On Friday, 24 February, a new historical highway marker will be unveiled at the site of the former Virginia Penitentiary at the intersection of Belvidere and Spring Streets in Richmond. The marker, sponsored by Richmond author Dale Brumfield, was approved by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources on 30 June 2016. The Penitentiary closed on 14 December 1990. The Ethyl Corporation, which purchased the 16-acre property for $5 million in December 1987, demolished the Penitentiary in 1991-1992 to build their corporate headquarters on the site. The records of the Virginia Penitentiary at the Library of Virginia document the closing and demolition of the buildings.
After the state sold the site to Ethyl, the plan was to close the Penitentiary on 1 July 1990. By that time, two new correctional facilities being built in Buchanan and Greensville counties would be finished and operational. Construction delays pushed back the openings of these new prisons and the closing of the Penitentiary was rescheduled for December 1990. In April 1990, A Building, the oldest prison building built in 1904, was closed and the prisoners relocated to B Building. A Building was in terrible condition: rusted cells, peeling paint, and pigeon droppings on the floor. B Building, built in 1939 and opened in 1942, wasn’t much better. A July 1990 inspection by the American Civil Liberties Union … read more »
As told in an earlier blog, James Dunlop of Petersburg emancipated his slave, John Brown, in April 1822 through a deed of manumission. One would imagine that Brown must revel in his freedom following a lifetime of bondage. However, his joy over being emancipated was surely tempered by the fact that his wife and children remained slaves. Worse, Virginia law required that slaves emancipated after May 1806 leave the Commonwealth within twelve months. One year after receiving his freedom, Brown would be forced to leave his family and reside in a free state where he knew no one.
Prior to emancipating Brown, Dunlop filed a petition with the General Assembly in December 1821 to permit Brown to remain in the Commonwealth following his emancipation. Dunlop asked the General Assembly “to suffer this faithful slave to spend the remainder of his days, in the enjoyment of freedom, and in the bosom of his family.” Dunlop had nearly one hundred white citizens of Petersburg sign the petition. They acknowledged Brown as worthy of emancipation and deserving of the opportunity to remain in Virginia. The committee in the General Assembly found the petition “reasonable,” drew up and reported a bill, however, the full legislature never acted on the bill.
Brown then had to apply to the local court for permission to remain in Petersburg. Before applying, Brown … read more »
Back in 2010 when I was processing the Nelson County chancery suits, I found a remarkable genealogical chart of the prominent Carter family. From that discovery, I wrote my first Out of the Box blog—A Tree Grows In…Chancery! Now, I am here to testify that not only does lightning strike twice, but in the same place as well. Mary Dean Carter, an archival assistant at the Library of Virginia since 2007, was thrilled about my first revelation related to her father’s lineage.
While helping process the Halifax County chancery in 2014, it was my second discovery though that really hit home for Mary Dean. In the beginning of the project Mary Dean had a simple request, let me know if you come across any suits with these last names: Long, Woodall, Land, Burton, Hudson, or VanHook. These surnames belong to her known relatives residing in Halifax County. In a rather lengthy chancery suit from 1869, Heirs of Jesse (Jessee) Ballow v. Exr of Jesse (Jessee) Ballow, etc., 1869-021, I uncovered relatives on her mother’s side of the family.
With the discovery of another well-preserved genealogical chart, Mary Dean determined that her third great grandfather, Hyram Hudson, was a direct descendant of Jesse Ballow’s sister, Anne. A color coded key is provided for reading the chart. Jesse Ballow died in Cumberland County and … read more »
Welcome to Mug Shot Monday! This is the latest entry in a series of posts highlighting inmate photographs in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary. Michael Bertone, the subject of this week’s post, was a member of a gang of yeggmen who robbed the Sussex and Surry Bank in Wakefield in 1921.
Early on Sunday, 6 February 1921, four men entered the Sussex and Surry Bank in Wakefield through a window. At about 2 AM, an explosion blew off the door to the vault. The bank robbers looted approximately $30,000 worth of Liberty Bonds and War Savings Stamps from the safety deposit boxes. They left by the back door and drove off in a stolen car. The vehicle, along with $1,800 of Liberty Bonds, was recovered in Petersburg the next day. The police had no witnesses or suspects.
The first break in the case occurred in July 1921. Harry Young, James Powers, alias “Hooligan Joe,” John Hall alias “Jingle Jerry,” and Mike Benton alias Michael Bertone, were arrested near Clarksburg, West Virginia. The four were charged with attempted train robbery. The thieves had removed the switch lights in an attempt to wreck the train and rob the express car. In November 1921, United States Post Office inspectors connected the four to the Wakefield Bank robbery. During their January 1922 term, the Sussex County grand jury … read more »
December 7th marked a “day that will live in infamy” for many Virginians. However, for one Richmond family, the crucial day fell not in 1941, but in 1955. On that day, at approximately 9:23 am, the three small children of Benjamin Dennis III and his wife Jean were upstairs in their Windsor Farms home watching Captain Kangaroo, a children’s program that had debuted two months earlier. Minutes later, flames shot out the windows of their home. A U.S. Navy McDonnell F2H Banshee fighter jet had crashed outside their house, twenty-five feet from where the children were happily watching television.
Coverage of the immediate aftermath of this alarming event can be heard on recordings made by Richmond radio station WRVA. The newscasts have been migrated and saved on compact disc at The Library of Virginia, through funding from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). The recordings capture the accounts of WRVA reporter Alden Aaroe on the scene minutes after the crash, as well as those of eyewitnesses. Coverage can also be found in newspaper accounts in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Richmond News-Leader.
