Deep within the walls of the Library of Virginia-one of the many modern monoliths in the city of Richmond-there sits behind a series of locked doors a trove of ancient books, forgotten artifacts, and dusty documents passed down from men long dead. Among them is a certain cardboard box that looks much like the thousands of others, all packed into the miles of steel and wooden shelves lining the edges of the concrete caverns.
Inside this particular box are brick-sized bundles of papers, each one tied together with cloth ribbons of different colors, each one wrapped with a note on which someone once scribbled a range of dates. Tucked in the middle of one of the thicker stacks is a tri-folded cluster of browning, aged papers, so brittle that they nearly crumble when unfolded. On the outermost sheet are the fading words:
"Commonwealth v. Langhorne ~
1857 Feby. defd. sent to
circuit court for trial."
Inside are the original witness testimonies of the only student killing ever to occur on Hampden-Sydney's campus. They reveal a tale of wrath and pride, of blood and honor, which shook the peaceful souls of the people who once lived in Prince Edward County. None are alive to speak of what they saw and heard. No longer can we hear their stories from that cold January morning so long ago. Only their written words can open the door to the fourth passage of Cushing Hall, to let us watch as Edward Langhorne slipped his knife between the ribs of his classmate and friend, Charles Edie. We take this story directly from those original 47 pages of witness statements recently rediscovered in the Library of Virginia.
Sophomores Edward "Ned" Langhorne and Charles "Bose" Edie were known as close friends. They were often seen together, spending time in each other's rooms, and they likely fished the same pond that once lay behind the old Prince Edward courthouse in Worsham. It was an intimate friendship that stretched back to their arrivals at Hampden-Sydney in the summer of 1855.
But the two were quite different. Langhorne was born and raised in a prominent family of Lynchburg. He had been taught old Virginia manners-neither to offend others nor allow others to offend him. He held dear his name, his reputation, and he cared deeply for the welfare of his friends. His peers looked to him for help in times of need. He shunned liquor and was a loyal member of the Presbyterian Church. To solve difficulties with others, he favored dialogue over violence-but in extreme circumstances he was willing to fight if words fell short. To put it simply, he was a proper Southern gentleman.
Edie could be a brute. His greatest weakness was the bottle. He was stubborn by nature, defiant, and sometimes ill tempered. On occasion he was known to bully or ridicule others. But he was not without his virtues. He may have struggled with alcohol-but he did not surrender to it. He tried to keep his promises to refrain from drunkenness. He was fiercely independent, although to a fault in some cases. His greatest strength was physical: some considered him to be the largest man on campus, as "strong as an ox," as one witness described.
It was perhaps these glimmers of virtue that attracted Langhorne to Edie. As a good Christian, Langhorne set about trying to help guide his friend to a life of sobriety by counseling him and urging him to sign the temperance pledge advocated by the local preacher.
By late January 1857, however, Edie had failed to sign it.
On the evening of January 26, roommates Edie and Joseph Fuqua had some friends together in their room in Cushing Hall. At around 8 p.m., someone came to the door and invited Edie and another student to his quarters. Edie's companion returned about five minutes later and told Fuqua that Edie was drinking again-and very hard. Later, another student came to Fuqua's door and told him that his roommate was drunk and needed to go to bed. It was a Monday night, and the students had prayer and class early the next morning.
Fuqua hunted down his roommate and found him in C.H. Chilton's room, which was at the top of the stairs in the fourth passage of Cushing Hall. Although he had promised Fuqua that he would not get drunk, Edie was clearly intoxicated. Fuqua commenced plaguing him about his getting drunk, took him by the arm and begged him to come back to his room, telling him it was not worthwhile to stay there all night. Growing angry, Edie threw Fuqua off of his arm and across several feet onto the bed. Fuqua looked to Chilton for help, only to see him wink as if to tell him not to bother the drunk any more. Fuqua returned to his room.
