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August 22, 2016 / Joanne Yeck

The Famous Forbes Case of Buckingham County: Part XXXI

Arson_31_Buckingham-Courthouse

Buckingham County Courthouse

A Three-ring Circus

On Monday, July 25th, Cliff Wooldridge was back in Buckingham County’s courthouse. Baltimore’s The American commented:

The Wooldridge trial, at Buckingham Courthouse, commenced a new week with the interest at an intense pitch and the courthouse was crowded, many women occupying seats. The jurors after a day’s rest and attending church and singing in the choir, were fresh and attentive.

On Tuesday, July 26th, detailed coverage of the trial appeared again in The Times-Dispatch. Monday’s session was nothing short of a three-ring circus, ending in a sensational announcement. In brief, it went something like this:

Janie Forbes was called to the stand and discussed the “mysterious pistol.” Her testimony was not particularly helpful as to its whereabouts. Commonweath’s Attorney Hubard interjected that it could be traced to Wooldridge’s house. Judge Hundley ordered that it be produced if counsel so desired.

Janie was also asked about correspondence with Edloe Spencer and his family. Apparently, Cliff Wooldridge had instigated this and Janie did not object to his involvement. Details of the contents of the correspondence were not disclosed in the newspaper except that the Spencers invited Janie to come to Farmville and stay with them. As reported in the newspaper, this line of questioning was unclear in its purpose. It was clear, though, that Spencer continued to meddle in the case.

Three of the Wooldridge daughters were in court, each one prettier than the next. Maud and Mayzie testified as to their father’s whereabouts during and immediately after the fire. According to Maud, he was in their house at 12:30 AM that night.

Rev. John Spencer, who had served on the grand jury, addressed Cliff Wooldridge’s strange manner of speaking, saying that he was a man “who speaks in parables.” When Judge Hundley asked what he meant by that, Rev. Spencer explained that “Wooldridge was a man who had a peculiar and a round-about way of telling things he knew.”

Witness W. D. Davidson, of Buckingham, caused a lot of confusion and was finally fined $10.00 for contempt of court. He grew up with Wooldridge and described himself as “an unlearned man.” His behavior in court supported this statement and he completely frustrated Aubrey Strode during his questioning. At one point, Strode said, “Stand aside! We have enough from you.” Despite Davidson’s lack of understanding of courtroom procedure, he did manage to clear up a misunderstanding about Wooldridge’s shoes and the tracks at the Forbes farm, explaining they were made when he and Wooldridge examined the burned buildings.”

A later opinion piece in the Appomattox and Buckingham Times rather bluntly clarified “Ben” Davidson’s appearance in court:

When old man Ben Davidson took the stand to testify everybody seemed interested. He was the most picturesque of all the witnesses. He is a large and tall man, with bushy iron gray whiskers – a typical backwoodsman in every possible respect. His home is in a remote section of the county buried in the woods. He is the only man in the county who wears homespun . . . and even these clothes are cut according to a style which was in vogue back in the fifties of the last century. When Davidson goes to Farmville once a year to take his tobacco to market, he does not take along a box of axle grease to grease his wagon wheels with, as many of his more up-to-date neighbors do, but he is primitive enough to tie a bucket of pine tar, to the coupling-pole of his wagon, which is homemade, and let it swing as buckets swung long before the time of the Civil War.

When Ben Davidson took the stand it was his first experience before a court. He was grotesque in his simplicity. He told his story with the utmost simplicity, but he was badly scared, and didn’t know whether to address his remarks to the Judge, the jury, the lawyers, or the spectators.

The Judge did not understand Mr. Davidson. Davidson acted so peculiarly that the Judge thought this behavior was put on. What he thought was disobedience was nothing more than excitement under the stress of the most unusual and trying circumstances. It could be seen that Davidson would have given his best shoat at home if he could just get out [of] that courtroom and go home.

When the judge exclaimed, “Fine that men ten dollars for contempt of court!” Davidson’s mouth dropped open, and he was surprised and astounded as no other man has been in the history of old Buckingham.

When at last he had borrowed ten dollars to pay his fine with, and was given permission to leave the courtroom, he found his way out of the court house, stole around a by-lane where his grey horse was tied, found a near cut road leading to his home out towards Spear’s Mountain, and left the village behind him. He met a friend on the road but he did not stop to speak.

An old farmer who knew Davidson said: – “Old men Ben Davidson has done cut out for home. I’ll bet my farm he never steps his foot in four miles of a court house again as long as he lives!” and several others said – “An’ nowhar’ else.”

He is said to be the best road overseer in the county.

~

Then, late in the day, Sheriff William Williams burst into the courtroom and made a startling announcement.

Coming next: Sheriff Williams’ Announcement

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

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