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1867: James Jeter Phillips, hanged for murder of his wife
Perhaps there was never an affair upon the criminal records of Richmond which was enveloped in so much mystery or so much horror as the murder of the young woman on Drinker's farm on the 20th of February last. The finding of a female so young, evidently the victim of a most foul murder, under circumstances so mysterious, rendered the affair one of extraordinary interest, and no effort was spared on the part of the officers of the law to discover the author of this awful tragedy. Their investigations were followed by a series of the most astonishing cases of mistaken identity ever heard of, each one making the occurrence more mysterious, and seemingly to set the efforts of the officers more at nought. The failure to find even the name of the murdered person was a matter of great wonder, and the absence of a name caused, in time, public interest to decline; and probably the Drinker's farm murder would have scarcely been thought of again but for the sudden development of a new chain of circumstances which have led to the arrest of a young man named James Jeter Phillips, who stands charged with the murder of Annie Phillips, his wife, who is said to be the young woman whose body was found on Drinker's farm. We have gathered the following concerning his arrest and what led to it:
As we have before stated, the officers of the law spared no efforts to gain some clue to this horrible affair. Justice Wade wrote letters to every portion of the State to find out what could he could about it; and among the rest was one to Mr. Marshall, the sheriff of Caroline county, written upon information received, making inquiries concerning Phillips, his marriage in that county, etc. He received a reply to the effect that Phillips had married a young lady named Annie Pitts, in that county, on the 13th of July, 1865. He also received a letter from the Rev. W. A. Baynham, who married the couple, which corroborated the statement of the sheriff. He then learned further that the couple had subsequently moved into Surry county, where they lived together until some months since, when Phillips came alone to Henrico county, and shortly afterwards took employment as a farm hand with Mr. George Turner. He was noticed to pay a great deal of attention to a young lady in the neighborhood.
Mrs. Phillips, as Justice Wade was informed, came to Richmond in the beginning of February last to see her husband, and since that time nothing has been heard directly from her. Her mother and relatives had received letters from Mr. Phillips, one of which was written not more than ten days or a fortnight ago, stating that his wife was ill.
Having traced the affair thus far, Justice Wade made inquiries concerning Phillips since he had lived with Mr. Turner, and learned among other things that when the body of the young woman was found in Drinker's woods, Phillips was one of the few persons who did not go out to see it, and that when the inquest was held, he got on his horse, rode off, and did not return for two days.
Being satisfied with the chain of circumstances as sufficient ground for arrest, the Justice issued a warrant for Phillips, and on yesterday Constable Cole, accompanied by private detective Knox, proceeded to Mr. Turner's farm, and found Phillips at work in a field. Approaching him, they informed that they had to arrest him under the charge of murdering his wife. Phillips turned very pale, and seemed at first much agitated, though he soon recovered self-possession, and protested that he had no wife, and that he had never been married. Upon searching him, the likeness of a female was found in one of his pockets. In his trunk were found several books, with the name of "Annie Pitts" written on the fly-leaf. It appeared as if efforts had been made to erase the name. He was then conveyed to the county jail and placed in a cell.
A gentleman called on Phillips yesterday, who states that he recognized him, that he was married to Miss Pitts in 1865, and, furthermore, that he attended his wedding.
James Jeter Phillips is a young man of about twenty-three years of age. He is of handsome appearance, is about five feet nine inches in height, has dark auburn hair, ruddy complexion, and an open countenance. He is very reticent, and refuses to answer any questions.
Next to the feeling that must arise at the contemplation of the murder of a young woman under such horrible circumstances, we give ourselves to sadness that a young man of such good antecedents as are possessed by young Phillips should be arraigned for the commission of so foul a crime. He is the son of Dabney Phillips, Esq., formerly sheriff of Henrico, but more latterly Surry, and a better character for honesty and integrity than his but few men bear. His sons were all regarded as young men of great promise and of the best behavior. They were all gallant soldiers during the war, and nought was ever brought against any of them. Those who know James Jeter Phillips cannot believe him guilty of the crime of which he is charged. But while we sincerely regret that the circumstances against him are so suspicious a nature, we earnestly hope that they may prove, as in cases heretofore, nothing but one of those remarkable chains that make fact stranger than fiction.
It is supposed that the examination of the accused will take place on Saturday. We hear that Colonel Marmaduke Johnson has been retained as one of his counsel.
