A Mysterious Suicuide: Joseph Leanto

On April 6, 1905, George Malcolm, who worked as both part-time police officer and school teacher, was shot in Lorton, Virginia while trying to make an arrest. The entire affair was recorded in four local newspapers: The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Evening Star, and Alexandria Gazette. The circumstances of the event–from the names of the individuals involved to the death of the perpetrator–were covered in these papers, but there was significant conflicting information. As the papers also reported, the Italian ambassador became quite suspicious of the event and complained to the State Department, forcing the governor and Justice Department to investigate. In the end, no foul play was found but the incident remained suspicious.

The confusion about the event began with the initial reports. The first reports of the incident were published in the April 7 editions of the The Washington Post and Alexandria Gazette. The Washington Post article stated that a police officer named “George W. Malcombe had been shot and seriously injured by Joseph Lee, a negro for whom he had a warrant of arrest.”1 The article from the Alexandria Gazette said, “George W. Malcombe, a deputy sheriff at Lorton, Fairfax County had been shot and seriously injured by an Italian, for whom he had a warrant of arrest.”2 There is a clear contradiction between the two articles about the race and ethnicity of the aggressor. Interestingly, ethnic/racial confusion between African Americans and Italians were common in early twentieth-century newspapers. Also, the Alexandria Gazette article provided readers with additional details about the event. It said that the assailant “made undue remarks concerning the young lady scholars.” This is the reason that the newspaper claimed Malcombe obtained an arrest warrant. The article then notes that Malcolmbe and two officers went to Lorton Station to arrest “the Italian” when a shoot-out occurred. During the shoot-out, “the Italian” shot Macolmbe in the abdomen. The officers then retreated, Malcombe was taken to the hospital, and “the assassin made his escape.”3 Furthermore, the article said that he had “secured two revolvers” and “returned to the scene of the shooting, defying arrest, and flourishing the pistols, acting like an enraged fiend.”4 The details in the article get even more unclear as one reads on. It says that “the Italian” attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself, and at first was believed to be dead, but later showed signs of life. He was sent on a train to Washington Hospital. It is important to notice that in this article “the Italian” was called “an assassin” and “an enraged fiend,” but his name was never given.  Many white middle-class readers would have embraced these derogatory terms, which reinforced the attitude that Italian immigrants were see as dangerous and uncivilized.

On the following day, the reports changed the identities of the men and various details of the event. The Washington Post said “George W. Malcolm, the deputy sheriff who was shot in the abdomen while attempting to arrest Joseph Lanto, an Italian at Lorton, Alexandria County, Va.”The Washington Post also identified the aggressor as Joseph Lanto rather than Joseph Lee. It also said that he was originally to be arrested because he “attempted to assault some little girls.”This is different than what was said in the Alexandria Gazette just a day earlier when it was alleged that he had only made “undue remarks.” The Washington Post also stated that “an armed posse yesterday went looking for the Italian.”7  Similarly, The Washington Times reported “Assassin Joe Leanto [as opposed to Lanto or Lee] falls fatally wounded in encounter with posse,” but that the posse claimed the wounds that killed Leanto were self-inflicted.”It is possible that this “posse” was actually a mob looking for vengeance against Leanto for his alleged crimes against the girls and the shooting of Malcolm.

On April 9, reports regarding the identity of “the Italian” again changed, and the suspicions were raised surrounding the cause of his death. The Washington Post also began to call “the Italian” “Joseph Leanto” rather than “Lanto” or “Lee.”  Furthermore, the article says that the Italian ambassador, Baron Mayor des Planches, went to Alexandria to inquire about the nature of Leanto’s death. He was suspicious about the suicide story and believed that a mob had killed Leanto. The article continues, “[i]f Leanto was hunted down and shot by a posse, the Alexandria police are not aware of it, and the report is not credited.”9 The Alexandria police–who possibly knew Malcombe since he worked in law enforcement in the neighboring jurisdiction–might have been intimately knowledgable of the incident and the people involved.  This cryptic sentence appears to be an attempt by the press at undermining the possibility that a mob murdered Leanto.

The men who participated in the posse told their story on April 10 to reporters at the Alexandria Gazette. The Gazette identified the mob as J. M. Springman, John Plaskett Jr., Lindsey Dawson, Peter Hall, Elmer Mallory, George Bayliss, A. W. Grimsley, and R. L. Harrover.10 The men claimed that they went to the Commissary Department where Leanto was employed and “secured possession of the Italian without resistance.”11 Then, they claimed that they allowed him to return to his workplace where he sat in a train car for half an hour.  The men became impatient and “Mr. Springman rushed upon him from the rear, seizing both arms. The Italian drew a revolver, with which he attempted to shoot over his head at Mr. Springman.…The Italian fired but the ball went crashing through his own brain.”12 This story is somewhat unbelievable because it is unlikely that they would have allowed Leanto to return to the Commissary Department once they had him in custody for both murder and assault.  It also would have been difficult for Leanto to attempt to shoot Springman if both of his arms were seized.

