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August 29, 2016 / Joanne Yeck

The Famous Forbes Case of Buckingham County: Part XXXIII

Arson_33_Wooldridge Takes The Stand

Wooldridge Takes the Stand

On July 26, 1904, when Cliff Wooldridge took the stand in his own defense, it was the moment Buckingham County had waited for. Baltimore’s The Sun ran a brief update, succinctly evoking the scene in Buckingham’s courtroom:

The last witness in the Wooldridge trial at Buckingham Courthouse today for burning the Forbes homestead was Wooldridge himself. Gaunt, hollow-eyed and extremely nervous, he sat for hours in the witness chair and maintained his self possession throughout. His testimony was given almost wholly in reply to question and was succinct, clear and direct.

The courthouse was packed with eager listeners, many being women, but the utmost stillness reigned, and everyone felt that Wooldridge, who was using every faculty in a fight for his life, battled manfully. His testimony manifestly made an impression on the jury and his friends were much encouraged by the result.

Richmond’s The Times-Dispatch did not let its readers down when, on July 27th, the newspaper ran yet another lengthy, front-page account of what took place at the trial. What a loss that the correspondent’s name never appeared in the newspaper. Was he a Buckingham native we might recognize? Or a sophisticated Richmonder who might be a known journalist?

The report made by The Times-Dispatch was particularly thorough. It began:

The unexpected has happened to-day. Cliff Wooldridge took the stand in his own defense at 9:30 o’clock this morning, and, after four hours of intense testimony, with the most rigid cross examination ever heard of in the history of this court, proved himself to be the best witness, according to those who ought to know, that ever testified before a Buckingham court. It is hardly correct to say that the great crowd was surprised – it was astounded. To be explicit, it has been talked freely and openly here ever since the trial began that when E. C. Wooldridge was placed on the stand, if the defense dared to do such a risky thing, his own words would convict him; that whether guilty or innocent, he would convict himself with his own testimony.

Those who believed him guilty thought he could not keep his guilt concealed, while those who were confident of his innocence feared that his peculiar gregariousness and incessant tongue would certainly mislead every one in the hearing of his voice. But Wooldridge did not do the way people thought he would do.

Again, the newspaper did not disappoint and kept its coverage thrilling. An astounded crowd, an articulate Cliff Wooldridge, and a dogged prosecution kept everyone present on the edge of his (or her remarkably pretty and youthful) seat. Even with less hyperbole, Wooldridge apparently was convincing in his own defense. Clearly Congressman Flood had coached his client well. The Times-Dispatch continued:

While appearing a little nervous, he took the stand like one confident of his innocence, fully determined to tell what he knew of the case and nothing else. 4 hours of close examination did not seem to effect his testimony at all. . . .

When the prisoner was brought into the court this morning a large room was beginning to fill with people. There was an air of expectancy and almost perfect quiet reigned.

Wooldridge described how “the negro boy” came to his house and informed him about the fire at John S. Forbes’ farm. He told how he went to Appomattox. Then Wooldridge was cross questioned about Alexander Forbes’ testimony. Forbes claimed that Wooldridge called Charlie Forbes a dangerous man and that Wooldridge had predicted there would soon be a “big bust up” at the Forbes’ farm. Wooldridge did not remember the conversation; however, he did admit:

“We were talking about Charlie Forbes visiting, and there was something said about his drinking, and I said he is rather a dangerous man, and there may be a bust up if he gets at that.” Forbes, he said was accustomed to visiting Dick Forbes’s where brandy was kept. He said that his relations with Charlie Forbes were entirely pleasant, but not at all intimate. He said Forbes seldom visited his house.

Charlie Forbes had a drinking problem? Dick Forbes kept brandy? (And Wooldridge knew this?) These are fascinating new details in the trial. Did the jury connect this statement with Wooldridge’s comments to others about drunks setting fire to the Forbes’ farm?

Also, it should be recalled that, in the summer of 1904, temperance ruled in Buckingham County and all but one saloon had been closed, making the illegal sale of liquor (both homemade and “imported”) a new criminal problem in the county. Need to catch up on the temperance movement in Buckingham County? Click here for “The Whiskey Wars.”

Coming Next: Wooldridge’s Remarkable Defense

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

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