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Walking the Beat: The Curious Case of Roosevelt Darnell Part 1




It’s a phenomenon as old as civilization itself.

From the first assault and battery perpetrated by the cavemen to drug deals and vicious homicides of today, crime has been an indiscriminate part of our collective human narrative for millennium.

The Alleghany Highlands and surrounding region hasn’t been immune to the leeches of lawlessness and has contributed its own sordid tales of crime and punishment.

Typically, most crimes fall into one of three categories — greed/power, lust or revenge.

Sometimes a criminal’s motivation for his or her crime will blend parts of two or all three of these categories; but, for the most part, they tend to be an initial result of one of these areas.

And sometimes, it’s not easy to pigeon-hole the motivations of a criminal exclusively into one of those three categories.

In short, some people are just bad people — despite the motivation or rationale.

Too often, though, these local stories of crime and punishment have become lost in the pages of our area’s history; or, should I say, in most cases they’ve become lost to the pages of the local newspaper.

That’s where I come in.

I’ve spent most of my 20-plus year career in the newspaper business writing about crime or researching crimes of the past.

Or, to be more specific, I’ve been “Walking the Beat,” making my way through yellowed and crumbling newsprint pages and talking with survivors or those involved in helping write our area’s collective narrative.

Have you ever read “Echoes of the Past,” that appears daily in the Virginian Review?

Well, what I’m embarking on is similar to that, but with a historic look at crimes throughout our area’s history, especially over the past 100 years.

This week, we get in our way-back machine and travel to Greenbrier County, W.Va., November, 1930, for Part 1 of “The Curious Case of Roosevelt Darnell.”

In researching for “Echoes of the Past” recently, I stumbled upon a story on the front page of the November 14, 1930, edition of The Covington Virginian (predecessor to today’s Virginian Review).

The brief article read as follows:

Darnell Will Hang At Moundsville Tonight

Governor Conley, returning to Charleston last night from an upstate trip took no action on the petition for executive clemency for Roosevelt Darnell, sentenced to be hanged tonight in Moundsville penitentiary for the murder of Clarence Holbrook in Greenbrier County.

He will not interfere.

Petitions in the case came from the home of the Darnells in Greenbrier County from their former home in South Carolina and a personal plea from Mrs. Alice Darnell, the condemned man’s mother, who talked Wednesday with Albert G. Jenkins, pardon attorney.

A letter from United States Senator Lee Overman, of North Carolina, in the young man’s behalf, was also filed in the governor’s office.

Darnell was convicted and sentenced in Greenbrier County where the murder was committed.

Reading that article took me by surprise — Needless to say, my interest was immediately piqued, and away I went.

I found the dispensation of the story — again on the front page — of the following day’s edition, Nov. 15, 1930.

Darnell Dies On Gallows For Murder

Roosevelt Darnell, of Greenbrier County, convicted of murder last July in the killing of Clarence Holbrook, was hanged in the state prison in Moundsville last night.

The trap was sprung at 8:57 o’clock and Darnell was pronounced dead at 9:05 o’clock.

Darnell was convicted of shooting Holbrook to death early on the morning of June 8.

Rev. William H. Ferrell, of Lewisburg, chaplain of the Lewisburg jail, where Darnell was confined before his removal to Moundsville, visited Darnell yesterday afternoon.

The condemned man was on the scaffold when prison officials, witnesses and newspapermen entered the death house shortly before 9 o’clock.

Darnell was dressed in a black suit, white soft shirt and black tie. As he took his place on the trap, a tuft of his reddish-sandy colored hair slipped into his eyes and Warden A.C. Scroggins brushed it back.

“I am going to go game,” Darnell mumbled as he looked nervously over the heads of those in the death chamber.

The Rev. W.C. Harold, prison chaplain, then offered a prayer in which he asked forgiveness for the young man.

Warden Scroggins asked Darnell if he had a farewell message, and the reply was “No sir.”

With the black hood adjusted and just an instant before the trap dropped, Darnell said, “Goodbye, boys.”

A dramatic touch was then given the execution, the customary nine o’clock prison taps sounded as the prison choir was singing “In the Garden.”

Darnell’s body during this time was suspended on the gallows.

Early on the morning of June 8, Holbrook was shot as he sat in his home.

The bullet was fired through a window.

Holbrook died about 14 hours later in a Ronceverte hospital.

After a search of three weeks, officers captured Darnell and charged him with the murder.

Darnell said then and reiterated the statement at his trial that he was intoxicated at the time Holbrook was shot and he did not remember anything that happened.

Darnell was brought to trial at Lewisburg in July and on July 23, a jury returned a verdict of murder in the first degree without recommendation for mercy.

A few days later, Judge Summers H. Sharp pronounced the mandatory death sentence.

A 90-day stay of execution was granted to permit an appeal.

Before he was removed to the state penitentiary, Darnell participated with seven other prisoners in a break from the Greenbrier jail at Lewisburg.

The men sawed their way out during the night and scattered in several directions.

Darnell remained at liberty for less than a week and was captured by officers in Monroe County.

He told them had they arrived a day later they would not have found him as he had planned to leave that section during the night.

After reading those two stories, I was immediately drawn to the case and the facts that might tell me what led to Darnell’s eventual appointment with the hangman’s noose.

But these two stories really didn’t tell me the story behind the story — so I started digging.

Who was Roosevelt Darnell, and for that matter, who was Clarence Holbrook?

What was his back-story and what led him to apparently shoot and kill Clarence Holbrook only five months prior?

Which category did the crime fall under — greed/power, lust or revenge?

So that’s where I began on “The Curious Case of Roosevelt Darnell.

Next week, we’ll go into just who was Roosevelt Darnell, what were the facts of his crime and was there anything that could have predicted he’d end up walking the road of life he did.

…Stay tuned.

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