On March 13, 1917, in his house on faculty row at VPI, Charles Vawter, Jr., fired three pistol bullets into Stockton Heth’s stomach and killed him.
Mathematics/physics professor Vawter’s murder trial opened at Christiansburg courthouse on May 1. On May 9 the jury returned a verdict of not guilty as charged.
Recently, local businessman Bill Aden suggested that the Vawter murder trial would make an interesting local history column, so I added the topic to my list of possibilities. In the interim, the topic has been covered (far more extensively than I could) in a seven-part series of articles published in Virginia Tech’s “Collegiate Times” and online.
Written by Matt Jones the editor-in-chief, and titled “‘He hasn’t got a thing to stand on:’ The trial of Professor Charles Vawter,” the article is subheaded: “A century ago, a brilliant inventor, his beautiful wife and a wealthy local playboy were involved in one of the most famous murder trials in Montgomery County history.” The present-day Vawter Hall on the Virginia Tech campus is named after his father Charles Vawter, Sr.
Jones’ articles amount to about 60 online pages and show about 50 images. The images include period photographs (the Huckleberry Depot, downtown Blacksburg, portraits, etc.) and facsimiles of accounts of the trial from contemporary newspapers. Jones’ work is at www.tinyurl/Vawter1917.
Jones describes himself as a math major, a former web engineer, and a former Town of Blacksburg reporter for the “Collegiate Times.” In his long Vawter article, Jones displays considerable talent as a local historian and demonstrates a mastery of the tools needed to assemble a compelling, nontraditional-style, online historical article.
The trial was a sensational event reported in newspapers around the world. Evidence presented revealed that Vawter’s wife Rachel had an ongoing affair with Heth. That relationship, combined with alcohol (illegal in Virginia in 1917) and violence, culminated in the murder.
Anyone with an interest in real life soap opera will find the story fascinating. A lengthy and detailed newspaper account of the trial that leaves little to the imagination can be found at www.virginiachronicle.com by entering “Planet Vawter” (without the quotes) in the search box. The account is on pages 2 and 7 of the May 12, 1917 Richmond Planet, under the title “Vawter Trial a Sensation in Christiansburg,” with an accompanying editorial on page 4.
In addition to its photographs and facsimiles (many courtesy of Special Collections at Newman Library at Virginia Tech) Jones’ article includes an animation that allows his readers to “walk through” the Vawter house where the murder occurred. It even shows the wall where the fatal bullets eventually lodged. If nothing else, this animation exhibits a refreshingly modern approach to writing history.
On the downside, Jones’ omission of citations is sometimes distracting, as it is not always clear where some of his history is coming from. Also, as an online commentator notes, there are some trivial errors in the article. However, these are quibbles about a job overall well done.
The Vawter trial happened in the context of much broader history. By Congressional declaration, the United States entered World War I in April 1917. Thus newspaper reports of the trial (which oftentimes made page 1 of the papers) were frequently published side-by-side with significant news about the American war effort or from Europe — where the war had already been dragging on for three years.
Under the banner heading “Submarine problem solved successfully” the front page of the May 5, 1917 issue of the “Roanoke World News” contains the article “Question of sanity chief issue in the Vawter case today” and the nearby article “British navy lacking in offensive” in which Colonel Winston Churchill, the former first lord of the admiralty, denies he ever opposed offensive British naval action.
The names of other historical figures such as the German Kaiser, General John Pershing and French Marshal Joffre, routinely appear near articles about the Vawter trial.
Jones notes that information about the murder was suppressed with considerable success by the then Virginia Tech President Joseph Eggleston and that the Vawter trial is not mentioned in the university’s historical digest (an online school history).
The only journal article about the trial seems to be “Murder and Scandal at VPI” mentioned by Christiansburg historian Bob Shelton (whose grandfather was a member of the jury). This article by Jeffrey Newman appeared in the 2001 volume of the “Journal of the New River Historical Society” and includes a bibliography and 78 citations.
Fortunately, with today’s Internet access to online newspaper archives, we can read many contemporary newspaper accounts of the trial. On June 16, 1917, the “Argus” newspaper in Melbourne, Australia, published Vawter’s post-acquittal statement, only five weeks after he made it. Vawter wrote: “I greatly regret the whole sad affair and sorrow caused.” He added: “The injustice done Mrs. Vawter by the prosecution and press is the greatest blot upon the whole sad affair.” He concluded: “The future stares me darkly in the face, but with God’s help I shall endeavour to build somewhere a happy home for my children and my wife.”
Vawter moved to the Philadelphia area and pursued a career as an inventor. He died of burns following a May 1931 fire in his home laboratory, despite Rachel smothering him with a bed quilt to extinguish the flames. She herself was badly burned. Rachel returned to Blacksburg where she died in 1943 followed by burial in Westview Cemetery.
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.