On April 12, The Washington Post reported that des Planches took the issue of Leanto’s suicide to the State Department, and the Department requested that the Governor of Virginia investigate. The ambassador was skeptical that Leanto had killed himself because of “the character of the wounds on Leanto’s body, one in particular being on the hand.”13 The ambassador had reason to believe that an armed mob killed Leanto because the wounds on his body could not have been self-inflicted.  They also might make firing a gun difficult.  Seven days later on April 19, the same newspaper published an article that stated Governor Montague requested that Commonwealth Attorney, Vernon Ford, investigate the incident. After Ford’s investigation, he responded, “the posse which attempted to place Leanto under arrest was legally organized and that if Leanto was shot by one of the officers, the shooting was justifiable.”14 Ford submitted this information to the State Department as requested by the Italian Ambassador.  Then, on May 7, the final report on the Leanto investigation was published in The Washington Post, The Washington Times, and Evening Star. All papers stated that the Governor’s office and the Department of Justice found that Leanto was shot with his own pistol.

The last time the incident was reported was in the Evening Star on January 1, 1906 as part of the newspaper’s year in review.  Despite the reports from the state and federal authorities, it reported that Leanto “was shot by a posse of citizens and died at the Emergency Hospital in this city.”15

The lynching of Italian immigrants was not unheard of in the Mid-Atlantic and South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  For example, Janice Hittinger Barrow discusses lynching and mob attacks in her essay, “Lynching in the Mid-Atlantic, 1882-1940.” She writes about a mob killing an Italian immigrant named Boleta after allegedly shooting into a crowd of people and injuring a white man in 1916. After a mob of 500 people found Boleta and beat him, he later died in the hospital.  Barrow writes, “The New York Morning Telegraph described Boleta as a ‘poor Italian immigrant,’ and compared his standing in the community to that of ‘an ignorant friendless Negro.’”16 This is important because the local newspapers used similar terms when describing Leanto. It is evident that many native-born whites did not see Italians as equals, but identified them with African Americans. You can read Barrow’s entire essay here.

After a month of confusion, the final reports ruled that Leanto had committed suicide and there was no foul play. Yet, there is evidence of mob violence if one reads between the lines and look at the experiences of other Italian immigrants in the region.  Furthermore, the Evening Star report from January 1 is explicit about the cause of Leanto’s death. Mob violence, as highlighted by Borrow, was usually to discipline and intimidate minorities and enforce white supremacy. If white men believed that Leanto had tried to assault young white girls and killed a police officer, then these acts would have been their reason for hunting him down and killing him. The newspapers showed bias in their description of Leanto by calling him names like “assassin” “enraged fiend,” and even simply referring to him as “the Italian.” White supremacy–although used to justify Jim Crow segregation–targeted other populations as well.

1 “Deputy Sheriff Desperately Wounded by Resisting a Negro,” The Washington Post, April 7, 1905.

2 “Shot by an Italian,” Alexandria Gazette, April 7, 1905.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

“Both Die of Wounds, Deputy Sheriff Malcolm and Joseph Lanto Succumb Result of Lorton Shooting,” The Washington Post, April 8, 1905.



“Murder and Victim Die in Same Hospital, School Teacher Malcolm’s Wounds Prove Fatal-Assassin Joe Leanto Falls Fatally Wounded in Encounter with Posse,” The Washington Times, April 8, 1905.

“Shooting of Leanto, Italian Embassy Investigating Lorton Tragedy, Was He Killed by Deputies?” The Washington Post, April 9, 1905.

10 “Dual Tragedy at Lorton,” Alexandria Gazette, April 10, 1905.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 “Doubts Theory of Suicide, Italian Ambassador Makes Complaint in Leanto Case,” The Washington Post, April 12, 1905.

14 “Alexandria News in Brief,” The Washington Post, April 19, 1905.

15 “Years Events in District of Columbia,” Evening Star, January 1, 1906.

16 Janice Hittinger Borrow, “Lynching in the Mid-Atlantic, 1882-1940” American Nineteenth Century History, vol. 6, no. 3 (September 2005) 263.

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