Murder or Death By Drunken Fall?

Several years ago I took this photo at Danville’s Leemont Cemetery, which was established in 1878 when North Danville was regarded as a separate community from Danville.

The inscription is almost too weathered to read, but this tombstone marks the grave of 32-year-old James Lucius Motley, whose body was discovered at the bottom of a rocky embankment near his home on September 14, 1886.

jl motley

Originally his death was deemed an accident and newspapers reported that he’d fallen after a drunken night at the circus and broken his neck.

Motley circus Alexandria gazette., September 15, 1886
Alexandria Gazette., September 15, 1886

Motley’s family and friends believed there was more to the story and hired Detective Jack Wrenn and his associates to dig deeper into the events of September 13, 1886.

Prior to the fatal fall the deceased had an incident at a saloon involving a man named John Quinn (aliases Gwynn/Flynn), who would later be arrested in connection with the death. Motley threw beer in John’s face after Quinn offered to “drink to his health.” The relationship between the two men is unknown, but based on Motley’s reaction to the toast either they weren’t friendly towards each other or Motley’s intoxication got the better of him.

Quinn followed Motley into two additional watering holes that night along with Willie Russell and Frank Grasty. When Quinn and his friends started home he was still enraged about having the alcohol thrown at him and expressed the desire to end Motley’s life. He went as far as to ask the men if he could borrow a pistol. The two men thought they’d persuaded Quinn to go home in peace.

The following evening Quinn told Grasty and Russell that he was “sorry he did not take their advice and not go after Motley” and also asked them not to mention that he’d asked for a gun.

An unnamed witness claimed to have heard men talking and a scream near the place where Motley’s body was discovered around 2:00 a.m. Another source reported that around 1:00 Motley was outside of a bar and not too intoxicated to walk home, poking a hole into the idea that he drunkenly fell down the bank.

Quinn, Grasty, and Russell were taken into custody based on this circumstantial evidence with Quinn eventually being charged with murder. Plans were made to exhume Motley’s body to reexamine it for further evidence.

The Greensboro North State printed on October 7, 1886: “We noted last week that the body of J. L. Motley, of North Danville, had been found where he had fallen over a precipice. Since that time, the idea that he was murdered has gained considerable credence, and a member of the Wren agency has worked up the case partially. John Guinn, a negro, has been arrested on suspicion and is now in jail. Motley’s body was exhumed, but it was too much decomposed for examination.”

In February 1887 Guinn was found guilty of first degree murder but was granted a new trial.

In June Guinn’s name appeared in the news again, but beyond that I couldn’t find any additional information as to the outcome of the second trial or if Quinn fell victim to a mob.

Quinn’s fate is as much as a mystery to me as that of James Lucius Motley, whose drinking may have led to his death either by being too intoxicated to avoid a fall or making the grave mistake of throwing a beer in another man’s face.

gwynn Richmond dispatch., June 12, 1887
Richmond Dispatch, June 12, 1887


Richmond Dispatch, 21 Sept. 1886

Richmond Dispatch, Sept. 21, 1886


Richmond Dispatch, 23 Sept. 1886
Richmond Dispatch, Sept. 23, 1886
Motley Richmond dispatch September 24, 1886
Richmond Dispatch, September 24, 1886
motley end Richmond dispatch February 15, 1887
Richmond Dispatch, February 15, 1887
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