A City Divided, A Death Undecided

Archived newspapers have always been useful sources for learning about historical events. They provide a look into not only the details of a variety of past events, but also–through their tone and focus–provide a glance at what society was like in the past. Their accuracy, however, must be called into question. While newspapers are essential to historians, they must be widely consulted and not be used as evidence alone. As I found with the 1905 news coverage of the “murder-suicide” of George Malcolm and Joseph Leanto in Lorton, Virginia, each newspaper only provided part of the story leaving it up to the researcher to piece together the most factual information while utilizing other resources to fill in the rest.

According to the April 7, 1905 edition of the Washington Post, a man “deputy sheriff George W. Malcombe” was shot attempting to arrest “Joseph Lee, a negro.”1 On the same day, the Alexandria Gazette reported that a deputy sheriff, “George W. Malcombe” was shot by an unnamed Italian.2 A day later, the Post amended the name of the victim from “Malcombe” to “Malcolm” and announced that the murderer, an Italian named “Joseph Lanto,” had committed suicide to evade arrest.3 On April 9, the Italian’s name changed again in the Post to “Joseph Leanto.”4  Through further research using outside sources, one discovers that the Post never actually managed to get Malcolm’s name completely correct. His real name, as listed in the 1900 U.S. Census, was George A. Malcolm, something that only one newspaper, the Evening Star acknowledged.5 His death record reveals that he was twenty-four years old.6 His picture and gravestone, which is located at Pohick Episcopal Church Cemetery in Lorton, Virginia, are both easily accessible online.

For Joseph Leanto, however, as with many immigrants, records are a lot harder to locate. The only primary source I could find outside that given in the newspapers was his death record: he was a twenty-five year old man and, according to his death record, known as “Joe.”7  His body was buried in the Potter’s Field, most likely in Blue Plains, which could have represented Leanto’s lack of money, status as a criminal, or, according to the April 9th edition of the Washington Times, implied that his body had not been claimed or identified by any friends or family.8

Another important fact that I hoped to clear up is the idea that the crime was a “murder-suicide.” The basics of the original story as reported by the Post were that school teacher and deputy sheriff Malcolm had been shot while trying to arrest Joseph Leanto, an Italian laborer, for allegedly assaulting school girls. Leanto, in fear of capture, quickly fled the scene and later shot himself with his revolver as armed pursuers neared. Both men died at a hospital within an hour of each other.9  This story was quickly called into question by the Italian ambassador who, within a few days, called for an investigation into Leanto’s death. According to the ambassador, there was sufficient cause to believe that Leanto had been murdered by a mob; a wound to Leanto’s hand did not make sense with the suicide theory.10

The results of the investigation, while reported, were not widely covered and demonstrate that for the most part, local, white readers had moved on to other things. In response to the ambassador’s interests, the governor ordered an investigation of Leanto’s death.11 Contrary to the initial report of suicide, two reports quickly surfaced. The first, according to the Evening Star was that of an agent who determined that Leanto was killed by gunshots while attempting to evade arrest and that the “result that the theory of suicide was negatived.”12 The other, mentioned in early May by the Times Dispatch, extended upon the Evening Star’s report. The final statement of the Governor, the Dispatch states, would be sent to the Italian ambassador as the final verdict: the District Attorney was in agreement with the state agent’s findings that Leanto had been “shot with his own pistol while resisting arrest.”13

While this final report seems definitive and enough to prove that Leanto had not committed suicide but was either shot by his own gun on accident, as the citizens claimed, or by another party, one final report reopened the question of Leanto’s death. The yearly recap edition of the Evening Star from January 1, 1906, reported that “Joseph Leanto, an Italian, resisted arrest in Virginia and killed Deputy Sheriff Malcolm. He was shot by a posse of citizens and died at the Emergency Hospital in this city. His victim died in the same hospital.”14 Whether the Star had more evidence than they had previously provided or just interpreted the death of Leanto as a murder, the case’s depiction as a “murder-suicide” was called into question. While there is still a lot of information missing from the case as well as mystery surrounding the identity of Leanto, by combining the information provided by a wide variety of archived newspapers and other outside resources, the idea that Leanto’s death was a suicide is still controversial even today.

“Alexandria News In Brief: Deputy Sheriff Desperately Wounded by a Resisting Negro,” The Washington Post (1877-1922), April 7, 1905, http://www.newspapers.com/image/19496088/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

2 “Shot by an Italian,” Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser, April 7, 1905, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025007/1905-04-07/ed-1/seq-3/  (accessed October 1, 2014).

3 “Both Die of Wounds: Deputy Sheriff Malcolm and Joseph Lanto Succumb,” The Washington Post (1877-1922), April 8, 1905, http://www.newspapers.com/image/19496655/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

4 “Shooting of Leanto: Italian Embasst Investigating Lorton Tragedy,” The Washington Post (1877-1922), April 9, 1905, http://www.newspapers.com/image/19497670/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

5 “Excitement at Lorton: Citizens Declare Leanto Was a Desperate Man,” The Evening Star (Washington D.C.), April 10, 1905, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1905-04-10/ed-1/seq-8/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

6 “George A. Malcolm, 1905.” District of Columbia Deaths, 1874-1959, index and images, https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/F7TJ-Y9M (accessed October 1, 2014).

7 “Joe Leanto, 1905,” District of Columbia Deaths, 1874-1959, index and images, https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/F7TJ-YH4 (accessed October 1, 2014).

8 “Remains of Malcolm Taken to his Home: Those of His Murderer, Joseph Leanto, Remain at Morgue Unclaimed,” The Washington Times, April 9, 1905, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1905-04-09/ed-1/seq-21/ (accessed October 2, 2014).

9 “Both Die of Wounds,” The Washington Post (1877-1922), April 8, 1905.

10 “Gov. Montague to Investigate: Italian Ambassador Wants to Know How Joseph Leanto Met His Death,” Tazewell Republican, April 13, 1905, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn95079154/1905-04-13/ed-1/seq-4/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

11 “Will be Investigated: Gov. Montague’s Assurance Regarding the Death of Leanto,” Evening Star, April 15, 1905, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1905-04-15/ed-1/seq-1/ (accessed 1, 2014).

12 “Death of Joseph Leanto: Acting Secretary Loomis Receives Report of a Special Inquiry,” Evening Star, April 20, 1905, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1905-04-20/ed-1/seq-1/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

13 “Case of Leanto: Governor Montague Makes Final Reply,”The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), May 7, 1905, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85038615/1905-05-07/ed-1/seq-19/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

14 “Crimes and Criminals: Unusual Number of Cases of Murder and Suicide,” Evening Star, January 1, 1906, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1906-01-01/ed-1/seq-12/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

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