In 1879, Charles C. Curtis was working at the retail store of Wingo, Ellett, and Crump at 1000 Main Street in Richmond. A customer, a young lady named Isabel Cottrell, visited the store to try on a pair of shoes, and found Mr. Curtis’s behavior “exceedingly offensive.” Instead of allowing her to put the shoes on, he insisted on holding the shoe for her to put her foot in and on buttoning the shoe after she had “begged him” to let her do it herself. She encountered Mr. Curtis on a second visit to pick up a pair of shoes she had ordered, and he insisted that she try them on in the store. Cottrell instead took the shoes home.
On a third visit, she took both pairs of shoes back to the store “with the purpose of leaving one pair of shoes and having the heels of the other plated.” Cotrell claimed Curtis opened the bundle of shoes and remarked, in a rather impertinent way, “what a pretty little shoe, I certainly would like to put them on you. I don’t see how you can walk with such a foot.” Ms. Cottrell “was very much provoked, and told him he would oblige [her] by not commenting on [her] foot.” She was further annoyed when Curtis accompanied her to the phaeton, where a friend was waiting. He “gave my arm a very severe grip,” Cottrell remarked to her friend and claimed that she would never go into the store again as long as he was employed there. She considered Curtis “not only unrefined, but insulting.” She then told her “intimate acquaintance,” John E. Poindexter, of these circumstances, and he “seemed very angry” and declared that he would “have to horsewhip the fellow.”
Later, John Poindexter got his brother and went to the shoe store to confront Curtis. After being sure that Curtis was the man he was looking for, he “pulled out a riding whip and struck Curtis eight or ten times.” Poindexter accused him of “insulting a lady,” and Curtis claimed to “have no knowledge of it, but if he had, he begged her pardon.” After another salesman in the store intervened, the brothers left the store.
After the confrontation, Curtis decided to seek the advice of friends upon this “point of honor.” After explaining the incident, Tazewell Ellet told him “the proper thing to do is…to go and kill him.” But another friend, Francis McGuire, replied that he “cannot do that, his character as a Christian and member of the church prevents it.”
After Curtis acknowledged that he could not kill Poindexter, McGuire told him, “you must see him at once and demand a full and immediate apology, and if not given…beat him.” McGuire then offered to accompany him “to stand by [him] and see fair play.” They both went to Poindexter’s place of business to confront him on 3 March 1879. Curtis, carrying a stick, walked toward Poindexter and demanded an apology. Poindexter replied, “If you strike me with that stick, I will shoot you.” Curtis said, “I am unarmed.” McGuire then urged Curtis on by saying, “hit him, hit him, knock him in the head, or kill him, kill him…” As Curtis advanced on Poindexter and struck him with the stick, Poindexter began firing until Curtis fell. At which point, Poindexter said “I didn’t want to shoot him…let’s try and do something for the man.”
Charles C. Curtis died of the effects of pistol shot wounds on 4 March 1879. The testimony and investigation into his death can be found in the Richmond Coroners’ Inquisitions, dated 4 March 1879. The collection is available at the Library of Virginia but is currently closed for processing.
We were not alone here at the Library of Virginia in finding this story intriguing. Reporter Herbert T. Ezekiel also remarked on the story in his The Recollections of a Virginia Newspaper Man, published in 1920. Ezekiel found the story noteworthy because Poindexter’s whipping of Curtis was the last instance of cowhiding, or horsewhipping, on record in the state of Virginia before the State Legislature passed a law making it a felony.
-Mary Dean Carter, Local Records Archival Assistant
Isabel Cottrell and John E. Poindexter were married on 10 Feb. 1880 in Henrico Co.