About 15 minutes later, Langhorne left his room in Steward's Hall, later known as the Alamo, to look for his friend. He was unaware of Fuqua's disagreement with Edie. He went to their room, where Fuqua replied that he wouldn't be surprised if Edie were still in Chilton's room.
"I'll bet he's drunk again," Langhorne said.
Fuqua said he was. Langhorne dropped his head and stared at the floor, distantly, surely disheartened by his friend's relapse. He and Edie had discussed his drinking problem more than once, and as his friend, Langhorne had hoped that Edie would free himself from the bottle's grip.
"Please, if you can, go down and bring him back to our room or carry him to yours," Fuqua asked. He knew that the two were intimate friends and hoped that if anyone could convince the angry drunk to calm down and go to bed, it was Langhorne.
Langhorne went to Chilton's room and asked Edie to step out into the hall so he could speak with him. Edie, further intoxicated as evidenced by his speech and manner, complied and walked with Langhorne into the hallway.
"I understand that you are drunk again," Langhorne said, trying to reason with him.
"Who told you so?" he replied, challenging what to him seemed an accusation. He denied that he was drunk and demanded to know who had slandered him.
Langhorne responded that he would not say who had told him, but rather it was plainly clear that he was drunk. "I can smell the whiskey," he said. He insisted that he come back to his room with him to get sober.
"By what authority do you insist?" Edie said repeatedly.
As is so often the case, the drunk could not be reasoned with. After five to ten minutes of circular arguments, during which Edie's temperament became increasingly volatile, Langhorne turned and started walking down the stairs. Edie called him a damned puppy.
"You are drunk and acting the damned fool here tonight," Langhorne said over his shoulder.
Edie barked back at him, telling him to stop. He descended the staircase, again demanding to know his authority and who had slandered him. Langhorne again refused. At the bottom of the stairs Edie grabbed Langhorne by the collar, pulled him in and looked him in the eyes.
"You damned liar. You damned son of a bitch," he said.
Langhorne took immediate offense and flew into a passion, demanding a retraction from Edie then and there. Edie refused and offered to fight instead. Langhorne told him again that he was drunk, and that he would call on him in the morning to retract his insults. Edie told him there would be no retraction then or ever.
"I am a man of few words," he quipped.
"Then I'll see you in the morning," Langhorne replied.
"Very well," Edie concluded, bowing sarcastically as his former friend turned from him and stepped out into the night.
Edie returned to Chilton's room, sat down, and told him what had happened. Clearly excited, he jumped from his chair, railed against Langhorne, and worked himself into a furor. The liquid courage coursing through his veins had only fueled his outrage. Chilton tried to make light of the idea of having to take back the insult, but Edie stated that it was contrary to his nature to do any such thing.
"I'll fight him," he said. "He may take his pistols, and I'll fight him muzzle to muzzle."
Langhorne indeed had two pistols, but he was unwilling to use them. He did not want blood-he did not even want an apology or an explanation. He merely wanted Edie to take back his words to restore his good name.
In those days, a man called such epithets, who then allowed them to stand unanswered, would surely be considered a coward or, indeed, would seem to have accepted those insults as true reflections of his nature. He would have to carry those labels with him for the rest of his life. Langhorne was a gentleman, a hard-earned distinction, and to remain so and to maintain his honor, he had to confront Edie as soon as he was sober. Aware of Edie's contentious disposition, Langhorne expected the confrontation to come to violent blows.
Langhorne returned to his room that night and told his next-door neighbors Joseph Shelton and David Comfort what had just happened. He was anxious, worried, and greatly affected by the falling out, and assured Comfort that he would challenge Edie in the morning. Shelton left to try to find Edie and settle the difficulty that evening, and Langhorne returned to his room. He stayed awake for some time, calling through the wall to Comfort, inquiring whether Shelton had returned and acquired Edie's retraction.
