Mug Shot Monday (Halloween Edition): Benjamin Gilbert

Photograph of Benjamin Gilbert, 5th person executed at the Virginia Penitentiary, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 23, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia. Welcome to Mug Shot Monday (Halloween Edition)!  This is the latest entry in a series of posts highlighting inmate photographs in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary.

At 7:15 A.M. on 19 March 1909 , Benjamin Gilbert, age 19, was electrocuted for the 23 July 1908 murder of Amanda Morse in Norfolk.  Gilbert and Morse dated briefly.  After Morse ended the relationship in the spring of 1908, Gilbert made frequent threats of bodily harm to her.  On the evening of 23 July 1908, Gilbert approached Morse and several of her male companions on the Campostella Bridge.  When Morse refused to speak with him, Gilbert pulled a revolver and fired three shots, hitting Morse twice in the back.  She died the next day.  Gilbert was convicted of first degree murder in October 1908 and sentenced to death.  Virginia Governor Claude Swanson granted Gilbert two respites to allow his attorney to appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court.  The Court refused to grant a writ of error and the death sentence was carried out at the Virginia Penitentiary.

After Gilbert’s execution, the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch reported on an effort to revive him.  Dr. J.P. Jackson of South Norfolk wanted to revive Gilbert with a respirator, an invention that he claimed could restore life if used immediately after death in cases of electrocution and asphyxiation. The 19 March 1909 front page article stated:

“Dr. Jackson has anxiously awaited the opportunity to test the machine and it was believed that he would make the experiment with Gilbert’s body.   The idea was abandoned last night though, because of the time that would have elapsed between the death and the hour of arrival in Norfolk.  Dr. Jackson said this morning that if he could have had the respirator in Richmond and been able to use it immediately after life had been pronounced extinct, he would have made the test, but that such a step would be useless where death had ensued three or four hours before.”

The Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch noted that even if Jackson had been in Richmond he probably would not have been able to use his machine.  The newspaper also pointed out the futility of such an experiment even if it did succeed.  “While the law stipulates that the body of the person electrocuted shall be turned over to the family of the deceased immediately after he is pronounced dead it is thought that an attempt to bring the body back to life would not be allowed and that even should such an attempt prove successful, the person would have to be re-sentenced and again electrocuted.”

Gilbert was buried in Cedar Grove cemetery in Norfolk on 21 March 1909.

Next Week:  Theodore Gibson

-Roger Christman, Senior State Records Archivist

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