A singular case of hypocrisy was presented by James Jeter Phillips, who was hung at Richmond, Va., on the 22d ult., for the murder of his wife more than three years ago. The crime was atrocious. It appears that his wife was several years his senior; that she nursed him while sick at her father's house; and that he married her out of gratitude. Two years after marrying her he took his wife to Richmond, but kept his marriage a secret from his father's family. The murderer confessed that he got tired of his wife, who was devoted to him, and one Sunday walked her about four miles from the city, and then walked her about the woods until she was so tired that she had to sit down. He then fired on her, but failed to kill her, and she screamed for help, when he jumped upon and strangled her to death. A considerable time subsequently her body was found, but could not be identified. The body was placed in an outhouse of a farmer nearby, and Phillips stopped with the farmer that night, betrayed not the slightest emotion; on the contrary he indulged in levity and jest.
The evidence on the trial showed this cold-blooded murderer to have been a very pious man. One witness testified that Phillips always said his prayers, and he said them the night the body of his murdered wife was lying in an out-house near him, and said them ever since. The history of the world has rarely ever produced a more hardened villian.
In this connection a strange story comes from Orange county, S. C. There is a woman there who claims to have been married to Jeter Phillips during the war, and who has now a child some five or six years of age, which she says is the fruit of their union. The reason assigned by her for not setting up a claim to her truant husband sooner is that she did not know where he was until he was arrested for the murder committed on Drinker's farm, and that she did not care to have anything to do with him afterward. Her story is corroborated by the testimony and belief of the neighborhood.
RICHMOND, Nov. 3.-A jury was empaneled yesterday, after great trouble, in Henrico Circuit Court, for the trial of James Jeter Phillips, charged with the murder of his wife at Drinkhard's farm, near this city, in February last.
Source: The Weekly Atlanta Intelligencer, Atlanta, Georgia, Wednesday, November 6, 1867; Pg. 3, Column 4
A. B. Gurgan was in Court to take care of the interests of Jeter Phillips, sentenced for wife murder, and rescued by Underwood's rulings, but made no argument. No argument was made against the writ.
RICHMOND, Dec. 15.-In the case of Jeter Phillips, sentenced to be hung next Friday for the murder of his wife, a writ of habeas corpus, returnable February 9th, was granted to-day by Judge Underwood, on plea by counsel that Court of Appeals which decided against appeal taken in the Phillips case, was not a legal court, the judges being disqualified under 14th amendment.
Source: Daily Atlanta Intelligencer, Wednesday, December 16, 1868; Pg. 2, Column 3
In the Supreme Court, in the prohibition writ against Underwood, the Chief Justice said he had signified his dissent from Underwood's opinion, expressed in favor of the allowance of writs of habeas corpus, complained of in the petition. The difference of opinion will be certified to by this Court at an early day, and the next Friday thereafter the Court will hear argument on the case of Jeter Phillips. In the meantime the opinion of the Court on the writ of probition will be withheld.
RICHMOND, April 26.-James Jeter Phillips, sentenced to be hung next Friday for murdering his wife, has been respited for 60 days.
Source: Georgia Weekly Telegraph and Georgia Journal & Messenger, Macon, Georgia, Tuesday, May 3, 1870; Pg. 8, Column 1
RICHMOND, July 14.-Governor Walker to-day refused to commute the sentence of Jeter Phillips, to be hung on Friday, July 22d, for wife murder. Phillips has already had twelve respites. He will certainly be executed on the 22d.
Source: Georgia Weekly Telegraph and Georgia Journal & Messenger, Macon, Georgia, Tuesday, July 19, 1870; Pg. 3, Column 2
RICHMOND, July 22.-Yesterday the father of Jeter Phillips bid him farewell, when for the first time, Phillips broke down and wept bitterly. Last night Rev. Mr. Woodward, of the Methodist Church, stayed with him until 10 o'clock-the jail guard then went in. About 1 o'clock in the morning, Phillips slept an hour or two soundly, and got up, bathed and remained awake, reading the Bible till daylight this morning. He sent his love to the chaplain of his old regiment. About sunrise a number of clergymen visited him. Phillips has made a confession that he took his wife out on Sunday, 17th February, walked her four miles from the city, and then walked her about the woods until she was so tired that she had to sit down. He then fired on her but failed to kill her, and she commenced screaming for help, and struggling, which he ended by leaping on her and strangling her. He returned to Richmond and staid the night in a hotel.
