While what police found this week, 100 years ago was particularly horrifying, it’s what happened in the aftermath that was also disturbing, and as modern as the National Enquirer and TMZ. On July 18, 1911, Chesterfield resident Louise Owen Beattie was murdered: a shotgun blast to the head, while traveling with her husband on a lonely stretch of Midlothian Turnpike. Louise and husband Henry Clay Beattie, 27, had left their five-week-old child with relatives; an hour later they were back, not to pick up the baby, but for Henry to deliver his dead wife and tell a story of a tussle with a bearded man and an attempted carjacking. Three days later, he was charged with murder and the media circus began.
In his book “The Body in the Reservoir: Murder and Sensationalism in the South,” Michael Ayers Trotti tells the story of the type of murder that is sadly too common today. He reveals succinctly the sensationalism that had been building in the media since the Civil War. “As a pamphlet on ‘Great Beattie Case’ emphasized, the Beattie sensation coverage would be rife with ‘special photographs,’ which would be ‘complete, fully detailed and concise,’ rendering as much as possible the ‘the whole history of the crime.’ It seemed that Richmond might drown in the coverage.” Soon it would go viral, as described today, making newspapers around the country, and remaining a hot story through the end of the year.
His trail, which began on August 21, was so sensational that Western Union had to take over a building near the Chesterfield courthouse. Henry stuck to his story, but the jury, after deliberating only one hour brought back a verdict of guilty. He was executed on November 24, only 94-days later. Beattie confessed the day before.
At the time, according to Trotti, changing cultural, legal and journalistic conventions powerfully shaped press coverage of crime, influencing changes in popular perceptions as well, although sensationalism remained far less significant in Richmond than in New York or Philadelphia. After the Civil War, sensationalism remained a problematic force in Richmond journalism, revealing the intricacies of a city that was both modernizing and holding on to older southern traditions.