Monthly Archives: September 2010

- A surveyor’s view of wartime Virginia

Sketch, entitled "Fredericksburg," from B. Lewis Blackford Sketchbook (Acc. 22177c) 

In May 1863, a team of Confederate topographical engineers surveying and mapping Louisa County were surprised by Union cavalry.  All but one of the team were captured.  B. Lewis Blackford managed to escape, despite losing everything except his horse.  “Among his losses,” his brother Charles Minor Blackford later stated, “was his note book, in which he kept copies of poems and other clever things he had written to various girls, all of which were published in full subsequently in the New York Herald, to whom they were furnished by their captor.  His note book was very handsomely illustrated also, as he was a good sketcher and drew exquisite caricatures.”

Seemingly undaunted by the loss of his notebook, Blackford in June 1863 began a new sketchbook, which eventually found its way into the Personal Papers Collection at the Library of Virginia (Accession 22177c).  The small (4”x 6 ½”) book contains 20 pencil and ink sketches.  Some are outlines and rough sketches of people and landscapes, while others are more polished. The finished sketches of members of Blackford’s company catch their personalities.  Blackford also captured the poignancy of war in his sketches titled “Fredericksburg” and “Chancellorsville.”  The first simply depicts a skull and bone and the second the ruins at the tiny crossroads.

Benjamin Lewis Blackford was born 5 August 1835 in Fredericksburg, to William Mathews … read more »

- Don’t Throw That One Out!

Harper’s Weekly, 21 July 1866. "Taking the Oath."

Sometimes an archivist must be a detective looking for things everyone else missed.

As part of an appraisal project in local records, I reviewed blank volumes sent to the Library of Virginia from county courthouses searching for entries that may have been overlooked in their initial description.  Several volumes that were described as blank actually contained information, most notably a large bond book from Frederick County.

The book was in pieces, tied together with string, with only one of its leather covers remaining.  The pages printed with executors bonds—outlining the obligations of individuals carrying out the directions and requests in wills—were completely blank.  However, the back of some of the pages were filled with faint, but legible, writing.

The book was used not for its original purpose, but instead was used to record loyalty oaths after the Civil War.  These oaths, dated 1865–1866, consisted of statements signed by residents of Frederick County in which they promised to “support the Constitution of the United States and the laws made in pursuance thereof as the supreme law of the land.”  Each oath recorded the individual’s name, age, and sometimes his profession (for example, Henry Brent was a cashier at the Bank of the Valley of Virginia, and C. Lewis Brent was a lawyer).  The volume also contains an alphabetical index that the record keeper crafted by tracing … read more »

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- Virginia Christian: The Last Woman Executed by Virginia?


Photograph of Virginia Christian probably taken on 3 June 1912 when she was transferred from Hampton to the Virginia Penitentiary Death House in Richmond.   Virginia Dept. of Corrections, State Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B Photographs, Box 19, Accession 41558.

On 16 August 1912, 17-year-old Virginia Christian was electrocuted at the Virginia Penitentiary for the 18 March 1912 murder of Ida Belote, her white employer. Today, she remains the only woman to be executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia since the General Assembly centralized executions at the Virginia State Penitentiary in 1908. That historic distinction may be about to change. Barring any intervention by the judicial system or Governor Robert McDonnell, Teresa Lewis will be executed on 23 September 2010 at the Greensville Correctional Center for her role in the murder of her husband, Julian Lewis. Lewis’s pending execution has sparked renewed interest in the Christian case.

The Library of Virginia has a variety of documents concerning Virginia Christian’s execution. Rather than summarizing the case, I will let a representative sample of 51 documents tell the story from all sides: Christian’s family and her attorneys, Belote’s family, the prosecutor, and Governor William Hodges Mann. These documents were drawn from various State Records collections including:  Virginia Dept. of Corrections, State Penitentiary; Secretary of the Commonwealth, Executive Papers; and Records of Governor William Mann. Each image caption includes the citation of the document. The records of the Virginia State Penitentiary Collection, 1796-1991 (Accession 41558) are now open to researchers.

Readers interested in exploring how the Christian case was covered in the media should consult the Library … read more »

- Broken Vows

The Gray's marriage certificate found in a chancery court case in Spotsylvania County.

In 1913, Mary Ella Gray stated in a deposition that she moved to her parents’ home in Fredericksburg after her husband James “continuously abused me, and was very profane to me and often told me that he bore for me no affection whatever, and I could pull up and leave whenever I got ready.”  Court documents show that, prior to reaching this point, happier times were evident in their marriage.

Like so many other Spotsylvania County chancery causes, Mary Ella Gray vs. James Oliver B. Gray, 1913, appeared to be a fairly routine divorce case; however, the marriage certificate was not so ordinary.

The couple was married in the District of Columbia on 1 November 1902.  The certificate is a noteworthy document, illustrative and colorful.  It cites a Bible verse, Ruth 4:13, describing the marriage of Ruth to Boaz, and features an illustration of Ruth gleaning barley in Boaz’s field.  The document was published by Jennings and Dye of Cincinnati, Ohio, printed in Germany.

Divorces were granted through county chancery courts.  The marriage certificate was included in the cause, possibly as an exhibit.  The Spotsylvania County Chancery Causes Collection contains about 40 cubic feet of records and covers the years circa 1811-1925.  It is currently closed for processing and will be digitized.

-Joanne Porter, Local Records Archivist… read more »

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- We can’t all age gracefully

 Architectural model of the Richmond Coliseum

The fate of the Richmond Coliseum has been in question recently, with the city soliciting input from business leaders, local officials, and a consulting firm to determine what comes next for the much-maligned structure.  Should the city continue to keep it limping along with costly repairs as needed, do a large-scale renovation, or demolish it in hopes of building a flashier replacement?  Which of these options is best for Richmond, and where will the money come from?  Alas, the Out of the Box bloggers can’t answer these questions for you.  We can only lament on behalf of the near-40-year-old Coliseum, “What a drag it is getting old!” 

Here at the Library of Virginia, however, there are reminders of how it all began, when the 13,500-capacity arena was the pride and joy of Richmond native and architect Ben R. Johns, Jr. (1922-2006).  In 1968, Johns was tapped as the primary architect to work with the Philadelphia firm of Vincent G. Kling and Associates on the Coliseum project.  While today the building has its share of detractors, back then it had at least a few admirers.  As a result of the Coliseum design, Johns was recognized by the Virginia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1974 and the Richmond Planning Commission in 1975.

In 2007, the year after Johns’ death, a collection of his business … read more »