"If he will give no retraction in the morning, then either I will whip him, or he will have to kill me," Langhorne concluded. Clearly dismayed, and assuring his neighbors that his night would be restless, he remained silent in his quarters to await the morning.
Fuqua, Edie's roommate, later heard Edie stumble up the stairs around 11 o'clock and go into a nearby student's room to discuss a certain letter he wanted to send. Fuqua again tried to get him to come to bed, but still Edie would not retire. Perhaps hoping to avoid any further trouble with him, Fuqua spent the night in a friend's room.
Edie, still drunk, fell into bed sometime around midnight or 1 o'clock.
Fuqua returned to his room early the next morning. Edie quickly rose from bed. He was likely hung over: his roommate asked him whether he was going to the Court House to send the letter. At first he answered, "Yes," but then followed with "Hold on, let me think." He shook his head when Fuqua invited him to breakfast. When Fuqua came back from his morning meal, he found Edie still in the room, unwilling or unable to read his lesson book.
Fuqua had class at 8 o'clock, and as he went down the stairs, he met Langhorne coming up. Sure enough, Langhorne was wasting no time in seeking a retraction from Edie and asked where his offender could be found. Fuqua directed him to his room.
Inside Langhorne found Edie in his room by himself. He spoke to him in his usual manner as if there was no difficulty between them, calling him by his nickname, "Bose." He informed Edie what he had called him the night before and asked him to retract. Edie again refused.
"Bose, I'm begging you to retract. You must retract," he implored.
"By God," he snapped in return, "the word ‘must' is not in my vocabulary."
"Very well," Langhorne said. He turned and walked out of Edie's room for the last time.
His words failing to resolve the dispute, Langhorne sought help and advice from his classmates. He told Comfort what had happened and repeated his conclusion that he would either whip Edie or Edie would have to kill him. Comfort tried to advise against fighting, but Langhorne was resolved to defend his honor.
But he weighed a mere 145 pounds compared to Edie's 185. By all accounts Langhorne was no match for the man. Richard Venable, an experienced student wrestler weighing 176 pounds, had grappled with Edie in December and conceded that he was a superior adversary. He said that Edie threw him two of three times, despite Edie's claim to have never wrestled before. Venable had wrestled Langhorne as well, however, and said he could manage him.
Comfort suggested to Langhorne that, if he were obliged to fight, he should take a stick or a cane. Recognizing Edie's superior strength, however, Langhorne feared that he would take it from him in the scuffle. He knew Edie better than Comfort did, he said, and Edie was just the kind of man who would kill him with his own weapon. If he had attacked Edie in his room, Langhorne was sure that he "would have taken [me] by the head and beaten out [my] brains against the floor." Because Edie was so much stronger, Langhorne believed that he was justified by law in arming himself.
Langhorne visited at least three other students in search of a Bowie knife or a pistol. He may have gotten his own pistol from his room, for which he apparently had no ammunition, because when he went to William Fields's room, he asked only for a knife, some bullets, and some gun caps.
Fields was unaware of the difficulties with Edie and so without hesitation gave Langhorne his Spanish stiletto, a six-inch blade sometimes called a dirk. He was stoking his fire and paying little attention when he directed Langhorne to his box of gun caps and bullets. Inquiring into the need for the arms, Fields learned of the disagreement and Langhorne's intentions to confront Edie.
Fields asked for Langhorne to give him the gun, but Langhorne declined. Little did he know that Langhorne had slipped the bullet into his vest pocket and had packed only gunpowder and cotton into the barrel, intending only to fire the blank gun in hopes of ending the coming fight without bloodshed. Before leaving Fields's room, Langhorne promised him that he would use the knife only if he were forced.
Edie emerged from his room and met with Chilton, and they went outside to take a morning walk before class. Seeing the smaller Langhorne on the lawn from a distance, Edie took a moment to ridicule his former friend.
"See that fellow, how he walks," Edie jeered, pointing out Langhorne's ungainly steps. "He's been pestering me too much of late."
