George Meadows, and their 3 children, all lived in the house with her. Neighbors first found Meadows “mutilated” in the front yard. He had two bullets in his body and a knife wound that nearly severed his head. Inside the home, they found all bodies carried signs of violence. Aunt Betty’s skull was some distance from her body.
Another unnamed Justus daughter said her mother always kept at least $950 in gold and silver on the premises. Much of it was buried under the sill plate (or ground plate) of the house. In addition, Aunt Betty always carried around $650 on her person.
The total stolen amount was usually said to be $1,300. For reference, the same amounts today, adjusted for inflation, would be $17,298 ($650 in 1909), $25,282 ($950), or $34,596 ($1,300). Those weren’t normal or reasonable amounts to have about the home. They would’ve also been impossible to hide without suspicion.
First-responders knew time was against them. The house was in ashes and the murderers had likely fled. Still, they brought bloodhounds to track the criminals. The bloodhounds then led authorities to a nearby cornfield where they found 3 distinct sets of footprints.
Alexander Blankenship and two of his sons worked their fields nearby. They heard thundering hooves and the baying of bloodhounds. The three men fled into their home and barricaded themselves inside. An angry mob arrived. The three men only survived because they were indoors and had their shotguns pointed out the windows. Many in the mob wanted to lynch them at that moment.
Fortunately, the authorities calmed the vengeful, and assured the Blankenships they were safe. The three men turned themselves over and were taken to jail. The angry searchers said they found a “blood-soaked garment” inside the home. Angry mobs also surrounded Hurley jail on September 24. Authorities feared the Blankenships would be lynched.
While it aligned with the theory of multiple culprits, it was in vain. The three were released days later. While the lumbermen of the Ritter Company knew of the Justus cache, no attention was ever given to them. Attentions were soon turned to a yet another individual still in the community.
The strangest aspect of the entire investigation was the community’s die-hard conviction that the person(s) responsible remained in the area, rather than fleeing, particularly when they had enough immediate cash to travel the globe, several times over.
Matilda Little, wife of Howard, decided her husband was the murderer. They had been somewhat estranged for years, but it came to a head in early October. She heard a rumor that Howard planned to go out west with another woman. To get back at him, she turned him into authorities as the Justus murderer. It is suspected she had just tired of his appetite for the fairer sex, and wanted rid of him.
After all, Little had no real alibi for that night. He was out drinking, possibly with another woman, and the maid said he didn’t come home until morning. Mathilda said Howard had “suspicious” wounds around the time of the murders. That had to mean he was guilty, according to her. Little was promptly arrested.
No murder weapon was ever found. There was no incriminating evidence. There was no concrete motive, and the vast hoard of wealth was never recovered. The absence of these factors did not slow the recklessly swift justice system. Little was held in the Russell County jail to avoid lynching. Extra guards were posted to protect him. He went to trial just after Thanksgiving in 1909.
The trial began on Thursday and ended on Saturday. Robbery remained the suspected motive. Senate Justus, Aunt Betty’s son, worked with Little when he was foreman at the Ritter Lumber Company. He’d never suspected anything previously, but said Little often asked if his mother still kept her wealth at home. Rumors stated Little had briefly stayed with Aunt Betty some time before.
Senate said Little frequently stated Aunt Betty should put it in the bank, or somewhere safe, before she was robbed. Another unnamed witness claimed Little said Aunt Betty might be, “robbed, murdered, and her body burned,” although the veracity of that is debatable.
Mary Stacy, Little’s alleged mistress, told the court he gave her $20 to buy a new dress. She said he told her they would leave to go west as soon as he visited his bank in Bluefield. The authorities believed he put the money from the crime in that account. Upon examination, however, no such funds existed. They also couldn’t say why, if he had so much cash, he didn’t flee the country with his mistress as soon as he finished the crime.
Witnesses claimed they heard several voices moving towards the Justus home that night, but that was ignored. There was also no further mention of the multiple footprints the bloodhounds found.
Mary Lee, the family maid, testified of the trouble at home during trial. She said Little was gone the whole night of the murder. This also presents a problem. She admitted to going to sleep regularly, and waking twice. She couldn’t say what time she woke, or that she got out of bed. She just said she looked to see if the lamp was still burning. It was. She said she woke at 6 am and he was “finally” home. His coat was wet and he now had a strange lantern. The court accepted the statement that Little was out all night, just because the maid said he wasn’t there when she went to sleep.
Mary Lee claimed he began filing the lantern after he woke. Since he didn’t explain his actions, she thought it was suspicious. She also thought it was suspicious that he asked for bandages two hours after breakfast. She said he claimed he injured his leg while cutting brush, but the blood was dry. We may never know how that proved his guilt.
