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July 11, 2016 / Joanne Yeck

The Famous Forbes Case of Buckingham County: Part XX

Arson_20_Times-Dispatch

 

The Grand Jury

Quiet did not last long in Maysville. On June 16, 1904, a grand jury gathered to consider the indictments prepared by the Commonwealth’s Attorney and hear selected witnesses. At this juncture in the process, the grand jury hears only the Commonwealth’s side of a case and does not determine the guilt or innocence of those accused. According to The Times-Dispatch the grand jury for the Wooldridge-Forbes case found a “true bill” (i.e. a valid case) against the three man: Charlie Forbes, Cliff Wooldridge, and his son, Dan. The newspaper article continued enthusiastically about one witness in particular — Nancy Morgan:

The testimony of old “Aunt” Nancy Morgan, the colored woman, who was in the house at the time of the fire, is looked forward to with much interest. A grand juror, of much intelligence and experience, said she made by far the best and most dramatic witness he had ever seen in his life. Her uncanny and weird account of the fire will be told with full force early in the trial.

In a later issue of the Appomattox and Buckingham Times [6/22/1904], the paper expanded on “Aunt” Nancy’s testimony, stating:

Old Aunt Nancy Morgan, a splendid type of the old-time negro, talks intelligently, but must have time to chew and smoke. She says Mars [Master] Charlie didn’t have anything to do with the fire. The old negro sticks to Miss Janie Forbes and the Forbes brothers, in the belief of young Forbes’s innocence.

Anticipating the trial to come, The Times-Dispatch printed:

Witnesses will be brought from Lynchburg to testify that Charlie Forbes was in that city on the night of the fire and the night following.

Miss Janie Forbes will give the most valuable evidence in the whole case. She is a young girl of fine sense and great personal beauty, and is one of the most popular girls in the county.

Taking everything into consideration, the case will be the most remarkable one of its kind ever tried in the State, and there is little doubt that the sensations already brought out will be vastly augmented by others.

There will be probably between fifty and seventy-five witnesses, the majority of them being Commonwealth witnesses. All of the attorneys employed in the case, will be at hand fully prepared to enter a legal battle seldom equal in the history of the State.

~

By June 17th, Cliff Wooldridge was being tried in the newspapers. Baltimore’s The Sun stated that though there was “no direct evidence” against him, it was being said that Wooldridge had burned John Forbes’ buildings “in order to depreciate the value of the Forbes farm and then annex it to his own at the cost of a few dollars an acre.” The Sun continued:

When Forbes died, Woolridge wrote to the county newspaper, saying that he had lived without an enemy and otherwise paying tribute to his memory. Soon after [that] he was arrested and put in jail.

Wooldridge is a keen-eyed, grizzled man of 55 or 60 years. He has struggled from poverty and a humble position in life to be a landowner, magistrate and political power. Many years ago he eloped with and married a niece of the man whose home [he is] charged with having burned. What the members of the Forbes family thought of this alliance was expressed by one of the young Forbes with an ax on the head of Wooldridge.

Wooldridge’s neighbors at that time expected his departure for another world, but he recovered.

Assuming all that The Sun reported about Wooldridge’s past association with the Forbes family was true, theirs was, at best, a rocky relationship. Deep grudges often fuel violent action and preliminary testimony had already indicated that Wooldridge had an excitable personality.

Coming Next: Buckingham County’s Most Mysterious Trial

Need to catch up? Click here for The Famous Forbes Case of Buckingham County: Part I

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