The James River, like most major rivers in Virginia, flows west to east. And like the other larger rivers in the Commonwealth, was a barrier to Union army soldiers during their quests to move deeper into the south.
On Dec. 7, 1864, a few miles south of the James River in Richmond, Union general Gouverneur K. Warren led a force of 26,200 soldiers on a mission starting out in Petersburg. The plan was to destroy a rail line that was vital to Confederate troops. However, Confederate forces, anticipating the advance by Warren and his troops, lay in wait at the point where the rail line crossed another river, some 45 miles or so south of Petersburg. They were ready for the attack.
Two days later when the Union soldiers appeared and attempted to reach the railroad bridge they were stopped by the entrenched Confederate cavalrymen. These defenders, in order to prevent the Union from crossing the river, burned the nearby wagon bridge. Warren ended the attack later that same day.
Lots of lives were lost in or near Virginia’s waterways during the Civil War. But others have died there since. Some, for example, drowned while swimming or as a result of boating accidents.
Finding the Bodies
As a police officer I’ve been involved in the recoveries of a few bodies from Virginia waters. The experiences were unpleasant at best.
It’s an extremely eerie feeling, one that stands the hairs on your arms and the back of your neck on end, when you catch that first glimpse of a pale and bloated dead body floating in the current, or one that’s trapped among branches and limbs of overhanging brush and weeds and downed trees. Sometimes you see wildlife nibbling at the corpse, or a water moccasin nestled in the branches near an arm, a leg, or the bobbing head of the deceased.
But, back to the bridges over Virginia’s rivers. One in particular, actually. It was a wood-framed railroad bridge. A truss-type structure that was nearly 1,500 long and a mere 10 feet wide, approximately 5′ of which consisted of an expanded metal walkway that ran the distance along the west side of the tracks. When standing on the bridge one could see the river below through the gaps between the ties and through the open squares in the metal walkway. The distance to the water below was, well, it was a long, long drop.
At the base of the bridge abutments were numerous large boulders and heavy stones. Some jutted up from the swiftly flowing black water that swirled and whirled and churned around and through the spaces between the rocks. Large trees often became entangled among the stones, causing even more foamy turbulence. Broken and shattered limbs pointed toward the sky, sometimes resembling the punji stick boobytraps used by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to wound American soldiers during the war. Water rushed and swished by the obstructions, and small waves slapped and smacked against the rocks.
An accidental fall from the railroad bridge could be deadly. But when a person is physically tossed from the bridge to the rocks and trees below, well, that’s practically guaranteed death. And such was the case when I received a call to investigate a body seen half in the water and half out. The victim was spotted by a railroad employee as their train traveled across the trestle.
When I arrived patrol officers were already on the scene and they’d called for the fire department and EMS to assist with the recovery of the body. He was a young man in his late teens or early 20s (I don’t recall his exact age). The condition of his body indicated a fall from the bridge above. The gunshot would to his arm and right side suggested the fall was not accidental.
Later, autopsy results told us that it was the combination of the tree limb that pierced his abdomen, entering just below the bellybutton and exiting the lower back, and the severe trauma to the head—a shattered skull and massive swelling of the brain, that caused his death. No surprises there. The gunshot wounds were non-fatal. Also not a surprise.
I attended the autopsy.
I walked the trestle searching the wood and steel for signs of blood and other evidence, things that could tell me what happened and perhaps lead me to the source of the victim’s demise. But there was nothing. Stains that appeared to be blood proved to be oil or grease spilled or leaked from passing the trains.
After holding up train traffic for a couple of hours and finding nothing, not a single shred of evidence, I had dispatch call the train companies to let them know they were once again free to travel the tracks. Then I turned my focus toward the footpaths and dirt road that led to the trestle.
The road was used by railroad workers. The paths were traveled by locals who crossed on foot as a shortcut across the river. Mostly, the pedestrians were poor people who hauled bags filled with aluminums cans and other items to sell to nearby scrap metal dealers.
The trip across the bridge was a dangerous one. There were no side barriers, just two strands of thin cable stretched between a row of vertical metal posts. And no one knew when the next train would come zipping through. So being caught in the middle of the tracks with no means of protection was a very real possibility. The only option would be to jump to the river below, hoping to land in the water and not on something hard. Besides, the fall alone could kill, and it had. Several times.
I caught a whiff of smoke and followed it to where I ran across two homeless men who’d set up camp in the middle of a thicket near the tracks. They’d made a barbecue grill by laying a shopping cart on its side. They burned wood inside the basket until they had a nice pile of glowing embers below the “grill.”
They’d caught a couple of fish earlier that morning and were in the midst of grilling them when I approached. I have to admit, the fish smelled delicious, and they invited me to join them for dinner. I declined, of course.
I took seat on an overturned 5-gallon bucket and chatted with the men while they continued their meal preparations, pausing occasionally to drink from cans inside brown paper sacks. Forty ounce beers from the size and shapes of them.
I turned the conversation to the dead man, showing them a photo of his badly battered face, asking if they knew him. They didn’t know his name but they’d each seen him around a few times, crossing the bridge. They said he’d sometimes stopped to give them a few dollars. “Always had a pile of money on him,” one of the men said. “Kept it knotted in a roll held together by a red rubber band.”
The other man said he’d heard that the dead man used to live in a home that “tended to people who were sick in the head.”
So I visited the nearest place that met the description and sure enough, one of their residents hadn’t been seen for a few days. The woman behind the front desk said he’d received a check each month and was allowed to cash it to spend the money as he pleased. The state took care of his day-to-day care and expenses.
Well, the pieces started to quickly fall into place. I located the bank and teller who cashed the checks. She told me she remembered seeing another man with him that day. They seemed friendly and were talking and joking and laughing as friends do.
After questioning nearly every person I knew who used the bridge, I wound up interviewing one of the dead man’s friends who, out of the blue, confessed to the murder. It was he who’d accompanied the man to the bank.
A Crack Attack
He said he went with his friend to cash the check. Then he and his buddy set out to hand over a few of the dollars to a local prostitute. Along the way, though, he robbed his friend at gunpoint. He told me he needed some quick csh to buy crack. His body’s overwhelming desire for the drug, and “the voice”, he said, made him shoot the man. Then he dragged the kicking and screaming man to a predetermined spot in the woods near the tracks where he used a metal rod to knock him practically unconscious.
The killer wouldn’t look me in the eye when he described pushing and pulling his friend out onto the railroad bridge. Finally, after a brief struggle, he said he simply pushed the victim over the edge of the bridge. He then headed to a local dealer where he purchased three cracks rocks for $60. When he finishing smoking those he went back for three more.
He told me he was sorry for what he’d done, but there was nothing he could’ve done to stop it. The urge to smoke crack was far too great for him to set aside. He’d always done whatever it took to get the next rock.
And, he said, he probably always would. Until it killed him.