Tombstone Tuesday – Shot in the Street After Defending a Woman’s Reputation (1887)

Several months ago when I first started reading the Mortuary Reports for Green Hill Cemetery I was intrigued by an entry which read, “R.L. Cohen, place of death Union Street 1st ward (sex) male, (color), white, age 30 years, Occupation Transferman, resident of town 12 years I hereby certify that I saw him on the 27th day of June 1887 that he died on the 27th day of June 1887 and that the cause of his death was a gushot wound in the abdomen RL Page M.D. Undertaker T.A. Fox & Co.5

At that time I didn’t have a photo of his tombstone. All that I knew was that his grave was “promiscuous” which meant it could be anywhere on the grounds. As luck would have it, I was taking photographs in Green Hill recently and just happened to find Richard Cohen’s small tombstone.

Richard L. Cohen was born in 1857 in Petersburg, Virginia. Based on the information from the burial records, he came to Danville around 1875. In 1880 there was a Richard L. Cohen, aged around 24, living with his mother, Martha, and his wife, Laura (aged 19) in Danville. This Richard Cohen’s occupation on the census was listed as a “tinsmith.”1 I believe this is the same Richard Cohen, however, if anyone reading has information to contrary please contact me.

The only R.L. Cohen in the Danville directory in the 1880s is a transfer agent for “Opposition Transfer” living on Newton between Lynn and Craghead streets.1

The next big piece of information about Richard Cohen comes in June 1887 when he was shot on Union Street, in the center of town. Today this area still exists but it’s nothing like it was in its heyday. In 2013, a drive through downtown is more like a drive through a ghost town. I suppose in a way it is a ghost town (if you believe in that sort of thing.)

The following information was pieced together from news reports about the preliminary hearing and trial.

On June 27, 1887 Richard, who was referred to as “Dick” in some articles, returned to Danville via the train from Chatham, where he had been to discuss a telegram he’d received earlier from his brother-in-law John Luck. Walter Smith, who testified at the preliminary hearing, told him that Raleigh White and someone named Crumpton had “put out bad reports about his wife’s sister.”3 Cohen then saw Raleigh and Richard White, Charles Saylor, and Archie Garner and decided to confront Raleigh about these “bad reports.” Cohen said that the matter was going to be investigated and that if the character assassinations on his sister-in-law didn’t stop there would be trouble. Saylor then warned Cohen against an investigation, that the truth would eventually come out. Cohen put his hands behind his back, which was mistaken for him reaching for a weapon, only he wasn’t armed. When Saylor reached for his gun, Cohen emptied his pockets to prove he didn’t have a gun, said that he wanted no trouble, and boarded his omnibus. He didn’t leave without first reiterating that the matter would be looked into, and someone would get hurt if the bad-mouthing continued. Saylor, who was seventeen years old replied, “You had better not, for I will kill anyone who interferes with it.”2

Sandy Williams and Cohen got out of that omnibus at the Arlington Hotel, waited for a luggage wagon, and when it didn’t show up they walked towards the stable to see if the driver had gone there. At that time the omnibus on which the Whites, Garner, and Saylor were riding let them out on Patton Street. Cohen and Williams lost sight of the men under the electric light for a few moments, then a voice yelled out, “There he is!” Two shots were fired towards Cohen from a weapon Saylor had. Saylor continued walking towards Cohen as he fired until they were close enough for Cohen to grab his assassin. The two men fell to the street and the final shot was made at a range so close that Cohen’s clothes were singed. Cohen died at the scene and his body was taken to a hotel to await the coroner’s inquest.6

Alexandria Gazette, 29 June 1887

Attorney Easton Randolph was less than 50 paces away from the shooting. He heard Cohen tell Officer Wood that he’d been shot and pointed out Saylor as the shooter. Officer D.W. Woodson was at the corner of Union and Main Street when he heard the shots, which compelled him to rush towards the commotion. He grabbed Saylor, who had already been disarmed and detained by Officer Wood. At the scene Saylor used quite a bit of profanity and urged the officers to take him to the jail if they intended on arresting him. Woodson testified that while in the jail Saylor confessed to shooting Cohen and expressed no regret for his actions. Within a few days, Raleigh and Richard White and Archie Garner were also arrested as accessories to the killing.

Alexandria Gazette, 21 Mar. 1888

The jury in the March 1888 trial was unable to reach a verdict and the case was scheduled to be retried in June.

The frustrating part about this case is that there is no further information in the historical newspapers collection about the final outcome of the trial, at least not that I was able to find. Searching for specific information can be trying at times, because keyword searches can often be a series of trial-and-error phrase combinations. While there was a Charles Saylor in Danville’s city directory after 1888, it doesn’t mean that it was this Charles Saylor.

Cohen’s murder leaves other unanswered questions as well, such as the nature of the “bad reports” that Saylor and his friends were making about his sister-in-law. Were they serious enough to cost him his life? I doubt it. Sticks and stones will break peoples’ bones, but a gun in the hands of an irrationally thinking person can definitely hurt you.

1 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.
2 “News Notes.” The Hazel Green Herald [KY] 27 July 1887.
3 “Saylor’s Case.” Richmond Dispatch 2 July 1887.
4 “Saylor’s Trial.” Richmond Dispatch 16 Mar. 1888.
5 “Virginia, Danville City Cemetery Records, 1833-2006.” Images. FamilySearch. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.
6 “A Danville Murder.” Richmond Dispatch 29 June 1887.

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