Ensign Robert Ammann of Dallas, Texas, was on training maneuvers in his jet based at Oceana Naval Air Station, near Norfolk, with a fellow pilot in another aircraft. Traveling at 300 miles an hour, the two jets were flying about … read more »
York County, originally named Charles River County for King Charles I, was one of the eight Virginia shires (counties) first enumerated in 1634. A document dated 7 January 1634 employs the name York County; a statute from that same year, officially changed the name to York County. This change was probably in honor of James, Duke of York, the second son of Charles I and, later, King James II. York County is one of Virginia’s Lost Records localities. Most of its pre-Revolutionary War era loose records are missing. A will that was discovered in a transfer of court records from York’s Circuit Court to the Library of Virginia is a significant historical find given the absence of so many original records. Recorded in York County on 16 February 1789, it is the last will and testament of General Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Thomas Nelson, Jr., was born on 26 December 1738 in Yorktown, Virginia, to William Nelson, a former colonial governor of Virginia, and Elizabeth Burwell Nelson. Among his many accomplishments, he served in the House of Burgesses from York County from 1761 to 1775, and represented Virginia in the Continental Congress. He is one of fifty-six signatories to the Declaration of Independence, seven of whom were from Virginia. Nelson represented York County in the House of Delegates between 1777 and 1783 and again between 1786 … read more »
The naming of the local history and genealogy reading room at Newport News Public Library after Martha Woodroof Hiden is well deserved. Born in Orange County, Virginia, in 1883, Hiden graduated from Randolph-Macon College and went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago and The College of William & Mary. In 1909 she married Philip W. Hiden, who became the first mayor of Newport News, the city where she spent the rest of her life. She ran her husband’s business after his death in 1936, and went on to serve as a member of the board of visitors at William & Mary, an executive at the Virginia Historical Society, and a board member of the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia). An accomplished and scholarly researcher, she authored numerous reviews, articles, and books on Virginia history and genealogy.
With all those accomplishments, however, her work with Virginia city and county court records might be her most important achievement. More than most, she understood the historical significance of the records and their need to be preserved. Among her writing on Virginia history, she published essays on court records, outlining the importance of each of the “classes” or record groups, explaining their use and purpose as few had done before, and laying the groundwork for social historians of the future. In her aptly … read more »
In 1856, the General Assembly decided that free African Americans could petition their county or city court to be enslaved. These individuals had to be at least twenty-one if male or eighteen if female and they could choose their own master. Once the General Assembly accepted the petition, the only difference between someone who was born a slave and someone who was enslaved as an adult was that the children of a woman born while she was free remained free.
Why would anyone wish to be re-enslaved? An 1806 law made it illegal for a former slave emancipated on or after 1 May 1806 to remain in Virginia for more than a year after emancipation. If the individual stayed past that time, period, the government could sell them as a slave. Individuals could petition the General Assembly to remain in Virginia, or their county or city court beginning after 1837. If the government rejected an individual’s petition, the freed person had to leave the state.
On 13 May 1844, Isham Tatum of Madison County wrote his will. Upon his death, three of his slaves—French, Edmond, and Findley—were to receive their freedom. Another slave, Barber, would receive his freedom after the remarriage or death of Isham Tatum’s wife, Frances. He described four slaves as “boys”—Jeptha, William, Thaddeus, and Timothy—who were also to be manumitted upon the … read more »
Welcome to Mug Shot Monday! This is the latest entry in a series of posts highlighting inmate photographs in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary. Willie Williams’, the subject of this week’s post, unruly behavior led a State Convict Road Force (SCRF) officer to shoot him in 1934.
Willie Williams was only 16 years old in August 1921 when he was convicted of housebreaking and sentenced to three years in the Virginia Penitentiary by the Richmond Circuit Court. Williams was then assigned to State Convict Road Force Camp 21. He was not a model prisoner. He was punished three times prior to his escape on 20 June 1923.
Williams was on the run for over nine years. After his recapture on 1 August 1932, Williams was assigned to SCRF Camp 15 in Wythe County where he continued to be disruptive. In 1933 alone he was disciplined three times for fighting with other prisoners and once for talking back to one of the guards. For each infraction his punishment was standing in cuffs for several hours. By the end of the year, SCRF Sgt. M.C. Russell had had enough. On 30 December 1933, Williams claimed he was sick and refused to work. A doctor’s examination found Williams fit and able to work. When informed of the doctor’s findings, Williams said “this was a hell of a … read more »
Last summer, the Westmoreland County Circuit Court Clerk Gwynne Chatham contacted the Library of Virginia concerning old marriage records that staff discovered in her office. After she read the title of one the records, it was clear that she had found the Westmoreland County Cohabitation Register. Ms. Chatham read the title of another group of records which proved to be the Westmoreland County Register of Children of Colored Persons. As former local records archivist Sarah Nerney pointed out in a previous Out of the Box entry about Augusta County cohabitation registers, these “are among the most important genealogical resources for African-Americans attempting to connect their family lines back through the murky past to their enslaved ancestors.” The registers, which in the case of Augusta County dated from 1866, “provide a snapshot in time for the individuals recorded therein and provide a wealth of information that may otherwise be impossible, or at least very difficult, to uncover.”
The original Westmoreland County register pages were transferred to the Library of Virginia for conservation and scanning. A comparison of pictures taken before and after conservation reveals the improvements made to the time-damaged documents. Library of Virginia conservator Leslie Courtois dry cleaned the paper surfaces, flattened creases and crumpled edges, then repaired tears and losses with Japanese tissue and de-acidified the document. Both registers are now available digitally with searchable … read more »