Portsmouth, Virginia: The Murder of Richard Billings

Recently, while combing through newspaper archives, I came across a terrible story about the senseless robbery and murder of Richard Billings, a young and enterprising resident of Portsmouth, Virginia.

Richard Billings, a colored chauffeur, was murdered by two white men, who hired his car early Wednesday night for a drive into the country near Norfolk. Billings’ body with a bullet hole through the head, was found on the roadside, six miles from Suffolk, and between that place and Beaman Station, yesterday. The car, a new one, is missing. The object of the murder, evidently was robbery

The Alexandria Gazette, June 17, 1916
The Alexandria Gazette, June 17, 1916

The Times Dispatch (Richmond, Va.), ran a story on the conclusion of the case, settled in Suffolk, Virginia Circuit Court.

Two Given Life Sentences – Young White Men Plead Guilty of Killing Negro – W. L. Goodson and Coleman Merritt, two young white men, natives of Lewiston, N. C., charged with the murder of Richard Billinger (sp), a colored chauffeur, of Portsmouth, on the Norfolk-Suffolk Road, on the night of June 14, 1916, through their attorneys, Judge R. H. Rawles and J. H. Corbett, of Suffolk, and Yarborough & Persons, of North Carolina, waived trial by jury in Nansemond County Circuit Court today. Offering no defense, the attorneys asked Judge James L. McLemore to pass upon them life sentences rather than the death penalty. Both men were sentenced to serve the remainder of their lives in State Prison. Billinger (sp) was hired by the two men to drive them some miles out of Portsmouth on the night of June 14. His body, shot through the head, was found by the roadside late that night. The men and the car had disappeared. The white men later were found near Lewiston, the stolen car in their possession, and were brought back to Suffolk for trial.

The Times Dispatch, October 10, 19161

When I looked up Richard’s death certificate, I found it contained only a few details about his life. The certificate lists his place of death (Driver, Va.), age about twenty-two, married, a chauffeur for a private family, cause of death as homicide, and place of burial, Portsmouth, Virginia. The certificate contains no information about his place of birth, parents, or his wife’s name. Although the certificate doesn’t state the exact cemetery, Richard likely rests in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (est. 1879), although today, no visible headstone marks his grave.2

I found myself wanting to know more about Richard’s life, so I did a little digging. Richard Billings was born about 1892 in Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. He was the son of Steven Billings (ca. 1864-1926), and Alice Campbell Billings (ca. 1868-1938).3

In 1898, Richard’s father, Steven, along with several other African American men, were denied the right to register to vote by three Mecklenburg County electors: W. S. Pharr, W. S. Flenniker, and R. J. Ferguson. A case evolved out of the subsequent dispute: J. W. Mullen vs. W. S. Pharr, W. S. Flenniker, and R. J. Ferguson. J. W. Mullen, chairman of the Republican Executive Committee, argued for the plaintiffs. The case was initially brought before Hon. W. A. Montgomery, in Raleigh, North Carolina, October 18, 1898. On October 21, 1898, Judge H. R. Starbuck, of the eleventh judicial district rendered his verdict, in LIncolnton, Lincoln County, North Carolina, in which he ultimately sided with the plaintiffs, Steven Billings, Alexander Alexander, and Ben Foster. The three electors who’d denied Steven and the other men the right to register to vote were ordered to do so, and in addition, pay the court costs of the case.4

The Charlotte Observer, October 21, 1898

In the 1900 Census, Richard and family were documented in Sharon Township, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Their household included Steven (36), a farmer, wife Alice (32), daughters Blanche (16), Jessie (14), and Connie (1), and sons Calvin (10), Richard (9), Frank (4), and William (one month). Blanche, Jesse, Calvin, and Richard were all attending school.5

Richard turns up again in Portsmouth, Virginia vital records. He married Maggie Wheeler, from Charlotte, North Carolina, daughter of Frank and Delia Wheeler, on May 28, 1913.6 The couple had one son, Richard, Jr., who was born about 1916, the year of his father’s death.7

Map of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Crab Orchard Townshp and Sharon Township are identified in red. Source: North Carolina Maps.

I looked a bit more into Richard’s paternal ancestry. His father, Steven Billings, grew up just south of Charlotte, in the southern region of Crab Orchard Township. In the 1870 Census, their household included James (33), a farmer, Louisa (or Leanna) aged 41, keeping house, daughters Adeline (18), Priscilla (14), and Anna (5 months), and sons Nelson (20), Hampton (9), Steven (Stephen) (7), Dick (4), John (3), and Bill (5 months).8 Nelson, Adeline, Priscilla, and Hampton were all attending school.9

The approximate area the Steven Billings family lived in southern Crab orchard Township and northern Sharon Township, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

Steven had a younger brother named Richard! Upon discovering the fact, I wondered if this was a possible reason why Steven would later name one of his children Richard, after his brother Dick. However, following up on Dick’s story, I discovered another tragedy.

