Sunday, October 11, 2015

52 Ancestors #41: Did An Affair Lead to Murder?

Ancestory Name: Harold Elmo Vaden (1894-1928) and Virginia Lee Foster (1901-unknown)

Another story I learned while researching the descendants of John William Jennings, Jr. and his wife, Elizabeth "Eliza" Ann Vernon, was the story of my third cousin once removed, Virginia Lee Foster. She was born about 1901 in Staunton, Virginia, to Leroy Winfield and Ann Elizabeth "Annie Eliza" (Henson) Foster. She was their middle child, though her younger brother died before his first birthday. Her father worked as a shipping clerk. By 1909 Leroy had moved his family to Lynchburg and was working as a grocer.

Virginia spent the rest of her childhood in Lynchburg and married Harold "Harry" Elmo Vaden there on 14 May 1918. Virginia was 17 years old and Harry was 23. He worked as a traveling salesman for C. H. Beasley & Brothers, which was owned by Virginia's mother's half-brother, Charles Henry Beasley. Virginia and Harry had three children between 1920 and 1926. Vaden was born in Pittsylvania County and by 1928 he and his family lived in Gretna, Virginia, a small town in the county.

On 15 February 1928 the former mayer of Gretna, Dennis E. Webb, shot and killed Harry Vaden. There was an all-day court proceeding on 3 March in Chatham in which Mr. Webb's case was bound over for grand jury action. Witness testimony was contradictory. Two state witnesses testified that Webb shot first but one, who admitted being a friend of Webb's, believed Vaden fired the first shot.

Greensboro Daily News, 4 March 1928; courtesy
of the North Carolina State Archives

Harry Vaden's brother testified, as well, and it was during his testimony that the motive was revealed. According to an article in the Greensboro Daily News, R. C. Vaden stated, "that his brother had told him that he had received an anonymous letter informing him that his wife had been seen riding at night with Webb." Vaden's testimony continued, "his brother told him he went to see Webb, taxed him with the situation, whereupon Webb entered a denial, agreeing, however, to leave Gretna for good."

Another man testified that just before the shooting, Vaden approached Webb saying, "I thought I told you to leave town a week ago." Seconds later, Vaden was dead.

An earlier article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about Vaden's funeral had this to say about the fatal incident:

"Webb will plead self-defense, insisting that as Vaden fired the first shot he, Webb grasped the pistol thereby causing the shot intended for Webb to strike the walk, and that Webb then opened fire on Vaden. The Commonwealth will attempt to prove that Vaden did not fire until he was down from a shot from Webb's pistol, though it is generally thought Vaden, after getting out of his car when he saw Webb on the sidewalk, approached Webb with pistol in hand."

The first murder trial resulted in a hung jury. During the second trial, Dennis E. Webb was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in the state penitentiary in Richmond. His attorney's appealed the verdict and in March 1929 the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals granted a writ of error and agreed to hear the appeal. His appeal was apparently denied in 1930.

In a strange twist, Webb was eventually pardoned. According to a 10 November 1933 article in the Greensboro Daily News, "He is among the state penitentiary inmates who volunteered to see what would happen to them if they allowed themselves to be bitten by mosquitoes transported from St. Louis and believed to be infected with the encephalitis germ. He is one of 10 convicts who were chosen for the test and having made their contribution to science Governor Pollard will grant all of them conditional pardons."

Greensboro Daily News, 10 November 1933; courtesy
of the North Carolina State Archives

So what happened to Harry Vaden's widow?

In 1930 she was a boarder in Washington, DC, at the home of Frank and Mary Hodge and worked as a stenographer for the United States government. Her children remained in Lynchburg and lived with their maternal grandparents. In 1940 her widowed mother, youngest child, and two boarders lived with her in a house she rented for $60. She worked as a bookkeeper. Her marital status was listed as married and her surname as Schalfer but there is no sign of Mr. Schalfer in the home. And that is the last record about Virginia Lee (Foster) Vaden Schalfer I have been able to find.

This is my entry for Amy Johnson Crow's 52 ancestors in 52 weeks challenge optional theme Colorful.


  1. Indeed a colorful story! How interesting and it has so many twists and turns. So sad for widow and children though.

  2. Good heavens! What a challenging life he had - and his widow/children as well. Thanks for sharing this, Schalene.

  3. The Washington, District of Columbia, City Directory for 1935 lists Virginia F. Schaefer at 808 Quintana Place NW. She is working with the Treasury Department. That issue lists no other SCHAEFERs at that address. However, a listing of people on that street -- possibly homeowners -- includes "Edw K Schaefer" at 808 Quintana Place. Possibly he was Virginia's second husband. The 1940 census lists them in separate DC households.