In early 1854, Mary Anderson, arguably one of the most beautiful women in Virginia, refused to walk to church with Charles Burks Christian, a Lexington Virginia law student. Humiliated, Christian later confronted and killed Mary’s cousin, VMI Cadet Thomas Blackburn. This is the story of that murder, the trials that followed, and the impact of those events on young men and women who would all too soon face the larger trials of the American Civil War.
Part Two: The Mistress of “Col Alto”
Sally Campbell Preston McDowell, the erstwhile aunt of the all-too-soon-to-be-murdered Tom Blackburn, was 32 years old in 1854.
On the day before Tom’s murder, she had marked the eighth anniversary of her headline-making divorce from Blackburn’s uncle, the former Governor of Maryland.
Even a century-and-a-half later, historians still cited her case as a prime example of the devastating effects of divorce on a young woman of even the highest social standing in 19th century Virginia.
A social pariah in some circles, since her separation in 1842 Sally had lived with her younger sister at Col Alto, their father’s house, within walking distance of the Presbyterian Church in the center of town.
But for her divorce she may well have been one of the most prominent and powerful women in two states…
She was the eldest daughter of pre-war Lexington’s favorite son, James McDowell, the first Virginia Governor born west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He had died three years earlier, in 1851.
Her mother, who died in 1847, was the daughter of U.S. Congressman Francis Smith Preston and Sarah Buchanan Campbell, a niece of Patrick Henry.
In 1837, when Sally was barely 15, she began her fateful relationship with Blackburn’s uncle, Francis Thomas, then a U.S. Congressman from Maryland.
She had been sent to Washington, DC, to learn the skills expected of a lady of her station at Miss English’s Female Seminary in Georgetown.
While there, she lived with the family of the prominent and powerful Missouri Senator, Thomas Hart Benton, and his wife, Sally’s aunt, Elizabeth Preston McDowell.
One of the Benton’s daughters, Jessie Ann, just two years younger than Sally, would become her best friend.
Over the next four years, both Sally and Jessie became popular fixtures in the social life of the capital. Both were young, beautiful, increasingly adept socially, and the wards of one of the most powerful men in the city.
Blackburn’s uncle Frank lived in the same boarding house as the Bentons. He courted Sally for four years from the day he met her in 1837 until she finally agreed to marry him, over the objections of her father.
Frank Thomas later claimed Sally seduced him, and that her aunt Elizabeth had actively encouraged the marriage.
Thomas’s cause may also have been helped by Sally’s best friend, cousin, and friendly rival, Jessie Benton, also happily engaged in a relationship with an older man unpopular with her parents. In 1841, three months after Sally married Francis Thomas, Jessie would marry John Charles Fremont, an officer, explorer, and budding national hero, 11 years her senior.
Frank Thomas’s enemies (Sally’s father first among them) later insisted he was insane. Others, including Frank himself, insisted that if he were, Sally had driven him there.
Before the end of their first year of marriage, Francis Thomas and his new young wife celebrated the end of a long and successful political campaign, and his inauguration as the newly elected governor of Maryland. A few months later he accused his young wife of having an affair with his law partner, who also happened to be her cousin.
When, shortly thereafter, Sally miscarried, Thomas implied strongly that she had aborted the fruit of the incestuous relationship, an act considered both mortally sinful and civilly criminal.
Thomas soon started divorce proceedings.
Divorces in mid-19th century Maryland, however, could only be granted by the passage of a special act of the state legislature.
So, to support his case, Thomas published a pamphlet outlining his charges against Virginia Governor McDowell’s favorite daughter. He distributed said pamphlet not only to every member of the Maryland State legislature, but to every member of the United States Congress as well.
The McDowells replied by starting their own divorce proceeding in Virginia, which also required a special act of the state legislature.
The result was a double divorce, after five years of personal, legal and sometimes physical confrontation. The proceedings became the talk of Washington, Maryland and Virginia.
The press, predictably, was delighted.
Two governors, some of 19th-century America’s most prominent religious, legal and political figures took sides.
The extended Thomas and McDowell families, their friends, and neighbors did the same.
By January 1854, on the eve of her former nephew’s tragic death, however, Sally’s life had begun to change.
After well over a decade of shame, religious contempt and largely self-imposed social isolation in Lexington’s strict Presbyterian society, Sally Campbell Preston McDowell had fallen in love. The man she loved, loved her, and had asked her to marry him.
Courtship, much less a second marriage, was difficult for a divorced woman in mid-19th century Virginia, both legally and socially.
For Sally and her beloved, it was also a religious nightmare.
Her fiancée, John Miller, by all accounts a good man of great personal courage, was a minister. Indeed, both she and he were devout southern Presbyterians.
Under church law, Sally’s divorce meant that she could only remarry under one condition: evidence would have to be produced to prove, incontrovertibly, that Cadet Tom Blackburn’s uncle, the former Governor of Maryland, had been unfaithful to her before he had filed for divorce.
John Miller was reduced to courting Sally almost entirely by mail. One of his friends was moved to advise him in words that over a century later would become the title of their published love letters, “If you love that lady, don’t marry her.”
Thus, from Sally’s perspective, January 1854 was an especially bad time for a murder (or anything else) that might lead anyone to feel sorry for poor Tom Blackburn’s uncle Frank.
Sally McDowell had known her former husband’s nephew since Cadet Blackburn was a child.
She knew and was, by all accounts, very fond of Tom’s parents.
Tom’s mother had, in fact, cared for her and given her shelter while she recovered from what Sally insisted was a miscarriage and what her estranged husband insisted was an abortion.
Sally would also have noted with more than passing interest young Tom’s arrival at VMI in the fall of 1850.
She could not have missed hearing about her erstwhile nephew’s adventures at VMI in the years that followed, especially in a town whose free white population numbered barely more than 1,100 souls.
She may also have noticed his arrival at church on the night he was killed: tall, blond and handsome, wearing the dress-blue “walking out” uniform coat reserved for senior cadets, with none other than Reverend George Junkin’s 19-year-old daughter, Julia, on his arm.
Perhaps she also noted Blackburn’s early departure, accompanied by another singularly handsome young man, with a none-too-savory reputation of his own.
His name was Charles Burks Christian
Christian, one of Judge John White Brockenbrough’s bright young law students, had intercepted Blackburn and Julia Junkin the moment they entered the vestibule of the Presbyterian Church.
Witnesses would remember Christian tapping Blackburn on the shoulder, and asking, politely, if he might “have a word . . . outside.”
Leaving Julia Rush Millers Junkin in the care of her friends and family in the sanctuary, he turned and walked out the church, into the dark, to die.
To be continued
- The Blackburn Murder: Part One: Out of the Darkness (Monday, August 01, 2011)
In Lexington, Virginia, in early 1854, Mary Anderson, arguably one of the most beautiful women in Virginia, refused to go out with a young law student, Charles Burks Christian. Humiliated and made the object of public scorn, Christian confronted, s...
- The Blackburn Murder: Part Three: La Femme Fatale (Thursday, September 29, 2011)
Witnesses swore they remembered Tom Blackburn, wearing his VMI dress uniform, stepping onto the columned front porch of Lexington’s Presbyterian Church, with Julia Junkin, the minister’s daughter on his arm.