Weird Synchonicities

Or is that synchronisms? What I mean is when two unrelated things turn out to have something in common after all. Or when two totally different aspects of your life come together in an unexpected way. We’ve all had that experience, and the immediate reaction is, “Hmm. Weird.”

So, as a crime writer, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that in working on my family genealogy, the matter of crime comes up. Like the mysterious death of an ancestor in colonial Virginia and the two murders my family was involved in. (Stories for another time.) Looking back through old newspapers, I found a juicy crime story concerning my second cousin, twice removed, whose 25-year-old wife shot and killed her 18-year-old sister, because of her husband’s attention to the younger woman. The young sister must have been quite something, because a subsequent story said public sympathy was with the accused, and an acquittal was expected.  

Having vaguely in mind the kind of gems those old newspapers can hold, I was drawn to a recent story in the Library of Virginia newsletter. It reports on the results of a patron’s random inquiry into the nearly century-old newspaper record regarding far southwest Wise County veterinarian, game warden, and lawman JL Cox. The Library staff’s research found police-media relations were just as fraught back then as they are now.

A 1927 story in Crawford’s Weekly reported the attempted arrest of a man on outstanding warrants. Refusing to surrender, the man threatened the officers, including Cox, who’d come to get him. “We had to be shoot or be shot,” Cox told the paper. He said, “Some folks may criticize, but I’d like to know what they would have done had they been in our place.”

Two weeks later, Cox was involved in another exchange of gunfire. But a few days later, after Cox complained about the coverage of the event, the newspaper issued a correction, saying Cox had not returned fire. Over the next couple of years, Cox repeatedly called on the newspaper to correct stories about his activities. It’s a distant echo of today’s uneasy relation between law enforcement and the media.

After this frequent pushback, it appears the newspaper adopted a policy of not abrading Cox’s thin skin. The way I read some of the Weekly’s later stories, the editors learned to get their digs in more subtly: “Some may have criticized Dr. J.L. Cox, county officer, for being quick on the trigger in past performances . . .” Note the vague “some.” Politicians still use that gambit today. “People tell me . . .”

In a story about a stolen car, the paper suggested that “whoever did it thought they were wreaking vengeance on County Officer JL Cox, whose Chrysler also is a maroon coupe, because of his unrelenting enforcement of prohibition, traffic, and game laws.” Readers of Crawford’s Weekly might have had strong opinions about those laws and how vigorously they should be enforced. Talking about his “unrelenting enforcement” might not have been viewed as a tribute to his dedication. It was moonshine country, after all. (A moonshiner’s wrecked car and cargo shown above, police officer standing by.)

It turns out that Cox may have been too diligent for rural Virginia, and in 1931, he was shot and killed trying to serve a warrant on a man for dynamiting fish in the Guest River. The man claimed self-defense, but the case was dismissed. Why? Doc Cox “had been fooling with” the man’s wife. That story never appeared in the newspaper; the Library staff found it in the memoir written by the Game Warden who succeeded Cox in that post. The conclusion that can be drawn from this little research project by the Library is, I suppose, that times change, but people don’t.

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