The lantern was one of the deciding pieces of, “evidence.” Newspaper headlines said “scores” of witnesses came forward to agree that very lantern belonged to George Meadows. Although, it was established that Meadows actually “borrowed” the lantern from another neighbor some time before and never returned it. No one asked how many such lanterns the neighbor possessed, or if Little had borrowed the lantern from Meadows that night on his way home. Meadows was killed in the yard, as if he were just arriving at the house.
Mathilda and Mary Lee said Little was restless after the murder. He frequently woke and wanted to talk to his wife for hours. This could have meant he wasn’t ready to abandon his family and head west, but was said to be guilt from a sextuple-murder. He took the suspicious lantern up the hollow with him and “hid” it between two logs. No one asked if he might’ve simply forgotten it, why on earth he would’ve kept something from a killing spree, or why he didn’t just throw it in a river.
Little had borrowed a .32 pistol from a neighbor some time before. He kept it in his coat. Mathilda and Mary Lee got the pistol out on the morning after the killings and removed the bullet casings. The women claimed two bullets had been fired. The gun was returned to the neighbor, who agreed that two bullets had been fired. This was taken to be another “sure sign” of guilt, although there is no proof Little fired the weapon at all.
The bullets weren’t even taken from Meadows’ body prior to burial. The authorities had to exhume him to retrieve them. A physician then said the bullets in Meadows’ body were the same weight and make as those in Little’s borrowed gun, but didn’t say they were from the same weapon.
Another witness claimed he’d heard Little warn his wife not to testify, or he would kill her. She admitted she “washed his bloody clothing” the day after the murder, but never fully explained why she waited weeks to come forward.
The prosecution called her to testify, but the defense objected. It was sustained as she was Little’s wife. Mathilda attended most of the trial, but never actually testified. Defense attorney Burt Wilson wouldn’t even allow Little to take the stand.
Much of what was said in court amounted to gossip and hearsay. A newsboy said Little paid him with a “bloody penny,” but the penny was never produced in court. The “bloody clothing,” Mathilda claimed she washed was never produced, even though that amount of blood would’ve left noticeable staining.
Little’s trial ended on Saturday. He was convicted of six counts of first-degree murder. He collapsed when the verdict was read. He was sentenced to the electric chair on January 6.
His attorney immediately began the process for an appeal. Wilson adamantly proclaimed it was never a fair trial. No witnesses would testify because they feared the ever-present lynch mob.
Virginia Governor Claude A. Swanson granted Little a 30-day reprieve. There was more reason to believe he was innocent than guilty. Little had a good reputation before he was a murder suspect. He was known as intelligent, some said handsome, and had many friends. His only weakness was women. He declared that women were “his ruin.”
Little was a U.S. Marshal in Kentucky for years. He was involved in a battle with George McKinney in eastern Kentucky. He shot and killed McKinney. He received a life sentence, but was pardoned. He left Kentucky for Virginia, where he became foreman for the Ritter Lumber Company.
Many people came to see him in jail after his conviction. Most doubted his guilt when they left. Prominent Virginia businessman W.W. Huff was one such visitor. Judge N.H. Hariston, of Roanoke, also visited. He was so convinced of Little’s innocence he said if Little got a new trial, he would defend him free of charge.
The prosecution’s story didn’t remove any doubt, especially with yet another human life in the balance. While the authorities originally believed the crime was committed by more than one person, all that was dismissed to incriminate Little.
For reasons known only to the prosecution, they claimed Little was on his way home after a night of “carousing.” He just decided to rob and kill the Justus family.
They later claimed Little actually decided to spend the night with the Justus family, even though his own house was near. During the night, he set about the butchery. In their story, George Meadows woke and saw what was happening. Rather than simply disarm Little, he fled out across the yard. Little noticed his escape, and in the dark of night, somehow delivered two disabling shots.
Their story was rife with inconsistencies and flaws. It is extremely unlikely that a single man could have orchestrated such a crime, no matter how nefariously skilled. According to the prosecution, Little killed all five before any could flee, had time to shoot Meadows and cut his throat out in the yard, dug up the valuables under the home’s sill plate, and then set it all on fire. All of this was done in the dark of night, without leaving evidence, attracting attention, and while hiding the incriminating valuables before anyone noticed the crime. Then, after such successful forethought, he remained in the area, carried an incriminating lantern through the next day, gave the newsboy a gory penny, and made his wife wash bloody clothes that placed him at the murder scene.
Samuel Baker, the brother-in-law of George Meadows, was also murdered, but apparently was partly to blame. Hurley had their annual community Christmas dance on Christmas Eve. Henry Pennington attended, but overindulged in the holiday whiskey. He became very drunk and very loud. Pennington was a good friend of Howard Little. The drunker he became, the more he professed Little’s innocence, and the flaws in the botched trial. He continued to talk about Little’s new trial because the first was so unjust.
