A Morbid Memento: The Trial of Kit Leftwich

Detail from Aero view of Bristol, Va.-Tenn. 1912. Courtesy of Library of Congress. In September 1895, Kit Leftwich (also known as Kit Leftridge) was indicted for the rape of Annie Fogarty, the 12-year-old daughter of his supervisor. The jury found the former slave not guilty of the charged rape, decreasing the indictment to attempted rape. Even so, the punishment was set at death by hanging. Kit Leftwich has the distinction of being the first person legally hanged in Bristol, Virginia, since its founding.

Lynching, a common form of ‘people’s justice’ at the time, had led to several public hangings. The case of Kit Leftwich was different because it ensured the public could not execute vigilante justice in place of law and order. When it became clear that the population of Bristol was too biased, a motion was passed for the jury summons to be sent to neighboring Washington County. The assumption was that the people farther from the case would be less aware of it. Even so, one of the jurors selected shared the surname of the presiding judge, so the impartiality may have been less than initially intended. Judge William F. Rhea had retired from the Virginia Senate in 1888, and would later serve in the United States House of Representative from 1899-1903.

With jurors selected and the charges set, the trial began on 10 September 1895. By the end of the next day, the evidence had been read and witnesses heard, and the jury had made a decision.

“We, the Jury, find the prisoner not guilty as charge within the indictment, but find him guilty of an attempt to commit the offense as charged in the indictment, and fix his punishment at death by hanging.     - J. Stanton King, Foreman”

Again due to concerns of vigilante justice, the court sent Kit Leftwich to wait for his hanging in the Lynchburg jail, away from any anger within the local jail. Leftwich returned to Bristol a month later to be hanged on 11 October between 10am and 2pm until dead. The hanging was attended by a large portion of the town, including some of the family of the victim. Leftwich died quickly, and was buried in a public cemetery.

Within the records kept in the clerk’s office are the indictment, the motions mentioned above, and the sentencing order. For many years, the clerks also kept the rope which was used to hang Kit Leftwich, and a newspaper article about the rope. Because this was the first hanging to ever legally occur in Bristol, it was a major event which had to be prepared for.

The city ordered special rope, sent in from Cincinnati, Ohio, and the sheriff received special instructions while in Lynchburg on how to properly conduct a hanging. Those preparations, including the purchase of the rope, were recalled six years later when Cicero Harris was convicted of murder and sentenced to be executed by hanging. A 1901 Richmond Dispatch article refers to the possible reuse of the rope that ended Kit Leftwich’s life.

In the late 1980s, both the 1895 newspaper article and the rope were transferred to the sheriff’s department for safekeeping, before being transferred again to the Bristol Virginia Historical Association where they remain today.

–Cheyenne Campbell, former intern, Bristol (VA) Circuit Court Clerk’s office

Posted by in Local Records Blog Posts.

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  1. Jon Kukla said:
    6 December 2017 at 11:27 am

    Story well told. Minor matter, though, in legal/ criminal usage (as distinct from displaying paintings etc) the past tense of hang is hanged rather than hung.

    • Vince said:
      6 December 2017 at 11:28 am

      Thank you for the correction, Jon.

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