- The Asylum Poisonings: Death, Politics, and “Low Cussedness” in Staunton


Western State Hospital, ca. 1838.  https://wayback.archive-it.org/335/20090115144155/http://www.wsh.dmhmrsas.virginia.gov/history.htm

In 1883, the year when Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solved the case of the Speckled Band, an equally baffling real-life killing drew another noted team of detectives to the Western Lunatic Asylum (later renamed the Western State Hospital) in Staunton, Virginia.

On the morning of 24 February 24, just after receiving their regular liquid medications, seven male patients lost consciousness.  Four died almost immediately, two died in the next three days, and one recovered.  An eighth patient vomited and experienced other ill effects, but recovered in a few days.  A coroner’s inquest concluded that the victims’ cups of medicine must have been poisoned while sitting in an unlocked hall cabinet the previous evening.  Other patients, taking the same medicine which had not been left in the cabinet, had no problems.  Dr. W.W.S. Butler, head pharmacist at the asylum, testified that no poisons were missing from the dispensary.  Autopsies were performed, and University of Virginia chemistry professor John W. Mallet used the latest forensic techniques to analyze three of the victims’ stomachs and their contents.  Mallet concluded that the poison used was aconitia (also known as aconitine), an extremely toxic extract of the aconite or monkshood plant, and the coroner’s jury agreed.  The asylum pharmacy had a bottle of highly diluted “tincture of aconite,” but Mallet thought it was not strong enough to … read more »

- The Island Formerly Known as 314


Richard Young, A Plan of the City of Richmond, Detail, 1809.

This summer’s announcement that Mayo’s Island is again for sale prompted a look back at the history of of the most well-known of the James River islands.

Mayo’s Island is located at degrees 37˚31’45.47”N, 77˚25’59.14”W and can easily be viewed through Google Earth. (Insert of image from Google Earth). The U.S. Board on Geographic Names officially registered “Mayo’s Island” as a feature name in 1979. The name also appears on earlier maps and atlases of Richmond, including the Beers (1877) and Baist (1889) atlases. Going back even further, the land mass was unnamed on the Young (1809) and Baist (1835) maps of Richmond, identified only as number “314.” An untitled manuscript map of the city drawn ca. 1838 merely labels the island as “Toll Gate,” and an 1873 office map of Richmond identifies present-day Mayo’s Island as two islands: Long Island and Confluence Island.

Plats and certificates from the late 18th and early 19th centuries are extant and they reveal that the islands were commonly known as Long and Confluence Islands; parcels of land were granted by the Virginia Land Office to John Mayo (Long Island) in 1792 and to Thomas Burfoot and Milton Clarke (Confluence Island) in 1830. Mayo had petitioned the General Assembly in November 1784 to build a bridge at his own expense and desired to levy a toll to recoup his … read more »

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- “Nelson County in Hollywood”


Second revision of THE WALTONS Season 4 episode, The Fledgling. Earl Hamner Jr. Papers, 1938-2013. Accession 51368. Personal Papers Collection. The Library of Virginia.

The papers of Earl Hamner, Jr., creator and writer of the popular television series The Waltons, are now available for research at the Library of Virginia. One might wonder what the papers of a famous Hollywood figure are doing in Richmond.  Granted, Hamner was born in Schuyler, a small town in Nelson County, but he left Virginia in 1949.  His many accomplishments in film and television took place outside of his home state. But when Hamner left 65 years ago, it wasn’t as though he didn’t look back.

Much of Hamner’s inspiration and ideas grew out of the first 25 years of his life growing up in Nelson County and attending college at the University of Richmond.  Delivering the commencement address at his alma mater the University of Cincinnati in 2008, Hamner said, “What has inspired me has been the family and neighbors I grew up with in rural Virginia during the Great Depression.  They were a decent, God-fearing, patriotic people.  Like most Appalachian folk, they were frugal, proud, and self-reliant.  They were story tellers and I listened.” 


Stock photo of the cast of THE WALTONS, courtesy of CBS Broadcasting, Inc. Found in Earl Hamner Jr. Papers, 1938-2013. Accession 51368. Personal Papers Collection. The Library of Virginia.

