Finding Beulah

A bestselling novelist digs into a sensational local murder trial from 1911 and gives a voice to the 17-year-old victim lost in the middle.

On July 18, 1911, a murder occurred in Chesterfield County that gripped the attention of the entire country.

The victim was Louise Wellford Owen Beattie, the prominent wife of a wealthy young man from Richmond, Henry Clay Beattie Jr. whose family was in the dry goods business in Manchester. On that night, Beattie had driven to South Richmond to pick up his wife for a drive; she had recently given birth to their child and was visiting a friend.

He took her for a ride in his automobile, returning that night at 11 p.m. cradling the lifeless body of his wife, who had the top of her head blown off.

Beattie claimed that a bearded man had jumped out on Midlothian Turnpike, struggled with him then shot her with a shotgun. He had wrestled the gun away from the man, he said, but in all the commotion it must’ve fallen from the vehicle as he rushed his bleeding wife back to the house.

His story didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Local investigators were puzzled when bloodhounds were taken to the scene and only ran in circles, unable to locate the scent of the alleged suspect. Then a local maid found the shotgun used in the crime some distance away near railroad tracks — as if it had been thrown.

A few days later Beattie was arrested and charged with murdering his wife. That’s when a young, 17-year-old witness named Beulah Binford came into the story.

Binford had been Beattie’s lover since she was 13 and gave birth to his child at 15. As a witness, Binford was held in jail even though she was never called to testify. Her photo landed on front pages of newspapers across the country and she quickly was sensationalized as the promiscuous other woman who led the prominent young Richmond socialite to murder his wife.

“This played out in a very rural, agricultural area, probably less than 20,000 people,” says Russ Lescault, board member of the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia. “They had to put in a telegraph office at the general store [next to the courthouse] so that reporters could file stories. They also had to hire an extra deputy and have state militia in tents to guard the courthouse because of the size of the crowds.”

Beattie was found guilty, later confessing, and wound up being one of the only wealthy white men ever put to death in the electric chair in Virginia.

Meanwhile, Binford had her reputation ruined, a cautionary folk song written about her and was forced to leave town and change her name often. She sought a career on stage in New York that was destined for failure (see sidebar).

Never once was she viewed as a victim.

Amy Stewart, a New York Times bestselling author, is doing her part to amend this by featuring Beulah Binford in her new novel, “The Kopp Sisters on the March,” the fifth book in a popular series about America’s first female deputy sheriff, Constance Kopp, that will soon become a television drama for Amazon.

Stewart has a proven knack for rediscovering strong women whom history has ignored, and whose stories illuminate the cultural values of their time.

In her new book, she fictionalizes the character of Beulah Binford using as much factual detail as she can find, including a portrait of Richmond, mostly in flashbacks, from a period when the city was notorious for its legalized prostitution.

“There’s a reoccurring vaudeville manager in the series named Freeman Bernstein who had run-ins with Constance when she was a deputy sheriff,” Stewart explains. “In researching Bernstein, I found Beulah in 1911 being represented by him. He wanted to put her on stage after the scandalous trial.”

The time frame didn’t match her series, but she was so interested in Binford that she found an excuse to write about her with a little creative fiction.

After reading that Binford had tried to join the Red Cross to redeem her image in the lead up to World War I, she decided to have her main series characters, the Kopp sisters, meet Binford at a National Service Camp for women in Chevy Chase, Maryland, largely the setting for the book.

Stewart, who lives in Portland. Oregon, and owns a Victorian bookstore with her husband in Eureka, California, will be coming to read and sign her books at Chop Suey Books in Carytown on Friday, Sept. 20.

Richmond’s Red Light District

Richmond was a heavily segregated society at the beginning of the 20th century, even more so than today. Many women worked in factories, though they were paid much less than men and were struggling to live on their own. They did not go into bars and restaurants unescorted, Stewart says.

There were a lot of riveting murder scandals in the news back then, seemingly one after another. So why did Binford’s story catch on nationally?

“There was something so forbidden about it,” Stewart explains. “It’s dealing with a lot of issues you couldn’t talk about in 1911 — infidelity, sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution. Also it reflected this thing the public was obsessed with in 1910s: the problem of girls being out on their own and having any kind of agency.”

In 1905, the mayor of Richmond and the chief of police created a legal red-light district of sorts where prostitution, gambling and drinking were tolerated. It ran the length of Mayo Street (no longer in existence) for three blocks from Broad to Main Street, with a section on lower Eighth Street added later.

In her book, Stewart has Binford being born on Mayo Street and growing up around the adult activities, often cruising what’s called Monroe Square to meet affluent men.

Barely a teenager, Binford has a child with Beattie and gives up the infant boy due to Beattie’s family-arranged marriage and her own rebound pursuit of a local baseball player. The baby soon died from cholera, common at the time. All true.

“This idea of Mayo Street as a place where an unwed mother could go to have her baby and keep her baby,” Stewart says. “I don’t think we realize how wrenching that had to be, 100 years ago, when many women had to give their babies up. Beulah’s sister Claudia managed to keep hers by marrying the father. Beulah lost hers.”

The red-light district didn’t last long, about a decade. City officials learned that vice couldn’t be limited to one area in town and the police were becoming too involved with the activities themselves, as written about in a book by local author Harry Ward, “Children of the Streets of Richmond: 1865-1920.”

