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The Witcher - Clement Case


The year 1860 was eventful for the little world in which Franklin County citizens lived and moved. A single local occurrence supplied Franklinites with a matter for speculation and conversation far into the 20th century. The occurrence was the killing of the three Clement brothers---James, William and Ralph---by Captain Vincent Witcher, John A. Smith, Vincent Oliver Smith, Samuel Swanson and Addison Witcher. Addison Witcher was the son of Vincent Witcher. John and Vincent Oliver Smith were his grandsons. Samuel Swanson was his son-in-law.

The affray had its beginning in the marriage of James Clement and Victoria Smith, which was celebrated on March 13, 1858. The groom was one of the ten children of Dr. George W. Clement. Dr. Clement (b. 1786, m. 1811, d. 186?) was educated in Hampden-Sidney College and in the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania. His mother, Stella Smith, was the daughter of Major John Smith of Lewis Island. Their Franklin County home was called "Mountain View." Victoria Smith (b.1837) was the daughter of Albert G. Smith and a granddaughter of Captain Vincent Witcher.

Both Clement and Smith families appeared to be pleased with the marriage, though it was brought out in the court proceedings following the killings, that the Smith family regarded the Clement family as of inferior social station. Dr. Clement was especially proud of the beauty, wit and vivacity of his daughter-in-law. Her magnetic personality gained her many admirers. It is said that two of her old sweethearts, William P. Gilbert and Samuel D. Berger, continued their attentions even after her marriage. Though these affairs were shown to be of an innocent nature, the extremely jealous disposition of her husband led him to charge her with unfaithfulness and to humiliate her constantly.

Fearing physical violence, Victoria Smith Clement fled from her husband on the night of August 24, 1859, and found refuge in the home of Sherwood Y. Shelton who lived about a mile distant. She left behind her six months old baby (Lelia Maud, b. March 1, 1859) so great was her terror at the moment of flight. This incident was made the basis of a divorce suit. Within three weeks from her flight, the taking of depositions was begun at Dickinson's Store, the same to be read as evidence in the suit then pending between John A. Smith, next friend of Victoria Smith Clement, plaintiff, against James R. Clement, defendant. The taking of depositions continued through the fall and winter, until Saturday, February 25, 1860, when the killing of the Clement brothers ended the suit.

The depositions of S.Y. Shelton, Charles Powell, Willis Woody, G.T. Berger, W.P. Gilbert, George Samson and Edney Shelton had been taken. Elizabeth W. Bennett had been called to make her statement. Captain Vincent Witcher objected to having her qualify and make part of her statement on Saturday "and then being left in the hands of the opposite party to be picked until Monday morning." Captain Witcher made the statement that Miss Bennett had been brought into the case by the Clements and was said to be under their control. Ralph Clement at this point said that "Whoever said that told a damned lie." Whereupon Captain Witcher replied "You had better make your remarks more direct," rose from his chair, put his hand in his bosom, drew there from a "five shooter," stepped toward Ralph Clement and began firing. Addison Witcher was conducting the examination for the plaintiff. Robert Mitchell was the justice of the peace before whom the depositions were being taken. His testimony in the trial of Captain Witcher, as recorded in the volume of depositions published by Dr. C.W. Clement, Sr., in June 1860, is not very impressive. He appears to have forgotten everything that transpired in his courtroom.

The bodies of the three brothers were not only riddled with bullets, but were horribly gashed with knives. William Clement was disemboweled. James Clement had his throat slit from ear to ear. Ralph Clement lived nearly three hours despite his frightful wounds, and made a dying declaration before Justice Mitchell and Gresham Choice which was written down by Mr. Choice. It read as follows: "I never attempted to draw an arm. Addison Witcher caught me and held me around the waist and arms and told them to come and shoot me---a damned rascal. I was shot several times while in that fix, and he held me until I fell. Numbers of pistols were fired at me then." To this dying declaration, Magistrate Mitchell added these words: "Ralph A. Clement requested me to tell his father that he wanted him to make the deed to his wife and child according to his will." Robert N. Powell stated in his deposition that Addison Witcher held Ralph Clement while Vincent Oliver Smith shot him. George Finney stated in his deposition that John Anthony Smith shot and stabbed James Clement. It was stated by several deponents that both James and William Clement were reclining on a bed in the counting room when the firing began. It was thought by a few that some of the early firing came from the bed. The pistols of both James and William Clement had been fired until empty, but Ralph Clement, it was testified had not drawn gun or dirk.

The bodies of the three slain brothers were carried from Washington Dickinson's counting room, in a farm wagon, and buried in a single grave near the shaded driveway which led up to the old brick house which was their boyhood home.

