CSI: OLD VIRGINIA: SCENES OF MURDER AND MAYHEM IN THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT RECORDS COLLECTION

Chesterfield County, County Court, Criminal Causes, and Grand Jury Presentments, Commonwealth v. Willis and Whitehead, 1870.

Editors Note: This post originally appeared in the Virginiana section of Virginia Memory.

The beautiful maps in the Voorhees collection and those that reside in Special Collections are well known to Library of Virginia researchers. Yet thousands of rough but informative maps exist in the Library’s local government records collection. Often classified as “plats,” these detailed property maps were created and filed as part of county land records, chancery records, or other legal proceedings.

Some of the most interesting local plats are found within criminal papers. Murder trials occasionally required jurors to consider a particular crime scene, and the resulting sketches created for this purpose offer fascinating glimpses into landscapes and violent episodes. One is featured on the Library’s 1997 web exhibit The Common Wealth: Treasures from the Collections of the Library of Virginia. This drawing shows a portion of Manchester, Virginia, in 1869, at the time of a barroom-related shooting, complete with building facades and streets. And in her 2003 book A Murder in Virginia, based on three Commonwealth Causes against Pokey Barnes, Solomon Marable, and Mary Abernathy, historian Suzanne Lebsock drew upon a court-directed plat from Prince Edward County to illustrate the scene of an infamous 1895 crime involving four black defendants.

While processing Henry County’s criminal causes, I came across a number of particularly gruesome plats. The most remarkable one was filed in Commonwealth vs. Wade W. Lester, July 1897. This trial involved a mill owner who allegedly poisoned one of his mill hands with a mixture of liquor and strychnine, a rat poison. After drinking the mixture, the mill hand staggered back to his home and collapsed in the yard in view of his relatives. The court mapped out the man’s final steps, with a dotted line showing the man’s meandering walk towards home to the very “Point at which [he] died,” just 74 ½ yards short of his residence. The plat also shows neighborhood roads, railroad lines, creeks, and buildings.

In another cause, Commonwealth vs. Sam Valentine, April 1893, a plat was drawn to document a shooting. Trouble began one evening when Sam Valentine, an officer of the law, arrived at Alfred Hairston’s house party to serve a warrant on a guest. After Valentine entered and apprehended the accused man, someone in the crowd resisted, and a scuffle broke out. In the midst of the activity, Valentine shot one of the rowdies in the head, and the man eventually died from the wound. At the trial, the inquest committee sketched a floor plan of Hairston’s house, showing the position of the participants, as well as the hearth, stairs, and doors.

An even more elaborate plat was drawn for an arson investigation for Commonwealth vs. Silas Minter, September 1898 and January 1899. This oversized drawing revealed one neighborhood’s roads, houses, and creeks, plus its many barns. The defendant was accused of setting a barn full of oats and wheat on fire, causing $400 in damages. One issue under debate was whether the fire from several nearby stumps had set the barn on fire, so the map dutifully records the spot of the stumps and brush surrounding the barn in question.

Such maps may not match the artistic merit of those in specialized map collections, but for budding forensic historians, their lines can be just as revealing.

-Ryan Smith, Former Local Records Archivist

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5 Comments

  1. Craig Kilby said:
    16 June 2011 at 5:07 pm

    Fascinating stuff, Ryan! Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Kurt D'Angelo said:
    16 June 2011 at 7:47 pm

    Fascinating articles describing what took place years ago.The maps are great, reminds me of when I worked doing Civil Design, only I had to have a lot more detail.

  3. Beth D'Angelo said:
    16 June 2011 at 7:54 pm

    Just like watching Perry Mason,(which dates me) mystery and intrigue discovered in the maps and papers uncovered. Very interesting material!

  4. Vanessa Crews said:
    17 June 2011 at 11:20 pm

    Where would I find criminal cases for Powhatan County?

    • Dale said:
      20 June 2011 at 7:34 am

      Thanks for your question and reading our blog. The best people to provide an answer to that question would be our Archives Reference Services staff. They can tell you what we have with greater certainty, locate it (some records are at the Broad Street location downtown and others are at the State Records Center in Henrico County), make arrangements for your visit to either of our locations if you choose, and let you know what’s available online and on microfilm. Click here to visit the “Contact us” page. You can also call the Archives Reference Desk at 804-692-3888.

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