Stewart, who is from Texas, researched the cultural values of the period by reading as much as she could in newspaper accounts and court documents. The Richmond Times-Dispatch relentlessly covered the Beattie story in minute detail.

“No one called her a victim. Every newspaper article, she is the scarlet woman, the disgraceful one, the problem,” Stewart says. “So that made me think, did Beulah see herself as a victim?”

Lescault points out the glaring difference in how Beattie was treated.

“They really treated him with kid gloves,” he says. “They allowed his father to come into the jail to see him. His picture was taken. Beattie was almost like a rock star at the time.”

Chris Sempter, a curator at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, helped Stewart locate court transcripts and says there was nothing particularly revealing.

“They didn’t provide a whole lot of info,” he says, noting that he usually does Poe-related research. “I remember that Beattie was first held in Henrico jail. … It was also striking how quickly everything went back then. He murdered his wife on July 18, went to trial Aug. 21, was found guilty Sept. 8, filed an appeal on Nov. 6, and got executed Nov. 24.”

One of the saddest things about the trial was that the judge cleared the courtroom of any women before Binford could even be discussed in testimony.

“Of course, this is a story about nothing but women,” Stewart says.

In the book, the fictional Binford reveals that this was what hurt her the most about the whole ordeal, being treated like a disease.

“I kept thinking, there were a lot of girls like Beulah. Her story was not unusual,” Stewart says. “There were lots of charity girls, was the term, girls who would date men for a free dinner or a new dress. It wasn’t quite a money transaction. There were girls all over the country doing this.”

But it just so happens that Binford was having an affair with a spoiled guy who perpetrated this shocking murder and tried to cover it up.

“So she got into trouble for something everyone was doing,” Stewart points out. “They just didn’t get into the paper for it.”

National Service Schools

When researching the period, Stewart learned that not many people knew about what women were doing in the years before World War I.

That’s what gave her the idea for her setting of National Service Camps, particularly the one in Chevy Chase, Maryland, since it wasn’t too far from Richmond.

“I thought this would be a great world to put them, a little pressure cooker of a confined space,” she says of the schools, where uniformed women were trained in military preparedness.

At the beginning of the book, Binford loses her boyfriend, apartment and her job in one day and runs off to join the National Service School in hopes that it will get her to France to help in the war effort. She was ready to escape the country for someplace where she would not be recognized.

Funnily enough, Stewart quickly realized that her plot was somewhat reminiscent of the Bill Murray movie, “Stripes.”

“I pretty much have that movie memorized because when I was a kid, it was on television all the time,” she says, laughing. “It’s a low-brow reference … but I realized there were other elements I could use. Sgt. Hulka gets shot off a platform, and I knew Constance would need to take over the camp, so I had my drill sergeant fall off a platform.”

Stewart has a degree in anthropology from University of Texas at Austin and was known for her gardening books before turning to historical fiction. She says she’s tries to make each of her Kopp books different stylistically.

“I’m trying to use these books as a way to not only talk about the Kopps but the times they worked in,” she says. “For a woman in law enforcement, it was like being a social worker, you run up against the social issues of the day — unwed mothers, runaways. I’m just as interested in their stories and what that leads to.”

Stewart points out that, as a society back then, we also didn’t have the language for the idea that trauma can cause long-lasting effects. “We didn’t think that way until soldiers came back from World War I, like with the term shell-shocked.”

Her characters, Binford and Constance Kopp, were both dealing with shame and humiliation that had occurred (Kopp has an affair in an earlier book). So it makes sense that they would find a personal connection at the camp.

“The person I really thought about with Beulah was Monica Lewinsky,” she says. “I can only imagine what it was like for her back in the day. How do you go apply for a job with that name? That’s exactly what Beulah faced.”

Ending the Scarlet Letter

Stewart was sympathetic to Binford from the beginning, especially considering her age and what she endured. She read everything she could but admits that the trail soon ran cold. One of the last real Binford sightings in the news was the story about her attempt to join the Red Cross that inspired this book.

“When her sister died, an obituary mentioned her having a sister with a different name,” she says. Stewart used to try to trace the name but says she did not have much luck.

So how much has society changed since the scarlet letter days when a woman involved with a powerful man was always thrown under the bus?

“Barely at all,” Stewart says, pointing to the Jeffrey Epstein case among others. She notes that Epstein was running around with Bill Gates, coordinating donations from Gates to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lab and this was after the financier had entered a plea deal and served a year in jail for going after teenage girls in 2008.

“So that was not a deal breaker for the Bill Gates of the world. All these other rich and powerful men were able to go, ‘We know he made a plea deal, he went to jail, he always has a pretty girl on his arm of some indeterminate age.’ That was only about 10 years ago!”

She believes that things have changed only very recently because of the MeToo movement.

“Only now are we publicly siding with women,” she says.

The actress Elizabeth Banks has optioned the movie of the Kopp Sisters, drawing from all the books, for an Amazon Studios television series. Among the writers for the project are two talented and funny women from the hit comedy “Veep.”

Stewart is looking forward to meeting Richmond folks at her reading.

“I imagine I’ll have people showing up with stories about their grandparents and great-grandparents,” she says. “Connecting their family history to this thing.”

A book reading and signing with Amy Stewart will be held at Chop Suey Books on Friday, Sept. 20, from 7 to 8 p.m. Free.

Click here to read about the real Beulah Binford


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