Reuben Herndon is often mentioned as one participant in the ordeal of blood in Virginia. Unfortunately, no evidence can be found to support this long-held belief. Still, the case remains a fascinating glimpse at post-Civil War justice in Virginia.
Reuben Herndon was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. He enlisted a private and was discharged a private. He lived near Verdiersville, in Orange County, Virginia. He married Susan Mason, daughter of Reverend Saunders Mason, and they settled into typical married life for the period. Herndon was a carpenter by trade, and although he was never ordained, many knew him to be an occasional preacher.
Those who personally knew Herndon were certain of one thing. He was a mousy man, regarded as far too timid for any kind of cruelty or brutality. It drew a tremendous amount of sensation when he became the central suspect in a murder.
Mollie Lumsden was a bright young woman from a respectable family. Relatives were stunned when she disappeared on April 24, 1868. She had become a well-known face in the Herndon household, as she helped Susan care for the Herndon children. The Herndon and Lumsden families were neighbors and both were known by all in the region, but popularity and respectability didn’t help Mollie. She just vanished. Weeks passed and no one in the territory, or even the state, had seen her. The Lumsden family had given up on any news of their Mollie.
Mrs. James Jacobs waited for her dog to return home on the evening of May 24, 1868. Jacobs’s hound had roamed for hours, so she called it home. The dog didn’t return as normal. It returned with bloody paws and legs. She examined the animal for injury, but couldn’t find any. She decided to see where the blood originated.
She tracked the dog’s trail. Eventually, she found three strange piles of wood in the middle of a forest. She saw human remains beneath each pile of wood. Jacobs summed the neighbors and the investigation began. When the wood was removed, everyone knew it was Mollie. Her clothing and hair revealed her identity.
Mollie’s father was among the first people on the scene. Investigators found a familiar necktie near the body, but her father couldn’t quite place it. John Woolfolk, Justice of the Peace, conducted a cursory examination. He believed she was pregnant, and it appeared the infant was cut out of her body. A wave of horror passed through the community. Mr. Lumsden finally recalled Reuben Herndon wore that tie. Mollie’s body was around a mile from Herndon’s home.
Authorities found a letter in Mollie’s pocket that directed her towards an isolated spot around a mile from where her remains were found. Lumsden’s suspicions became fury. He marched to the Simpson house, where Herndon worked, and asked Reuben to view her body. Herndon refused and said he wanted to go home.
Lumsden asked again later, and again Herndon had an excuse. The routine continued until the authorities forced Herndon to go. This is most likely where the confusion over the ordeal of blood started. Herndon was ordered to view the scene, but nothing supports his being forced to touch the remains. The mysterious letter in Mollie’s pocket read (partially corrected for readability):
“Mollie, I have tried everything that would do any good, and do not know better we can do than to run away. They will find it out anyhow, and I am going to take these here oxen to Mr. Johnson’s and he will pay me the money for them; so as soon as I come home you can take your bonnet and shawl and tell Susan [Herndon’s wife] you want something from home about dress, and when you get over to the woods, go down the path a little ways, and then turn to the left and go down to that old fence that runs between the woods and pines, and hide yourself, so if anybody should come along, that they can’t see you; and then stay until Fife [Mollie’s brother] leaves this evening, and I will come out of there, and by morning, we will be out of the reach of anybody around here; when you leave the path do not let your tracks be seen, nor anywhere through the pines, for fear that they might find you before night. Now, if you will do this, after you read it come in and bow your head; do not let Susan see this or know anything about it; should anybody come while I am gone to Mr. Johnson’s, do not let them see your face, if you can help it.”
When the men read the letter aloud at the scene, Herndon broke down. Lumsden charged Herndon with murdering his daughter. Herndon admitted to seducing her, but not to her murder. Lumsden raised a large hickory branch to thrash Herndon, but magistrate Richard Richards stopped him.
Mr. J. Johnson, mentioned in Herndon’s letter, would not buy the steers as Herndon thought. Johnson had tried to buy them many times before and Herndon always refused. Johnson had the upper hand and got the pair of steers, worth $40, for a mere $28. This was only because Herndon confessed to Johnson that he would be “ruined” if he couldn’t sell them.
Several weeks passed and suspicion never wavered from Herndon. He even published a warning in the newspaper, The Native Virginian, which threatened his accusers with a defamation suit.
His proclamations of innocence fell upon deaf ears. Herndon was arrested around the first of June. His admission to seduction was all the proof necessary to bring down the full wrath of the people. A mob gathered outside the Orange County Jailhouse during the first week of June. Over 100 people had promised to lynch him; however, only 12 people showed. Those who came dispersed with no further violence.
Herndon hired notable attorneys Judge Robertson and Shelton F. Leake. His counsel pushed the trial date further and further away. Herndon’s patience wore thin. He escaped the jail on July 26. Virginia’s Governor issued his own proclamation the next day, and offered a $500 reward for his capture.
No one heard of Herndon until August the 17. Many believed he’d gone west, or maybe into Mexico. He didn’t. Herndon wandered around the area with no money or clothing. He eventually found a barn he thought belonged to a relative named Grady. It didn’t.
He trespassed into a neighbor’s barn and the neighbor summoned Justice Woolfolk. Life on the lamb had not been kind. He was pale and emaciated. He said he’d eaten five meals in ten days, and had wandered much of that time, usually in the rain. He was so exhausted he could barely talk. His feet were bare, swollen, and covered in cuts and bruises. He just wanted to be left alone.
The authorities chained Herndon to the jail cell floor afterward. His wife divorced him while he awaited trial. His attorneys continued to postpone proceedings. Herndon didn’t go to trial until late May 1869.
The authorities constructed a timeline of events that partially coincided with Herndon’s admission. He seduced Mollie and she became pregnant. Herndon was too terrified to take responsibility for his behavior, so he procured some kind of abortive. The exact substance was never established, but it killed both Mollie and their baby.
Herndon realized he had to get rid of the body. He couldn’t think of anything other than dismembering it. He chopped her body into three parts, but didn’t have the gumption to finish the job. Instead, he piled wood on top of each part. This is where the rumors he cut the infant out of her stomach began.
He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 18 years in the state penitentiary. Newspapers reported in late July that Herndon had been ill since his sentence started. He still professed his innocence and seemed to hope the mystery would be cleared one day.
Herndon’s final mention in the papers came in March of 1870. A fellow inmate stabbed him in the shoulder, although it was not serious. He was taken to a hospital for treatment and returned to prison.