By: Jennifer Britt
The Parsons Advocate
After a brief historical introduction by the producer of the script, Tom Rodd, the Honorable Judge Homer Holt (Lowell Moore) preceded over court in the murder case of Robert Eastham (Bill Peterson) in the Circuit Court of Tucker County, West Virginia on Thursday, December 2, 1897. Eastham was charged after shooting Frank Thompson during a shootout at the Parsons Depot on March 17, 1897, that lead to Thompson’s death.
The events that led up to the altercation were a result of a prior court case where Eastham sued the Thompsons for closing up the river with a splash dam and not allowing him to float his timber to his sawmill. Eastham lost the case because the Thompsons had secured rights to the river from the state, but Eastham felt that the river belonged to everybody.
The scene started with a newspaper seller (Elaine George) announcing the trial was set to begin in minutes and speaking to a newspaper purchaser (Ruth Melnick) explaining everyone needed to hurry to the court room to witness the event. Judge Holt then took his seat to preside over the trial.
Judge Holt sworn in members of the jury. In this present-day enactment, the jury was the audience. All rose and raised their right hands and Holt said, “Thank you all for attending our historical program about the trial of Robert Eastham. This trial began on Monday, November 23, 1897, and ended just over three weeks later on Thursday, December 16, 1897. Today we are going to present a very much shorter version. The version is based on original records, and we are reproducing a real story that happened here in Parsons. I am going to ask each and every one of you in the courtroom to pay close attention to the testimony. You are the jury and at the end you are going to make a decision based on the testimony. Very much like the jury of 124 years ago.”
The accused was escorted into the courtroom by the bailiff (Jake Kopec). Eastham plead not guilty due to self-defense and claimed, “This trial is a sham!”
The Tucker County Prosecutor (Savannah Wilkins) was charged with providing the evidence that is needed to prove the guilt of Eastham. The Prosecutor’s first witness was George Benjamin Thompson (Debbie McHenry). At 26 year the cousin of F. Thompson moved to the Town of Davis from Maine to work at the Thompson’s Family Sawmill. G. Thompson was in Philadelphia on business when he learned that his cousin was shot.
- Thompson testified that he was at the hospital with the family of F. Thompson when his cousin passed due to losing too much blood during surgery. G. Thompson said, “Frank was our rock. At sunrise, we went to Butler’s Undertaker Rooms to select a coffin. It felt like a dream because we were gutted. Just gutted!”
- Thompson went on to testify that he had met F. Thompson at the train station in Philadelphia where his cousin warned him to keep the shotgun oiled and loaded because Eastham had been making threats.
Defense counsel (Pat A. Nichols) asked the witness if he witnessed the shooting to which the witness responded with, “No, I did not.”
The Prosecutor called three more witnesses to the stand for questioning. First was Pierre Chinard (Casey Rucker) who came to Davis to work for Eastham moving logs down the river and stayed after marrying a local girl. Chinard claimed Eastham had him blow up the dam that blocked the river and prevented him from floating his logs and then shoot at the Thompson’s employees as they tried to repair the dam.
The second witness placed on the stand was Wanda Landstreet (Sarah Fletcher). Landstreet was the owner of the general store in Davis and knew everyone in the area. Landstreet said, “Bob came into my store, cursing about that splash dam. He said he would shoot it out with Frank. He was acting like this was the wild west, but we are a civilized area now.” Landstreet said that Eastham said, “I am getting old. Even if I am killed, they will not cheat me out of many years.”
Last to testify was Jane Hockman (Debbie Stevens), was testified she was on the train when the shootout began. Hockman said, “I was sitting across from Frank Thompson. Bob Eastham came clomping up the aisle, no smile on his face, and he stopped where Frank was sitting. Bob insulted Frank and struck him across the face.” Landstreet continued her testimony stating that Eastham then walked away from F. Thompson and another train rider shouted, “Watch out Bob!” and gun shots rang out.
Landstreet said, “It happened so fast, it was over in seconds. One shot struck Bob’s head. He was bleeding, but it stopped. The other shot hit his chest, but his thick coat saved him. Frank was shot in the belly. When the doctor came, he knew they had to operate. They cleared everyone off the train and took him to Cumberland. Earlier that morning, Bob Eastham said: If Frank Thompson boards that train up to Davis, he will go up as a corpse.”
Eastham was next to take the stand. He testified that he helped the Thompsons acquire timber for their sawmill. Eastham continued by testifying that Chinard was a liar and he never instructed him to blow up the dam.
Eastham said, “If I have a problem with a man, I let him know. So, I marched up to him and I slapped him across the face. I thought I had made my point and continued up the aisle. Someone shouted, and I saw Thompson was pointing a derringer at me. I had my pistol ready, and I shot right through the pocket. He was trying to kill me, and I acted in self-defense.”
The jury was instructed to vote on three verdicts: deliberate and intentional homicide, a felony; unintentional but wrongful homicide, a misdemeanor; and not guilty by reason of self-defense. The jury voted by a show of hands and found the defendant guilty of misdemeanor homicide.
In an outrage, Eastham yelled, “This is an outrage, I will appeal. No jail will hold me!” The judge then thanked the jury for their service and the defendant was escorted from the courtroom. Eastham would at a later time escape from the jail in Parsons, with help, and move to Virginia.
Tom and Priscilla Rodd wrote the script, and the enactment was produced and presented by Friends of the Blackwater and co-sponsored by Tucker County ArtSpring, Tucker County Historical Society, Tucker County Commission, Ronald Lewis, John Alexander Williams, Elaine George, Mont Miller, and Mimi Kibler. West Virginia Humanities Council supported through a grant.
The enactment was followed by a reception held at the Parsons Station Depot and catered by Big Belly Deli. A special thank you to Gerry Milnes and Mike Miller for providing the musical entertainment before the show.