Although the murder trial of Walter Hamilton Yeatts is well-known among county people, many of the most interesting details were found this year when Margaret Midkiff, a Gretna native, was researching her family.
Margaret's research was done primarily in two repositories: The Pittsylvania County Clerk's Office in Chatham and Jones Memorial Library in Lynchburg, VA. “Ham” Yeatts was a kinsman of Margaret Midkiff's.
The murder and resulting trial has become the basis for The Last Man Hanged, a three-act play written by Helen Melton who writes as Kenyon McCann, and who is the author of Ride Into Darkness, her first book.
The names of those involved have been used in entirety since all of the principals were important to the county's history. W.I. (Uncle Buck) Overbey was sheriff during this time; Hezekiah Pigg was editor of the county newspaper; Robert H. Tredway and George W. Rison were local attorneys; Rawley Martin was the village doctor; and Horatio Davis was the sitting judge.
Ms. McCann is indebted to Margaret Midkiff for her painstaking, careful research; and her graciousness in sharing and allowing use of it in the play. The incident is important not only because it mirrors base human emotions but because “Ham”'s death was the last public hanging to take place in Pittsylvania County. After that time, all who were sentenced to be hanged were taken to Richmond under order of Governor Cameron.
Walter Hamilton Yeatts from the Straightstone area of Pittsylvania County married Fanny Rorer on January 2,1882. Fanny was a beautiful but flirtatious young lady from the Brights neighborhood.
Although Fanny was in love with Pressley Adkerson, he was not a marrying kind of man — though he had dated Fanny. But, Fanny's family was afraid that she would be an old maid and swore that she must marry before year's end. Her mother and father finally talked her into settling for “Ham” Yetts. Their reasoning: Ham came from a very good family, and he was very much in love with Fanny. In reality, Ham was an irresponsible young man in his late twenties who had never even held a job.
After the wedding, during the reception, Ham overheard the whisperings of some of his young friends. They were laughing about the fact that Fanny was no virgin saying that Ham's best friend and roommate had been the culprit. Ham confronted Fanny who did not deny his accusation. Enraged, Ham left Fanny on their wedding night to return to Sycamore Station where Pressley ran a general store and was station agent for the railroad.
The next afternoon, February 3rd, Ham talked Pressley into walking with him down the railroad tracks toward Motley Station, after he'd closed the store. When they were in a remote area, he confronted his friend, and Pressley did not deny the accusation.
Ham pulled out a gun he'd earlier borrowed from Pressley and killed him. Afterward, he went through the dead man's pockets and took his purse which contained a great deal of money, his keys, gloves — everything — before dumping his body in a ravine and covering it with brush.
Ham was apprehended the following day in Bristol, VA and returned to the county seat: Chatham. He pled not guilty, accusing a local black man whose employer, a man known for truth, swore that the accused was with him the entire night of the murder nursing a sick cow.
Ham was found guilty and sentenced to hang on August 3rd on gallows located in the courthouse area. Fanny Rorer, the beautiful young woman who was responsible for the death of her lover as well as her husband married again, twice.
This webpage is posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.
Copyright © 1995–2005 Helen D. Melton.