Coroner Smith was yesterday summoned to the farm of Mr. Boston Wallace, in Crab Orchard township, to hold an inquest over the body of a colored boy named Dick Billings, who had accidentally shot and killed himself while out gunning. It appears that Billings, in company with two other boys, was out hunting rabbits, Monday evening, and “jumped” one, which ran into a piece of woods near by, the two boys following it, while Billings mounted a stump, gun in hand, to await their return. While standing on the stump he saw a hawk flying towards him, and, cocking his gun, waited for it to come near enough for him to shoot. The hawk changed its course and Billings lowered his gun, and as he did so the hammer struck the stump, causing the gun to fire. The entire load entered the unfortunate negro’s side. In a short time the two boys returned, to find him lying by the stump, with the blood spurting from the wound. The unfortunate boy was still conscious, and told his two companions how the accident how the accident happened, when he gave a gasp and died. The coroner’s jury found the facts in the case to be as related above, and returned a verdict that the deceased came to his death by accidental shooting.

The Charlotte Observer, January 31, 1883.

A similar story was also featured in the Charlotte Democrat, the Chatham Record, and the Wilmington Morning Star.

Dick Billings, colored, who lived near Mathews, in this county, went out rabbit hunting with some white boys last Monday. While in the excitement of chasing a rabbit his gun hit a stump, causing a discharge of its contents into the side of the colored man. He only lived a few moments. The Coroner held an inquest with a verdict of accidental killing

The Charlotte Democrat, February 2, 1883

I couldn’t believe it. Dick Billings, the paternal uncle Richard never met, had also died violently, when he was only seventeen years old. I could only imagine how distraught Steven must have been, to have lost one of his younger brothers, Dick, in such a manner, only to later have a son, possibly named in honor of his deceased younger brother, murdered in the prime of his life, and left on the side of the road. Steven and Alice Billings were forced to bury their son, Richard, before their time. Maggie Wheeler Billings, newly married, lost her husband, and Richard, Jr., an infant at the time of Richard Sr.’s death, had to grow up without his father.

If there was a lesson to be learned from Richard’s story, it’s to always remember to fully investigate, or reasonably exhaust, every document that helps tell a deceased ancestor’s story, and to never rely on any one source. By contemporary news accounts, Richard Billings was little more than a “colored” chauffeur who was robbed one fateful night in 1916. The story likely made the news because Richard’s murderers were white men, who offered no defense of their crime, and were sentenced to life in prison. Figuring out Richard’s story, going solely by his death certificate, would lead to a dead-end. The use of a combination of records, from city directories, to old maps, was vital in properly and respectfully piecing together his ancestral past.

  1. Both Richard Henry Rawles (1850-1919), and Judge James Latinus Mclemore (1866-1954), are interred in Suffolk’s Cedar Hill Cemetery.
  2. Ancestry.com. “Virginia, Death Records, 1912-2014,” database (https://www.ancestry.com/ : accessed 20 October, 2019), entry for Richard Billings, citing death certificate no. 15196, Portsmouth, Virginia.
  3. According to Mecklenburg County marriage records, Steven Billings, son of James and Louisa (Leanna) Billings, and Alice Campbell, daughter of Horace and Emily Campbell, on November 6, 1884, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.
  4. The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, NC), 20 October 1898, p. 6, col. 1; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com: accessed 19 October 2019; “Judge Starbuck’s Order,” The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, NC), 21 October 1898, p. 6, col. 1; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com: accessed 20 October 2019).
  5. Ancestry, “U. S. Census 1900,” database, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : accessed 20 October, 2019), entry for Steven Billings (b. ca. 1864), Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, dist. 0053, Sharon Township, p. 13, citing “Year: 1900; Census Place: Sharon, Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Page: 7; Enumeration District: 0053; FHL microfilm: 1241206.”
  6. Virginia, “Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940,” Ralph Billings-Maggie Wheeler, 28 May, 1913; Ancestry (https://ancestry.com: accessed 21 October, 2019).
  7. Ancestry.com. “North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1976,” database (https://www.ancestry.com/ : accessed 20 October, 2019), entry for Richard Billings, Jr., death certificate no. 233, Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.
  8. Anna and Bill were noted as fraternal twins in the census record.
  9. Ancestry, “U. S. Census 1870,” database, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : accessed 20 October, 2019), entry for Stephen Billings (b. ca. 1864), Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, dist. Crab Orchard, p. 36, citing ” Year: 1870; Census Place: Crab Orchard, Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Roll: M593_1148; Page: 133A; Family History Library Film: 552647.”

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