Murder, Honor, and Law: Four Virginia Homicides from Reconstruction to the Great Depression

Article excerpt

Murder, Honor, and Law: Four Virginia Homicides From Reconstruction to the Great Depression. By RICHARD F. HAMM. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003. xiv, 263 pp. $49.50 cloth; $18.50 paper.

Murder, Honor, and Law has two goals-to trace the fall of Virginia's cult of honor and to interrogate the changing nature of southern exceptionalism. It pursues these themes by evaluating a series of four murder trials and their national and regional press coverage in the seventy years after the Civil War. It is most successful in its vivid description and evaluation of each of the cases individually-they are fascinating events, and their intriguing qualities are fully displayed here. The overall arguments about honor and exceptionalism are, however, forced; indeed, two of the four cases have little to do with honor at all.

Each of the crimes under scrutiny here is worthy of our attention, and Richard Hamm tells their stories well. The first is the most clearly centered on the book's themes: in 1868, Richmond editor Henry Rives Pollard was gunned down by a prominent Virginian who felt his family slighted by Pollard's editorial venom. Although this assassination violated the code duello, the perpetrator was acquitted and even cheered by a crowd for his violent protection of his sister's reputation. Honor is clearly an operative issue in this case, invoked by the defense, prosecution, and press. Hamm nicely contrasts Virginia's vision of honor with the very different view of this murder in the national press.

The rest of the book leans heavily upon the strong thematic power of the Pollard murder, for in none of the other cases were the themes of honor and southern/Virginia exceptionalism so clearly important. Regarding honor, the closest comparison would be the 1907 murder of Theodore Estes by W. G. Loving, the father of a young woman Estes took on a ride in the country. Eoving presumed his daughter had been drugged and violated, and he blasted Estes with a shotgun the following day. "The so-called unwritten law" (p. 97) defending women from predators-a concept related to the code of honor-was clearly important to any debate over this case.

Hamm stretches his themes, however, in the other two case studies. …