Baker grew more spiteful. He actually attempted to arrest Pennington. It is suspected he didn’t want Pennington to say too much. Many visitors had came for the party, and he didn’t want Pennington to place further doubt on an already infamous trial.
Guns were drawn. Pennington shot Baker. Baker’s wife then attacked Pennington and was shot. Wyatt Meadows, another Meadows brother who had been staying with the Bakers, was shot. Riley Lester, constable at the Little trial, was also shot.
When the smoke cleared, it seemed like everyone had been injured, including Pennington. He was critically wounded, but retained enough life to flee.
It didn’t take long for the authorities to apprehend him. They housed him in one of the Ritter Lumber Company’s spare buildings and stationed a guard. They said they would wait for him to heal, so they could move him to the jail. Rumors suddenly said Pennington was actually an accomplice to the Justus massacre. At that point, it wasn’t just Little acting alone, as everyone swore while under oath.
It is impossible to know today if incarceration in the lumber shack was a genuine attempt to save Pennington, or a way of making it easier for the lynch mob to abduct him. Pennington’s time was up at midnight on Christmas Day. A mob of 100 stormed the building. They carried Pennington to an old steam pipe between the engine room and machine shop. He was lynched. Attendees claimed he even said he would tell them where Little’s stolen money was, if only they’d give him 3 days. No one cared and no attendees who admitted being there were ever punished.
Ironically, Samuel Baker had the bad reputation, not Pennington. Baker came to Buchanan County several years earlier. He fled Minnesota due to legal trouble. Baker also led the mob that had attempted to lynch Little months earlier. He had to make do with being on the special guard at the Little trial, and helping authorities accompany him to Roanoke. It is intriguing that so many who had personally grudges against Little were given influential positions during his proceedings.
Mrs. Baker was known as her husband’s accomplice. The hot-headed lady often battled with her husband during his many skirmishes. She was shot in the neck.
Howard Little received a strange, anonymous letter in January of 1910 that said Henry Pennington was behind the Justus Massacre. The authorities, however, did not care.
No one will ever know how much was taken from the Justus household. Early estimates started at $650 and within a year, had skyrocketed to $60,000. The most frequently used number was $1,300, although even that is debatable. There were no surviving documents to offer a precise monetary figure of what was in the home, at that time.
Legends abound after the trial that the money was buried somewhere around Hurley. People from all across the region poured in to try and find the loot. No trace was ever recovered.
Newly elected Virginia Governor William Hodges Mann followed his predecessor. He refused to interfere with Little’s sentence. Howard Little was was sent to the electric chair at dawn, on Valentine’s Day, in 1910. He . He said he wanted to be buried in his family’s cemetery, in McDowell County, West Virginia.
Perhaps, as a final exercise in their unusual nature, the Justus massacre victims were buried in a peculiar manner. While Elizabeth, Lydia, and all 3 children were buried in a single grave with a massive headstone chronicling the murder and Little’s execution, husband George Meadows was buried elsewhere, without such fanfare. No one ever stated why he wasn’t buried with them, or why his family wasn’t buried with him.
There are a variety of opinions and theories regarding the Justus massacre. Most of them are primarily based on folklore or oral tradition. Sadly, few touch upon many of the glaring details from the time of the proceedings.
Many modern accounts state the Justus riches only came from a sale of land the day before the massacre, but no such detail was mentioned at the time of the crime, or the trial. Senate’s alleged conversation with Little, about his mother’s money, happened long before the massacre. Also, persons familiar to the area would’ve committed such a robbery when the home was emptiest. Not when all occupants would’ve been present. There’s far less fervor when authorities chase simple robbers, as opposed to mass murderers.
Sadly, family murders were common in Virginia and surrounding regions, during that era. Mr. Bromfield and his entire family, including 5 children, were murdered in August of 1891. Their Wayne County, West Virginia, house was burned over their bodies.
The widowed Mrs. James Klines and her family were murdered, in Fauquier County, Virginia. Their house was burned atop their bodies, in November of 1891.
Mrs. John Saus, and all 3 of her children, was murdered by robbers in September of 1910. Their bank books and money was gone.
This is only a sampling of such crimes, and many more can be found across the nation. On several occasions, such as in Colorado, several families were killed and their homes burned in a single night. Often, the culprits were never apprehended because they did not stay in the area. With spendable cash or valuables, they could be on a train and out of the region long before their crimes were even discovered.
The Buchanan County Butcher, executed for murdering six, apparently never murdered one.