Source: Daily Atlanta Intelligencer, Atlanta, Georgia, Saturday Morning, July 23, 1870; Pg. 1, Column 4
......A criminal trial began October 30, 1867, which excited greater and more continued interest than any that ever been held in Richmond, or, as to that, in the State. A mysterious and atrocious murder was committed February, 1867, on Drinker's farm, a few miles below the city. A negro man February 28th found the dead body of a young white woman in the woods about one hundred yards from a private road. The body was dressed in clean clothes and had the appearance of having been shot, but the bullet did not enter the skull, so did not kill her. She appeared to have been murdered by having been beaten and choked to death. W. C. Moncure, the deputy sheriff, summoned a coroner's jury. They viewed the body and examined witnesses. The toll-gate keeper remembered seeing a week before a man and a woman come by in a wagon and the man returned without the woman. The wagon was red, the running gear white, and the horse bay. With these slender clues the body was ordered buried and the jury returned their verdict that an unknown woman had come to her death by the hands of an unknown person. The whole city was horrified and there was a strong desire to arrest the culprit, but there was faint hope of finding him. A woman's bonnet was found at the house of George Turner, near by, and a description of this and the clothes of the woman was published. The body was disinterred and brought to Richmond March 11th and identified as that of a girl who lived near the jail, but this proved a mistake. Then she was identified as a girl from Norfolk, then as one named Edwards, and again as one named Slaughter. These were also mistakes, and the body was again buried as an unknown. Everyone except very few despaired of finding the murderer, but murder will out. The city was greatly stirred June 13th when Detective Knox and Constable Cole brought to the Henrico jail a young man twenty-four years old, with blue eyes, small but not unpleasant mouth, light brown hair, ruddy complexion, of slight build, about five feet nine inches tall. The young man was arrested on George Turner's farm charged with killing his wife. "I have no wife," he said with great coolness and unconcern; nevertheless he was taken into custody and against the name of James Jeter Phillips the charge of murder was written. In Phillips' trunk at Turner's where he was employed, was found a lot of women's wearing apparel. The prisoner was examined before Justice Nettles at Henrico courthouse June 18th. J. B. Young was prosecuting attorney and the counsel for the defendant was Johnson and Guigon and Spalding and Thomas. Immense not only packed the courtroom but the streets outside. The brother and sister of the murdered woman identified the clothes found in the trunk as those of their sister, and the stockings as those knit by her mother. The examination continued until the 24th and Phillips was sent on. He was in July examined before the Magistrate's Court, consisting of George D. Pleasants, W. H. Yeatman, J. F. Childrey, and John E. Friend. The body of the woman was again exhumed and identified as that of Mary Emily Pitts, who was married to Phillips by Rev. W. A. Baynham at her mother's, in Essex county, July, 1865. Phillips was in the Confederate service and was on a sick furlough and was nursed in the home of Mrs. Pitts, a widow. When he recovered he professed to love the girl and married her. ..........
......The day of retribution came at last, three years and nearly six months after the murder. By 10 A. M. the streets about the jail was crowded with people. Only a few were admitted to the execution. Phillips, who had been ironed and chained to the floor, was now released. The gallows on which the negro Taylor was hanged, originally built for Phillips, stood gaunt and dismal in the jail yard. Drs. Jeter and Dickinson marched with the prisoner to the gallows. He was pale but calm. After Sheriff Smith read the sentence, Dr. Jeter read the following confession from the culprit:
"RICHMOND, July 22, 1870.
"I, James Jeter Phillips, condemned to be hanged on the charge of murdering my wife, and expecting soon to appear in the presence of my Creator and Judge, make this full confession statement: I acknowledge that I am guilty of the crime for which I am condemned and deserve the punishment which the law denounces against me. The circumstances as brought out at the trial are for the most part correct. We had lived unhappily. Sunday evening my wife and I walked to Drinker's farm. My wife sat down and I shot her with a small parlor pistol which only hurt and stunned her but did not kill her. I then choked her and beat her to death. After that I walked back to Richmond and stayed at the St. Charles Hotel Sunday night."
At 1:20 the black cap was pulled over his face and at 1:25 the drop fell. The body was suspended for thirty minutes, and James Jeter Phillips was pronounced dead and the demands of the law were satisfied. Thus ended the most notable criminal case in the State of Virginia. .........
Source: Richmond, Her Past And Present, by William Ashbury Christian, manufactured by L. H. Jenkins, Richmond, Va., 1912; Pgs. 294-299