Chilton had witnessed their disagreements the night before and offered his services to Edie to settle it all. Stubbornly Edie refused. Perhaps he truly believed Langhorne to be a liar and a son of a bitch. Maybe it was his pride. But again, Edie claimed that he had nothing to retract.
Edie and Langhorne sat near each other in the 9 o'clock class in Professor Charles Martin's recitation room, which was located through the first door on the left as one entered the south entrance of the fourth passage of Cushing Hall. Sitting at his desk, Langhorne had his knife tucked in his belt and his pistol hidden in his coat, determined to settle this matter with Edie as soon as class was finished. Martin dismissed the students at 10 o'clock.
Edie stepped from the classroom and took a left. Langhorne asked classmate James Lawson to walk with him as his went up to Edie, all three of them just a few steps from the north door. Langhorne tapped Edie on the left shoulder, and Edie turned.
"Would you acknowledge that you called me a liar last night?" Langhorne asked.
Edie stood silent for some time.
Langhorne continued, "You did call me so, and you need to retract it."
Edie then responded, "I did not call you a liar. But I did call you a damned son of a bitch."
Incensed, Langhorne started to come at Edie. Lawson, hoping to stop the fight before it started, grabbed Langhorne's arm to try to pull him away. Langhorne threw him off and squared up with his opponent.
Then with what seemed like all of his force, the 185-pound Edie hurled his fist into Langhorne's forehead, knocking him back some eight feet into the wall on the west side of the passage. He followed up with another blow to Langhorne's left cheekbone, nearly spinning him around. Then with both fists, one after the other, Edie pummeled Langhorne's skull as the weaker man retreated toward the south door. Langhorne was attempting to fight back, facing Edie as he went southward, but the assailant's momentum kept him on the defensive. Other students jumped out of the way through the south door.
Edie's right fist again connected with Langhorne's left temple, the severe blow knocking him into the door to Professor Blair's recitation room, located across from Professor Martin's room at the bottom of the stairs. Witnesses speculated the shock would have sent him down to the floor had the locked door not prevented his fall.
Edie continued to strike Langhorne as Langhorne pulled out his knife.
Edie stepped back. "I am not armed," he said.
"Take it back," Langhorne demanded.
He advanced and swiped the dagger on Edie's shoulder, slicing it.
Edie then advanced on Langhorne, landing another blow on his temple as Langhorne fought back. He cut Edie again under his left arm. Edie swung again. It was then in the midst of the struggle that Langhorne thrust his knife toward his aggressor. In a moment the fight was over.
Edie stepped back. "You have stabbed me to the heart," he cried out. The dirk had indeed plunged between the ribs of Edie's left breast. Fellow student William Baldwin, who had been standing on the stairs above the exchange, rushed down to steady his wounded classmate, easing him to the floor. Professor Martin came out of his recitation room.
Edie refused to stay down. Defiantly he raised himself onto his feet again. But the loss of blood pressure was slowing the flow to his brain. All watched as he stood staggering, momentarily pitching backwards, his eyes rolling into the back of his head, his knees giving way. He tumbled forward, crashing into the banister and again collapsing onto the floor in the hallway.
On his back he stared into the abyss, his eyes glazed over. Yet Edie was still alive, and Martin told the students to carry him to Chilton's room just up the stairs.
Seeing the blade in Langhorne's hand, Martin entreated, "My dear boy, what have you done? What have you done?" He ushered him out the door as Langhorne tried to explain the cause for the tragedy to his professor.
"Professor Martin, I could not help it," he said as they walked toward Steward's Hall. "He insulted me and would not retract it." On the way to Langhorne's room, he related the entire story to his teacher, from the time Edie had drunkenly insulted him to when Edie landed the first blow on his forehead. He showed Martin the contusions all about his head. He explained that his father had taught him never to take such an insult.
