The Murder of Joseph H. James: Part II

When I was in the gym the other morning I saw a commercial for Fancy graphics and promises of using your DNA to discover, in the case of the scenario in the commercial, that your ancestor was an Irish fisherman with blue eyes – and lo and behold, you’re an American fisherman with blue eyes!

That genetic predisposition for fishing must be strong!

On with the story.

Life Goes On

By the early 1880s federal troops no longer occupied the former states of the Confederacy and attempts at returning to the pre-war caste system were getting underway. In 1883 the US Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited racial discrimination in public places, was unconstitutional.

The practice of lynching would become more widespread throughout the south as whites began to work to re-establish political and social supremacy. Tobacco was taking its place as the primary agricultural mover in North Carolina and some recovery from the economic collapse of the Civil War was being felt, albeit unevenly.

In the next few decades, the children of Confederate veterans would begin to mythologize the Civil War in order to counterbalance their increasing reliance on northern investment. The platform of “white supremacy” would become a major part of the politics of the day and would ultimately lead to the violent coup in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898.

But for Joseph Harden James, an illiterate farmer who had endured the war and life in a prison camp, life was probably much more local in scope. The world of what we call “History” likely did not hold much of his attention.

Along with farming, Joseph apparently decided to go into the business of distilling spirits. In March 1881 he paid Philip Kiser $1 for the right to distill spirits on a piece of Philip’s land and later, in May 1882, Joseph paid Philip $1 for the right to continue distilling for five more years.

Alcohol, Bigamy, and murder

For several years, May 1882 was the most recent record I had for Joseph Harden James. Here are some of my notes from that time:

JH James dies sometime between 2 May 1882 (Deed) and 16 Dec 1885 (Amanda attests to his being dec’d) [this was in a deed]

At the time of Jonathan’s death, Harden is the only one left out of the will [Jonathan, his father, died in 1894]

Though I was no longer operating under the assumption that Amanda had died while married to Joseph (since she attested to his death in 1885) I simply assumed that he had run out on her. At that time I didn’t know that Amanda and Joseph Harden had been divorced. 

Of course, the only authority I have regarding their divorce is the marriage record for Sarah Salena and Joseph Harden, which was recorded in Virginia rather than North Carolina.

I believe now that Joseph Harden and Amanda never actually divorced but that Joseph and Sarah Salena went to Virginia to get married in the hope that there would be no evidence of his marriage to Amanda. What could the officials in Virginia do anyway – run a background check?

[Addendum, April 2021]: Joseph Harden never divorced Amanda. According to a legal document attested to by Harden Wilkerson, Joseph’s son, Joseph left NC for a few months while Harden Wilkerson was a small boy and “carried with him a woman by the name of Solena George, who was the mother of the said ‘Riley and Daniel’, and that he came back within a few months thereafter, and lived, at intervals, with the said Solena George, until his death in the year, 1883.”

This document was the result of Riley George and Daniel George trying to inherit some of the land of Joseph Harden’s brother, Leander. Harden Wilkerson was the plaintiff in a complaint, asserting he was the only legal heir to anything from his father’s family. Though the marriage certificate in Virginia for Joseph Harden and Salena stated that Joseph Harden and Amanda were divorced, Joseph lied about this. [end addendum]

So, in 1883 the year began with Joseph Harden distilling spirits on Philip Kiser’s property and running his own farm. His son Sidney Manuel would be born on 5 July 1883 – just a day after Joseph and Salena’s fifth wedding anniversary (yay!).

In May 2015 my second cousin once removed, Mr. Jerry Ring, e-mailed me information that he’d been forwarded by Theresa Hutchins of Dobson, North Carolina. It was a clipping from the People’s Press, a newspaper in Dobson that ran from 1851 to 1892.

Murder of Joseph Harden James.
People’s Press, 4 October 1883

Well dang.

The Trial(s) of Virgil Isaac Spease

Virgil Isaac Spease was born on 24 September 1860 to Israel Spease and his wife, Mary Hauser.

In the 1880 census, Virgil was listed as being nineteen years old and living on his father’s land, working as a farm laborer.

