February 21, 1936
Richmond, Virginia
Joe Jackson (24) and John Shell (30) are executed for the murders of John Thomas Coleman (77) and Jennie C. Coleman (65)

The Colemans lived on a farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia. On the morning of April 3, 1935, one of the Colemans’ hired hands came in to work but could not find his employers. He reported their disappearance and a group of neighbors joined in a search for the missing couple, who found the Colemans’ home ransacked and in disarray. The Colemans were soon found at the bottom of a 40-foot (12-meter) well on their property.

The well where the Colemans were found

The bodies of the Colemans were retrieved and autopsies conducted. It was determined they had been killed approximately 10 hours before the discovery of their bodies, at approximately 10 p.m. on April 2, and they each had significant wounds severe enough to prompt newspapers to report the couple had been mutilated. Both had gunshot wounds and clubbing injuries, and it was determined both were dead before they were shoved into the well. According to the death certificates, John had gunshot wounds to his arm and face, a severe cut to the top of his head, and a broken arm while his wife Jennie had a gunshot wound to her leg, a lacerated scalp, and a fracture to her occipital bone (the bone at the base of the skull).

Joe Jackson was apprehended in early April on suspicion of murder, and charged after his fingerprints were matched to those found at the Coleman home as well as inside their stolen-then-abandoned vehicle. John Shell was arrested in Haverstraw, New York (about 310 miles or 500 km northeast of Fredericksburg) the following week, and was found in possession of one of John Coleman’s stolen gold watches at the time of his booking.

Both Jackson and Shell admitted to their complacency in the crime but each blamed the other for committing the murders. They were tried together, with Judge Frederick W. Coleman, a “distant kinsman of the slain couple,” presiding over the trial. The pair was convicted and sentenced to death after the jury deliberated for 5 minutes, and their execution date was set for June 21, 1935.

After five postponements, Shell and Jackson were executed in Virginia’s electric chair on February 21, 1936. Neither left a recorded final statement.

Hearn, Daniel Allen. Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia: A Comprehensive Registry, 1866–1962. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015
John Shell. Certificate of Death. Commonwealth of Virginia. Digitized: https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/9278/images/43004_172028008152_0044-00254?treeid=&personid=&hintid=&queryId=73df221d0ae0a8f0a12d9fd6f29629d5&usePUB=true&_phsrc=COm3&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&_ga=2.90556185.2066423224.1613945491-1974064398.1608518424&pId=734258
Joseph Jackson. Certificate of Death. Commonwealth of Virginia. Digitized: https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/9278/images/43004_162028001248_0046-00255?treeid=&personid=&hintid=&queryId=940636ddf39150bd23497c09de0a71c6&usePUB=true&_phsrc=COm1&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&_ga=2.262062606.2066423224.1613945491-1974064398.1608518424&pId=20824
John Thomas Coleman. Certificate of Death. Commonwealth of Virginia. Digitized: https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/9278/images/43004_162028006053_0172-00232?treeid=&personid=&hintid=&queryId=feefb181bbf4d102c19e268120ba6009&usePUB=true&_phsrc=HIO5&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&_ga=2.167151805.2066423224.1613945491-1974064398.1608518424&pId=289625
The Birmingham News. February 21, 1936. 23:2
“Executions Are Postponed for the 5th Time.” The Staunton News-Leader. January 4, 1936
“Well Slayers Ask New Trial Here.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. October 12, 1935
“Two Sentenced For Drownings.” The Herald [Miami, Florida]. May 15, 1935
“Mob Beats Two Negroes Charged With Murder.” The Marshall Morning News. May 15, 1935
“News Of Persons And Places Throughout Old Dominion.” Daily Press [Newport News, Virginia]. May 14, 1935
“Negro Convict Held For Killing Couple.” Evening Sun [Hanover, Pennsylvania]. April 13, 1935
“Quiz Negro In Slaying Of Couple.” The Bee [Danville, Virginia]. April 8, 1935
Daffron, John. “Killers’ Escape Car Found on Street Here; Police Net Covers City.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. April 4, 1935
“Discovered Bodies of Farm Couple Hidden in Well.” Chicago Daily Tribune. April 4, 1935

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