Roanoke Times Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: TUESDAY, July 5, 1994 TAG: 9407050126 SECTION: EXTRA PAGE: EXTRA1 EDITION: METRO SOURCE: By BETTY HAYDEN STAFF WRITER DATELINE: LENGTH: Medium
The 1858 marriage of Vincent Witcher's granddaughter, Victoria Smith, and James Clement ended abruptly in 1860 during one of Virginia's first divorce cases. Before 1850, couples had to petition the state legislature for divorce.
The Clements' case never made it to court because James and his two brothers were killed by the Witchers. The Witchers never stood trial for murder because judges couldn't decide who fired the first shots.
Hence began the Witcher-Clement feud.
This dramatic footnote in Southwest Virginia history is the basis of the play, "The Tie That Breaks," by Rex Stephenson, a Ferrum College drama professor.
He used depositions published by James Clement's father, George, to develop the dialogue. George Clement published the book, hoping readers would recognize a miscarriage of justice.
Each party called witnesses who offered different versions of the same events, which proved frustrating for Stephenson.
So, he allowed the audience to share his dilemma by writing one scene twice, from different points of view.
In the scene, Victoria and James Clement argue before she leaves him. She claims he's a lunatic who threatened to kill her, and he says she's cheating on him and just looking for an excuse to break up the marriage.
One former suitor, Buck Gilbert, takes the stand to support Victoria, but Ralph Clement, James' brother and attorney, accuses Gilbert of having an affair with Victoria.
Stephenson said there was no proof Victoria Clement and Gilbert had an affair, but James Clement did find Gilbert sneaking around his property and playing cards with his wife.
Victoria Clement, a vivacious and attractive woman, enjoyed playing cards and flirting with men, according to Stephenson's research.
"She was a woman ahead of her time," he said.
The play's action continues with more testimony and arguing between the two families in the back room of a local store.
Stephenson said nearly 30 people squeezed into the 18 feet by 18 feet room to see the scandal unfold, while at least 30 more folks stood outside on a cold February day.
"All those people were there because it was great gossip," Stephenson said. Their curiosity paid off.
The divorce proceedings came to a halt on Feb. 23, 1860, when shots rang out, leaving the three Clement brothers dead.
When order was restored, survivors found that William Clement, James' younger brother had been disemboweled, his throat had been cut and he had been shot in the head from close range, probably three inches away.
Ralph Clement had been shot seven or eight times, with a small caliber gun, but one bullet hit his kidney and he died a few hours later.
James Clement had been shot four times, twice in the back.
Stephenson said the parties clearly came prepared for a fight. Each family brought four armed men to the store with them.
Rumor had it the Witchers had been target shooting at trees on their farm so relentlessly that no saplings remained standing.
Stephenson still isn't sure who fired the first shot. The play continues to intrigue the professor, who wrote the original version of the play in 1982 and has directed four productions, including one that runs until Saturday at the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre in Ferrum.
Stephenson updates the play for each production and he says the latest installment of the Witcher-Clement feud is the strongest, but not necessarily the last.
"[The play is] never completed because people send me stuff," Stephenson said. "I imagine I'll pick up more material."
The professor, who has written 14 plays, didn't stumble upon the Witcher-Clement feud by himself. Francis Amos, a local physician, historian and Clement descendant, told Stephenson the divorce case would make a great play. Amos also gave him a copy of George Clement's book.
Amos also told Stephenson how the Witcher-Clement feud changed his home-buying plans.
Amos wanted to buy the Clement homeplace, but his wife nixed the idea because she is a Witcher descendant. The Clement brothers were buried at the farm and she was afraid they'd haunt her.
Stephenson hears stories from Witcher-Clement descendants all the time. Forty-one Witchers attended a recent matinee performance.
He enjoys writing plays based on history and peppered with folklore.
"I can discover things in story form and then make them come to life."