On 1 October 1883, Virgil (aged 22) and Joseph (aged 40) were both at Rominger’s bar-room near Five Forks, North Carolina. According to the website for the town of King, North Carolina:

The village of Five Forks, so named because of the five roads that converged there, was a lively place beginning about 1871 when a post office was established in that location. Five Forks was on the stage coach road which connected Bethania to the Hollow Road at Trinity Church and continued north. Although the center of business shifted to the King area and the Five Forks post office eventually closed, the construction of Highway 52 and Interstate 74 have encouraged a second growth of business in the Five Forks area in more modern times.

The People’s Press of the time is peppered with advertisements for the stagecoach road.

The Rominger name was and is still prevalent in Stokes County (as is James, actually). I’m not sure exactly where the “bar-room” was but it was probably an informal establishment more than what we’d imagine today.

Whatever else happened, Joseph Harden and Virgil fought. Joseph was hurt and died the following day.

Virgil fled and managed to evade authorities for three years.

Israel Speece murder of JH James
People’s Press, 16 September 1886 (also, I’m glad Mrs. Weir survived falling into that well – geez. They also accidentally call Virgil by his father’s name)

I don’t know where Virgil was all that time. Maybe he fled to Virginia since Stokes is on the state line. I’ve tried locating some of his descendants (for vengeance!) but to no avail. I’d be interested to know if they’re aware of all of this.

Virgil went to trial in November 1886.

Trial of Spease, Virgil
People’s Press, 25 November 1886

There would be two mistrials. Then, in June 1887, Virgil’s trial ended.

Virgil Spease not guilty of the murder of Joseph Harden James.
People’s Press, 2 June 1887

If there are court documents from the whole affair then I haven’t seen them. There seems absolute certainty about Spease’s guilt, at least in the press, yet two mistrials and an acquittal was the result.

According to his death certificate, Virgil Spease died a widower on 16 March 1948 at the age of 87 and was buried at Tabernacle Methodist Church in Forsyth County, North Carolina. Spease died of cardiovascular disease, according to the same certificate.


How did Sarah Salena live the rest of her life after her husband was murdered? She was suddenly a widow with four children all under the age of ten. I don’t know.

Sarah would live the rest of her life in Salem Chapel, North Carolina, north of Winston-Salem. She would live there with her sons until she died in 1916. She was buried at Red Bank Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery in Germanton, North Carolina.

George, Sarah S
“Sarah S George, Wife of Harden James”

Apparently, Sarah reverted back to her maiden name after the murder and so did all of her sons with the except of Amos Thornton James.

During my research, I had the opportunity to make contact with one of the descendants of William Riley George, Sarah, and Joseph’s second son. There’s definitely a befuddled hesitancy and shame surrounding Joseph Harden. Often referred to as “granddaddy” by people I’ve spoken with, Joseph Harden nonetheless is a source of confusion to his descendants.

Remember, I’m descended from the only child that Joseph had with his first wife, Amanda: Harden Wilkerson James.

Harden was living with his grandfather Jonathan James in 1880. I don’t know how Amanda lived after Joseph married Sarah Salena. I do know that when Amanda died in 1899 she died without leaving a will. Her personal estate was valued at roughly $70.

Her estate was administered by relatives of Harden Wilkerson, as Harden was found for some reason to be incompetent to administer it himself.

Harden Wilkerson’s son, Marshall, bought land from William Riley and his wife in 1922. In the deed, William Riley’s surname is listed as being “James.”

Go figure.

Memory is so very, very fallible. Do you remember whether you washed your hands before lunch yesterday? Did you turn off the light before you left the room?

Yet we place such importance on eyewitnesses. We should not think of memory as a camera – it’s more like a finger-painting that never dries.

The story of Joseph Harden’s murder likely evolved as generations passed. A mixture of shame, awkwardness, anger, and fear produced the garbled, “goose-necked hoe” legend that I inherited over a century later.

The same can happen with “illustrious” ancestors. When I retell a story of something that happened to me I may embellish it without even realizing. Those embellishments then become a part of what “really” happened. Small exaggerations, even just the tone in which something is told, can turn a simple life into a life full of Forrest Gump-style encounters.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s