While a student at the University of Richmond just prior to World War II, Hamner was working on a short story which described the feelings of a boy when he joined his father for his first deer hunt.  As the story grew, Hamner realized the … read more »

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- “Half way across the river”

Robert Cromwell (1838-1918) was a Union soldier serving in the 10th Illinois Infantry Regiment, Company A. For several months during the spring and summer of 1864 he kept a diary. The Civil War 150 Legacy Project was lucky enough to scan, catalog, and digitize the diary, and numerous other papers of the Cromwell family.


Two pages from the diary of Robert Cromwell of the 10th Illinois Infantry Regiment, including a 30 May 1864 entry describing the sights and sounds of battle. Cromwell Family Papers, Civil War 150 Legacy Project.

Robert’s company took part in Major General William T. Sherman’s so-called “Atlanta Campaign,” a relentless and brutally long-lasting effort to sweep through Georgia, and ultimately seize Atlanta from the Confederate army. In his 30 May 1864 entry, Robert beautifully described the thrilling grotesquerie of the battlefield, with all its horrific forms of sensory overload:

“…crack crack in our front followed by a continuous crash of small arms then increased by heavy artillery soon brought us to our feet. For 35 or 40 minutes the roar was terrific.

…The unceasing roll of musketry the concussion caused by the booming cannon and bursting shell conspired to produce indescribable sensations, mingled exultation and awe.”

But the levity and humor found in the following anecdote from 13 July 1864, is even more noteworthy. Robert’s company is encamped on one side of the Chattahoochee River, and the Confederate troops they fought mere weeks earlier are encamped across the way. As Robert states:

“Although against orders conversation will occur.  Agreed last night to xchange [sic] papers

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- October 30th is Ask An Archivist Day on Twitter!


askanarchivistday-1

Do you have burning questions for an archivist here at the Library of Virginia or elsewhere? Questions like, What’s your favorite document? Where did you get your education? Are socks and sandals mandatory footwear? Do you knit your own sweaters?

Well, head on over to the Twitter-verse any time tomorrow and hit us up with your inquiry. Be sure to use the hashtag #AskAnArchivist. You can direct it to @LibraryofVA or any of the other wonderful institutions that will be participating or to no one in particular.

Just don’t get too personal. What’s in our fanny packs is our business! ;)

Talk to you tomorrow!… read more »

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- Elizabeth City County Chancery Causes Online


Broadside for sale of land in Hampton, 1886, Elizabeth City County chancery causes, 1889-008, James D. Winnie & wife &etc. v. Milton R. Muzzy & wife &etc., Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for Elizabeth City County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1747-1913, are now available online through the Chancery Records Index on LVA’s Virginia Memory website.  Traditional wisdom has always held that not many pre-1865 chancery suits managed to survive the burnings of Elizabeth City County (now the City of Hampton) in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, and the great 1865 Richmond evacuation fire that consumed many locality records sent to the capital for safekeeping.  While not all of the records that should have existed still survive, it is fortunate that 366 suits from Elizabeth City County dating 1865 and prior were discovered as part of this processing project allowing for a richer portrait of the locality to emerge.

The earliest surviving suit is that of John Hunt and wife vs. William Hunter, 1747-001, and concerns the estate of William Hunter.  Hunt’s wife was one of Hunter’s children and as such the couple sued for their portion of her father’s estate, which consisted of four slaves: Moll, Diana, Jemmie, and an unnamed child.  The suit, which commenced in 1744, was continued for several years until it was finally sent on to the General Court in Richmond in 1747.  The General Court papers burned completely in Richmond in 1865 so the ultimate disposition of this … read more »

- To Be Sold: Hester Jane Carr’s Story


The Patriot (London), 7 November 1836.

This is the last in a series of four blogs related to the “To Be Sold” exhibit which opens on October 27 at the Library of Virginia. Each post will be based on court cases found in LVA’s Local Records collection and involving slave traders. These suits provide insight into the motivation of individuals to get into the slave trading business as well as details on how they carried out their operations. Even more remarkably, these records document stories of enslaved individuals purchased in Virginia and taken hundreds of miles away by sea and by land to be sold in the Deep South.  Today’s blog focuses on the experiences of slaves bought and sold by Richard R. Beasley and William H. Wood–experiences conveyed in Lunenburg County Chancery Cause, 1860-026, Christopher Wood, etc. vs. Executor of William H. Wood and Petersburg (Va.) Judgments 1837 May, Hester Jane Carr vs. Richard R. Beasley.