After settling Langhorne in his room, Professor Martin went to Chilton's room in Cushing. There was only slight evidence of blood on Edie's skin and shirt, and yet he was gasping for breath. The blood was pouring from his heart into his chest cavity, compressing his lungs and denying him precious oxygen. They couldn't save him. Within moments of Martin's arrival, Edie was dead.
Professor Martin then returned to Langhorne's room in Steward's Hall. Langhorne inquired where he had hit Edie with the knife, asking if he was dead. Only when he learned that he had struck Edie to the heart, killing him, did he lose his self-possession, as Martin described. Agitated, anxious, and hurt, he greatly grieved for the fate of his former companion.
"The poor fellow," he lamented. "He was my best friend I have in this world. I did not mean to kill him. I could not help it. But I could not do otherwise as a gentleman."
A doctor was sent for and, by inserting a sewing needle into Edie's chest, confirmed that he had indeed been stabbed in the heart.
Langhorne was jailed at Worsham to await trial. Some of his friends stayed with him every night. Witness testimonies were given at the county court in February, classes at Hampden-Sydney were cancelled, and nearly all of the students attended the hearing. The case went to the circuit court for trial a few weeks later, also in Worsham. Langhorne pleaded not guilty on March 13.
Robert Louis Dabney, the fiery preacher of the Union Theological Seminary at Hampden-Sydney, denounced Langhorne and rebuked attorney Samuel Anderson, elder of the Presbyterian Church, for defending the accused. Dabney believed that the Bible was quite clear on the issue of killing.
On March 17, however, based on the witness testimonies and evidence provided, a jury of his peers found Langhorne not guilty of murder.
Dr. Benjamin M. Smith, also of the Seminary, gave a sermon to a congregation at College Church in which he roundly denounced the Virginia code of honor as "wicked nonsense," in particular the practice of dueling. Some believed he was alluding to the Langhorne trial, suggesting that the acquittal had been reached unfairly. There are reports that the congregation largely disagreed with Smith, with many walking out of the church during his sermon.
Mrs. Thomas Miller, Langhorne's aunt who had managed Steward's Hall that year, was said to have wondered aloud after the service, "When will the preachers be done trying Ned Langhorne?"
There is debate to this day on whether Langhorne was truly guilty of murder. According to his indictment, to be guilty Langhorne would have had to "feloniously, willfully, unlawfully, premeditatedly, and of his malice aforethought, ... kill and murder" Edie that morning.
It would be difficult and unfair to judge any of these men today, however. It was a different time and era with particular laws, customs, and understandings of justice. We are not 19th-century lawyers or judges. But with these firsthand testimonies we may have some certainties, or at least we may have the clearest available windows through which we can see what happened.
We know that Langhorne took the knife with him to class, aware that he might decide to use the deadly weapon against Edie. We know that the affront to his honor was the impetus behind the start of the fight. But during the fight itself, was he not acting in self-defense?
Although Edie had struck first, it seems both were on the offensive when the blade entered his chest. Langhorne's claim and Fields's testimony support the assertion that he intended to use the stiletto only if he could not fight back effectively. A man of Edie's size and aggression seems to have had the power to kill or permanently maim the smaller man. But was the knife necessary?
Langhorne could have ignored Edie's insults. But his honor, considered more important than life itself by many Southern gentlemen, would have been forever sullied. In keeping with his father's teachings and the customs of his day, he had to confront his adversary.
The jury was apparently convinced that Langhorne was acting on his principles, trying to help his friend, protect his honor, and, when it came to blows, protect his body.
As with so many other gentlemen of Virginia, Langhorne was killed on the battlefield of his home state a few years later. His son, Armistead A. Langhorne, later attended school in the old Worsham courthouse, where his father had been tried for murder. When asked how he could live and study there, if he were ashamed, Armistead replied that he was not.
He simply said, "My mother wished the public to know that the Langhornes believed that my father acted in self-defense."