The trial of Captain Vincent Witcher and his accomplices was begun almost immediately in general justices' court commonly called magistrates' court. Benjamin F. Cooper and Richard Parker took the depositions of the following: Jacob C. Mackenheimer, Gresham Choice, James Kemp, John C. Hutcherson, James M. Hutcherson, Madison D. Carter, Cluffee M. Brooks, George W. Finney, R.N. Powell, John B. Law, James M. Givson, Silas W. Evans, William C. Poindexter, Gilly Ann Huffman, John C. Law, William H. Hutcherson and Alfred L.H. Muse. Names appearing in the 200 page printed volume of depositions are: Abram Hancock, Tom Keen, Samuel D. Berger, James Rice, Shack Law, Waller Wright, Silas Dudley, Samuel G. Martox, Snead Adams, D.W. Blunt, Henry C. Mease, Mastin Williams, and John Baker, the last named being referred to as "an Englishman."

The defendants claimed self-defense as justification for their killings and the charges against them were dismissed. In June 1860, the depositions, which were being taken when the killings occurred, were published in book form. After many years of searching, 1 found a copy and have had the same before me in writing this story. Dr. G.W. Clement, Sr., states in his foreword "To the Public" that "There were five justices on the bench of the Examining Court. Three of whom were in favour of discharging the accused, and two for sending them on to further trial." The courts record of the ease shows the close of the case in the following words: "At a court continued and held for Franklin County at the Court House on the 23rd day of March 1860, for the examination of Vincent Witcher, John A. Smith, Vincent 0. Smith, Samuel Swanson and Addison Witcher charged with the felonies aforesaid by them committed in this, that they did on the 25th day of February 1860, in the Counting Boom of Dickinson's Store in said county willfully, deliberately and with premeditation murder and kill Ralph A. Clement, James R. Clement and William C. Clement.

"Present: Richard M. Taliaferro, Robert Bush, Noses C. Greer, Jonathan H. McNeil and Isaac Cannady, General Justices.

"The said Vincent Witcher, John A. Smith, Vincent 0. Smith, Samuel Swanson and Addison Witcher were again led to the bar in custody of the jailer of this court. And the court having examined divers witnesses as well on behalf of the Commonwealth as of prisoners at the bar, who were heard in their defense by Counsel, is of the opinion that there is not probable cause for charging the said prisoners with the offense aforesaid and doth order that they be acquitted and go thereof without day."

For a half century, the acquittal of these men was pointed to by Franklin County citizens as an illustration of how extreme may be the miscarriage of justice. The Masonic fraternity in which membership was held by both the killers and the killed, did not treat the matter so lightly. After the court had, on the 23rd of March, acquitted the five men of the killings committed less than a month before, Thomas S. Muse and John P, Lovell, members of the Masonic Lodge which bore the name of Vincent Witcher, chief actor in the killings, wrote of the "unfortunate death of Brothers R.A, and James R. Clement who came to their death by the instrumentality of their brother in Masonry Vincent Witcher," and asked "that a committee of brethren be appointed whose duty it shall he to procure the evidence and make a report there from at our next regular communication." The reason given for "a thorough Masonic investigation," after the civil court had acquitted the killers, was stated in the following language: "The laws of a State are not the laws to try Brethren by who have offended against the Constitution and By laws of Masonry, that Civil law and Masonic law are as separate as Church and State." The Muse-Lovell document then asks, "Would the Civil law punish a Brother for violating the secrets and mysteries of Masonry or its Constitution?"

Vincent Witcher Lodge No. 87 was chartered December 15, 1852, and had 39 members in 1860. The report of this lodge to the Grand Lodge for the year 1860 shows the deaths of R.A. and James R. Clement. The membership of the lodge down to 1860 includes the name of Vincent Walker. The secretary of the Grand Lodge of Virginia, James N. Hillman, in a letter to the author writes, "I find no reference to him (Vincent Witcher) subsequent to 1860 in the list of expulsions, suspensions or membership. Evidently, something happened to him, but it is not reported in the minutes from that lodge." There were no returns from Vincent Witcher Lodge, No. 87, to the Grand Lodge, according to the minutes of 1860 to 1866. These were war years, however, and that fact, rather than the fratricidal strife, may be the explanation of the interruption of the lodge's activity. Vincent Witcher Lodge No. 87 lost its charter in 1885 for not having made a report in three years and in 1886 is marked extinct. The number it bore is now borne by Naomi Lodge in Norfolk, but the name of Vincent Witcher, who shed the blood of his brother Masons, has not been perpetuated by Masonry.


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