The aftereffects of the murder of Lucy Pollard in cast a shadow throughout almost every issue of the Planet in 1896.
The authorities latched their suspicions on a black man named Solomon Marable, a traveler known to have been in the Lunenburg County area and using what was thought to be stolen money. The police took Marable in and interrogated him, and under pressure he accused three black women, Mary Abernathy, Mary Barnes, and Pokey Barnes, of murder and forcing Marable to aid them. As such, they held in the Lunenburg County jail, though they claimed innocence.
Suspicion against the four defendants was so great amongst the citizens of the county that they were in constant danger of lynching, even while in prison and while Mary Abernathy was heavily pregnant. Solomon Marable later changed his story, admitting that true killer was a white man named Thompson. These accusations were not taken nearly as seriously as his earlier naming of three black ladies by the authorities, and few white people listened.
The Richmond Planet, never a newspaper to let injustice lie, printed article after article proclaiming the innocence of the three women, and attempting to drum up support for their legal support and raise their public opinion.
The Planet opened January 1896 with a continuation of its ongoing campaign to support the suspects, now well known as the Lunenburg Prisoners. The Planet rang in the new year with news of the birth of Mary Abernathy’s baby being born in prison, illuminating just how poorly the prisoners were being treated.
Planet editor John Mitchell, Jr., had gone to Lunenburg himself. There, he spoke with the owners of local businesses and nearby citizens to collect evidence that Thompson had been in the area, had the opportunity to commit the crime, had the weaponry to do so, and was publicly threating Marable and the paper.
Mitchell had also published several pieces intended to convince those in power of the danger of prisoner lynching in Lunenburg, the bias of those from said county, and the need to postpone the trial. While some white-run newspapers and organizations claimed that the prisoners were in no danger and that the prejudice against them was completely nonexistent, the Planet criticized these defenses mercilessly. When the council of the county claimed that that the prisoners were in no danger and as such they should not be under heavy protection, the Planet accused the officials of being bloodthirsty murderers hoping that by removing the protection from those known to be in danger the prisoners would be killed.
It was in large part articles like that that would assure the public of the condition of the prisoners and helping to make sure that said public knew of the risk they were in, assuring that no action would be taken to make them less safe, via warning such as “contending over a most mischievous bill offered by Mr. G. A. Hundley and providing for the strangulation of the right of appeal.
Eventually, the effort to postpone the trails was successful, and it was determined that the prisoners be given until the next legal term to gather further evidence. In this time, the authorities were able to be convinced to move the prisoners and the trial to the neighboring Prince Edward County, which was thought to be safer. However, the Planet was not satisfied by these minor successes, and continued campaigning until the trials began in April, when the transcribed the trials line by line.
Judging by the constant articles about the case, the many responses submitted by readers on the topic, and the reminders to send aid, the Planet played a rather remarkable center role in helping the community organize the response to the injustice heaped on the prisoners, as well as reporting on what the risks, dangers, and opportunities were. The Planet’s large readership and consistently indignant tone at the treatment of Mary Abernathy, Mary Barnes, and Pokey Barnes, meant that people devoted their time and money to see justice served.
One of the greatest of such events came shortly before the trials were to commence. Worried about last minute attempts to kill or injure the prisoners in instances of mob violence, hundreds of men were organized to patrol the area and report to the police any weapon wielding violent approaching lynchers.
Many of the problems in society that the Planet relentlessly criticized were encapsulated together in the one event. The Planet had no end of reports condemning lynchers and those in power who would overlook mob violence. That it was brought up in such a high-profile case is one way that the Lunenburg Case exemplified many of the issues the Planet railed against.
The Planet also campaigned against the abuse of justice against the black community. The blatant way the Lunenburg crime was pinned on black women when the evidence pointed towards killer being a white man made this case an especially egregious example of how African Americans were more likely to be thought guilty compared to their white counterparts.
People in positions of power, such as the Lunenburg council, made the case an example of white neglect of injustice by using such tactics as the Lunenburg Resolutions to close their eyes to any responsibility they may have had. Similarly, the way the police attempted to pressure Solomon Marable into implicating the women was an example of authority figures refusing to acknowledge the rights of African Americans.
In the end, despite the efforts of the Planet and other organizations, as well as a large public movement, Mary Abernathy was judged guilty despite all of the evidence against such a result, and was forced to take her case to a higher appeal. Pokey Barnes, on the other hand, was later able to gather the witnesses and support to prove herself innocent. With that in her favor Mary Abernathy was able to secure her own freedom, although several months later.
Even after the trials, the Planet continued to write articles updating the public on the situation of the prisoners, showing the remaining public interest in the case. What was meant to be a demonstration of how the community would stop egregiously innocent people from biased courts and authorities had been a mixed success, but the Planet did not give in. Instead the paper constantly reminded the readers about Mary Abernathy’s condition with “Poor Aunt Mary” articles to keep the public sympathy going until it was acknowledged officially that she was innocent, that would say things such as “In our Joy over the release of innocent Pokey Barnes, it should not be forgotten that innocent Mary Abernathy is standing within the shadow of gallows” to remind the public to keep Lunenburg in mind.
Judging by the letters the paper received some optimism was indeed gained, even by Mary Abernathy herself. In fact, after it was all over, the paper referred to the events as “a glorious victory.”