This is the latest entry in a series of posts highlighting early parole records in the Virginia Penitentiary. Edmonia M. Peebles, the subject of this week’s post, brutally killed her husband. Her subsequent manslaughter conviction as well as the decision to grant her parole was controversial.
On the afternoon of 31 August 1907, David C. Peebles and his 11-year-old daughter Mary Sue arrived at their home in Bedford County, having spent several days in Lynchburg. His wife, Edmonia, was working in their detached kitchen. David was drunk and argumentative.
David cursed her and accused her of neglecting her responsibilities. Edmonia responded that “if I were a man I’d give you a good thrashing, but I can’t beat you.” Enraged, David attempted to choke her; Edmonia grabbed a stove-lifter and stuck him several times on the head. Peebles grabbed an axe handle and beat her with it. Edmonia got away from him, ran into the house, grabbed a shotgun and returned to the kitchen. Peebles was washing the blood off his face. “You see that don’t you?” he shouted. “You made me do it,” Edmonia replied, “but I want to know if you are going to beat me anymore.” Peebles grabbed the axe and started towards her. “I am not going to let you beat me with that,” Edmonia cried, “I’ll shoot if you don’t” stop. David continued toward her and replied, “I am not afraid of your damn bluff.” Edmonia fired. The shotgun blast shattered David’s lower jaw cutting off part of his tongue. He fell but got up and chased her outside. They struggled over the gun. Edmonia grabbed a rock and struck him in the head repeatedly. These fatal blows fractured David’s skull driving a portion of it into his brain.
Edmonia Peebles trial for the murder of her husband began on 10 December 1907. Two of her children, Mary Sue and Clinton, age 16, both testified for the prosecution. Edmonia pleaded self-defense. Testifying on her own behalf, Edmonia described a brutal 16-year marriage to David. He was often drunk, beat and kicked her, once cut her with a hatchet, and even attacked her with a razor while pregnant. The child was born dead. Other witnesses described David’s drunkenness and ill-temper. The trial ended with a hung jury. One juror voted for acquittal, seven for murder in the second degree and four for voluntary manslaughter. Peebles was not out of legal jeopardy. Her second trial began on 4 May 1908. This time Peebles was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in the penitentiary.
In his plea to Governor Claude Swanson for clemency, Clarence Campbell, Edmonia’s attorney, stated that the jury at her second trial initially stood at three for acquittal and nine for conviction. The jury compromised on the verdict and gave Peebles a short sentence. Judge W.R. Barksdale, who presided over Edmonia’s second trial, opposed clemency. “The murder was one of the most horrible and brutal that I ever heard or knew of,” Barksdale wrote to Governor Swanson on 25 February 1909. He added that “Mrs. Peebles ought to congratulate herself that she was not sent for at least ten instead of the two years at the Pen.” Swanson denied the pardon request. However, the Penitentiary Board of Directors paroled Peebles on 23 June 1909. Penitentiary Superintendent E.F. Morgan opposed her release. “At the time this woman was paroled,” Morgan wrote to S.M. Bolling, Circuit Court Clerk of Bedford County, on 31 August 1909, “I considered it a very unwise move on the part of my Board, as I have always considered the crime for which she was convicted a very atrocious crime.”
Edmonia Peebles did not leave the Penitentiary quietly. Just one day after her parole, she wrote Superintendent Morgan a scathing letter accusing Penitentiary employees of stealing a gold neck chain and various articles of clothing. After an investigation by Morgan rebutting the charges, Peebles responded that she was mistaken and had found all of the missing articles. In August 1909, Bedford County officials threatened to send Peebles back to the Penitentiary for violating her parole. She was charged with using abusive language to the wife of a tenant on her farm and with unmercifully whipping her own child. The outcome of this case is unknown. In 1912, Peebles wrote Governor William Mann asking to be released from the costs of an unnamed prosecution against her as a reward. While in the Bedford County jail for this unnamed crime, Peebles informed the officers that another prisoner had a key to unlock the cells. Henry Humphreys, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Bedford County, suggested to Governor Mann in a letter dated 3 August 1912 that “instead of entering an Order for the remission of the cost, that you can simply advise me to hold up any proceedings looking to the collections” and “this will answer the same purpose.” Humphreys added that “this would be better than releasing the costs altogether, as it would be a good plan to hold it over her somewhat in the nature of a suspended sentence.” Governor Mann concurred. There is no record of Peebles ever being returned to the Penitentiary.
Next week: Joe Perry, 6733
-Roger Christman, Senior State Records Archivist