Courting History

Courting History

Loudoun Murders Shape County Courts

John Fishback’s office is located in the basement of Loudoun County Circuit Court off Market Street in Leesburg, behind racks of case files and court orders that date back 200 years. The courthouse itself was built in 1894. The books in it contain some of Loudoun’s most talked about court cases that helped shaped the court system Loudoun residents know today.

<sh>Slave Mercer

<bt>In 1768, a slave by the name of Mercer was arrested and charged with murder. The judge ordered Mercer to be hanged, Fishback said, and after he died, his head was chopped off and placed on a spike next to the gallows.

"His body was cut into four pieces," he said, "and put in the four corners of the county."

<sh>The Last of its Kind

<bt>A piece of land referred to as Potter’s Field is now home to a Leesburg shopping center. According to Fishback, Catoctin Corner is on land with an infamous place in county history.

In the 1700s, a black slave was arrested and charged with rape. While he was being held in jail, a group of white men, Fishback described as vigilantes, stormed his cell, kidnapped him. The men brought him out to Potter’s Field and hung him.

"That was supposedly the last hanging in Loudoun County," Fishback said.

<sh>Defense Team Makes Loudoun History

<bt>George Crawford, a black man accused of murder, fought his way through Loudoun County Circuit Court all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and back again in search of a fair trial.

Crawford allegedly murdered Middleburg socialite Agnes B. Ilsley and her maid, Nina Buckner, Jan. 13, 1942. The women’s bodies were found stabbed to death in their beds, Fishback said.

According to court documents, a Loudoun County Circuit Court judge selected 48 white men to serve as Crawford’s jury.

In order to serve on a jury at that time, Fishback said, a person had to own land and pay the poll tax.

"Obviously there were a lot of black land owners then who paid their taxes," Fishback said, "but they were never selected for juries."

Crawford was enraged, and so, he fled to Boston, Mass., for fear that he would be discriminated against in court.

Crawford was located by local law enforcement, but a U.S. District Court judge refused to extradite him to Virginia for fear of mistrial.

So, the NAACP commissioned a Howard University defense team led by Charles Hamilton Houston to defend Crawford.

The case traveled from Loudoun County Circuit Court to federal court to the U.S. Supreme Court, then back to federal court and finally it was sent back to Virginia for trial.

For the first time in Loudoun history, a judge sentenced a black man convicted of murder to life in prison, rather than the death sentence.

"That was a victory in itself to some extent," Fishback said.

Fishback also noted that there were no women on the jury.

"This was a battle of equality on two counts. There were no woman on the jury either and this is way past suffrage," Fishback said. "It was a completely different world not too long ago."

It is rumored that Thurgood Marshall, the first black to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, served on Houston’s defense team, but there’s no proof of that, Fishback said.

It is said that the verdict convinced Marshall that blacks can receive justice in the South and changed his corporate law plans to a career in civil rights.

<sh>Some Kind of Love Story

<bt>When Nelson Gant was freed from his owners in Loudoun County in October 1846, he fled to Washington, D.C. After a few months, he returned to Loudoun County for his wife, Maria Gant, who belonged to C.A.E. Jane Russell. After Gant rescued his wife, her mistress called law enforcement, and Gant was arrested for larceny. He was found not guilty.

"Supposedly, he raised enough money to buy his wife, and she was emancipated, but that’s not in the books," Fishback said. "It’s a love story really."

Fishback said Gant bought his wife for $400.

The Commonwealth of Virginia at that time had a law that any freed slave had to leave the state within 12 months.

"It was a long process, so he was here for over 12 months," Fishback said. "So, he was brought back to court."

When a deputy sheriff tired to serve him papers, Gant was not home.

In 1850, Gant moved his wife and children to Ohio, Fishback said.

"And they lived there the rest of their lives."