As shared in last week’s blog, Richard R. Beasley and William H. Wood formed a partnership to purchase slaves in Virginia and sell them for a profit in Mississippi and Louisiana. Following the death of Wood in 1845, Beasley was responsible for administering his estate. Wood’s heirs sued Beasley, accusing him of mismanaging the settlement. Both sides in the suit provided the court with a substantial amount of testimony and exhibits which … read more »

- Mug Shot Monday: Dr. Robert S. Fitzgerald, No. 38685


Photograph of Robert S. Fitzgerald, No. 38685, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 32, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

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.  Dr. Robert S. Fitzgerald, the subject of this week’s post, was tried for performing abortions on three women between 1927 and 1937.  All three died as a result of Fitzgerald’s “illegal operation.”

Melva Victoria Royal was in trouble.  The unmarried 18-year-old North Carolinian King’s College student learned in the fall of 1927 that she was pregnant.  Melva wanted to terminate her pregnancy but didn’t know how.  A North Carolina physician provided James Royal, Melva’s father, with a name of someone who could perform the operation:  Dr. Robert S. Fitzgerald of Richmond, Virginia.  On 10 October, Melva and her father arrived in Richmond and made an appointment to see Dr. Fitzgerald.  After examining Melva, Dr. Fitzgerald, according to James Royal’s later court testimony, said he would not take the case for less than $200.  Royal obtained the money from a local bank, returned to Fitzgerald’s office at 6 p.m., and paid him.  Fitzgerald told James Royal take a walk for about half an hour.  When he returned, Melva was asleep.  At 8:30 p.m. the Royals  took a cab to their place of lodging.  Melva complained that she did not feel well.  At 9 a.m. on 11 October, Royal entered his … read more »

- To Be Sold: Beasley, Jones, and Wood- Virginia Slave Traders


Principal Slave Trading Routes, 1810-1850 ca. Provide in part by Calvin Schermerhorn and the University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab.

This is the third in a series of four blogs related to the “To Be Sold” exhibit which opens on October 27 at the Library of Virginia. Each post will be based on court cases found in LVA’s Local Records collection and involving slave traders. These suits provide insight into the motivation of individuals to get into the slave trading business, as well as details on how they carried out their operations. Even more remarkably, these records document stories of enslaved individuals purchased in Virginia and taken hundreds of miles away by sea and by land to be sold in the Deep South. The following narrative comes from Lunenburg County Chancery Cause 1860-026, Christopher Wood, etc. vs. Executor of William H. Wood.

From 1834 to 1845, Richard R. Beasley and William H. Wood were business partners “engaged in the trade of negroes [sic], buying them here [Virginia] & carrying them to the South for sale.” It was a partnership that was renewed every twelve months. Over the next decade, other individuals such as Robert R. Jones invested in the partnership but Wood and Beasley were the primary participants. The slave trade enterprise was funded by the personal capital of the partners, as well as loans from banks and private individuals. For example, in 1838, Beasley invested $5,800 and Wood $2,343 and they borrowed $6,905 from … read more »

- To Be Sold: Elizabeth’s Story


Slave Auction in the South, July 13, 1861, Harper's Weekly.

This is the second in a series of four blogs related to the “To Be Sold” exhibit which opens on October 27 at the Library of Virginia. Each post will be based on court cases found in LVA’s Local Records collection and involving slave traders. These suits provide insight into the motivation of individuals to get into the slave trading business as well as details on how they carried out their operations. Even more remarkably, these records document stories of enslaved individuals purchased in Virginia and taken hundreds of miles away by sea and by land to be sold in the Deep South. The following is the story of a slave named Elizabeth (also known as Lizzy or Betsey) found in Norfolk County Chancery Cause 1853-008, Thomas Williams vs. William N. Ivy, etc.

As told in last week’s blog post, Thomas Williams and William Ivy formed a partnership to purchase slaves in Virginia, transport them to Louisiana, hire them out to a local timber company for a year, and then sell them for a profit. Elizabeth was one of the slaves purchased by Williams and placed on a ship headed to Louisiana where Ivy was awaiting them. When Ivy received the first shipment of slaves, he was not happy to see the slave girl Elizabeth coming off the ship. He could not understand … read more »