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Mug Shot Monday: Mary L. Morst, No. 11033

Photograph of Mary L. Morst, #11033, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs and Negatives, Box 162, 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.  Mary L. Morst, the subject of this week’s post, was pregnant when she arrived at the Penitentiary.

In October 1912, Mary Morst was sentenced by the Pittsylvania County Circuit Court to 18 years in the Penitentiary for murdering her husband.  Morst’s mug shot, taken upon her arrival at the Penitentiary on 14 October 1912, clearly shows she is pregnant.  On 13 January 1913, Morst gave birth to twins:  Joseph and Martha.  What would happen to her children?

The Code of Virginia provided the answer.  Section 4124 of the Code stated that “an infant accompanying a convict mother to the penitentiary, or born after her imprisonment therein, shall be returned, on attaining the age of four years, to the county or city from which the mother came, to be disposed of as the County Court of said county…may order.”  The Penitentiary’s annual reports from 1875 to 1918 include a list of children in the Penitentiary.  The list includes the name of the child, date and place of birth, race, sex and name of mother.  An additional list of children in the Penitentiary from 1926 to 1932 can be found in the back of a Death Register (volume 124).  It is unclear when this practice stopped.

Mary Morst recognized that she could not raise her children in prison.  In January 1915, she asked Penitentiary Superintendent J.B. Wood for permission to give her children away.  “[P]leas [sic] Grant me the priveledge [sic]“, she wrote, “of given [sic] my two children to Emma J. Randolph [daughter of another female inmate] as I has nothing in here.”  There is no response to Morst’s request in the Penitentiary records.  However, a 1916 letter by Wood states that the Morst children are still in the Penitentiary.  By 1921, Joseph and Martha Morst were at an orphanage.  In a 21 February 1921 letter urging Governor Westmoreland Davis to pardon Morst, Kate H. Plecker wrote that her “children are now at an orphanage & she lives in constant dread they will be taken by some one.”  Governor Davis granted Morst a conditional pardon on 23 April 1921.  There is no record of her ever returning to the Penitentiary.  While not definitive, there is a family tree for Mary Morst on Ancestry.com.  It indicates that Morst moved to West Virginia after her release from the Penitentiary and died in 1959.  Her children, Joseph and Martha, both married and raised families.  Joseph Henry Morst died on 5 April 1990 in Fayette County, West Virginia.  Martha Mary Morst died on 23 December 2008 in Fayette County.

Transcript of Mary Morst Letter, dated 5 January 1915 to Superintendent J.B. Wood

Transcript of E. Pendleton Wood Letter, dated 26 February 1916, to Superintendent J.B. Wood

Transcript of Kate H. Plecker Letter, dated 21 February 1921, to Governor Westmoreland Davis

-Roger Christman, Senior State Records Archivist


  1. Cheryl Cayemberg said:
    19 December 2011 at 9:25 am

    Very interesting stuff! I wonder about the circumstances around her killing her husband. Great stuff!

    • Roger said:
      19 December 2011 at 12:31 pm

      Thanks Cherie! I did a quick search of several newspapers to try to learn more about Morst’s case but came up empty.

    • Ronald Wilson said:
      22 December 2011 at 7:46 am

      Mary L. Morst was my grand mother. She lived several years with us in Ohio. There is a lot of good things about my grand mothers life after she was released from prison.

    • Kimberlea said:
      28 December 2011 at 2:10 pm

      Mary Morst killed her husband due to long-term physical & mental abuse, even during her pregnancy. The story goes she had cleaned the house & cooked dinner. She of course feed her husband first. John Morst was not a very nice man, especially when he drank. Mary went to eat her dinner, since she was pregnant at the time. John (her husband), took her dinner and feed it to the dog. He thought more of his dog than his wife. Something in Mary snapped. Hence the murder. Mary Morst was my great grandmother. Her daughter Martha was my grandmother. She led a wholesome life and married twice before her death.

      • Paula said:
        23 May 2012 at 10:32 pm

        Wow, this is the very first time I have seen a picture of my great grandmother ever and I see all my Aunties Janet, Nina, Rita and Sandy when I look her photo. I heard of the story once from my father. It is truly amazing I have always wondered about my great grandparents. My grandpa was Joseph Morst, which is also my daddy, brother, and nephew name.

        • Roger said:
          24 May 2012 at 7:15 am

          Thank you for sharing! I have heard from several people related to Mary. I am hoping to write a follow up post.

          • Helene said:
            30 December 2013 at 2:47 pm

            I hope that you do!

          • Tony G. Cureton said:
            12 January 2014 at 9:49 pm

            Mary’s Morst thank the Good Lord in heaven and the compassion that he put in the heart of the Governor of the state of Virginia at the time.

            Very Possibly with out which none of Mary’s descendants, including myself would be alive today!

            My great grand father lot his life in the same month & year that many other lives were lost in the sinking of the luxury Ocean Liner Titanic.!

        • Helene said:
          30 December 2013 at 2:47 pm

          This is my first time seeing a picture of my great-grandmother as well. My grandmother is Daisy. Regardless of the story, it is always good for a family to know different sides of their history. The documents/images are powerful to see and read.

      • Elias said:
        20 March 2013 at 11:43 am

        George HoughDecember 30, 2012The opening of every photo of the abnaodned prison causes the hairs on the back of my neck to rise. The quality of live of every society can be measured best by how they treat their offenders.

  2. Kathy said:
    19 December 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Thanks, I am always surprised at how things have changed so drastically, in less than 100 years.

  3. Kathy said:
    19 December 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Was Kate Plecker the wife of William A. Plecker?

    • Roger said:
      21 December 2011 at 8:34 am

      Yes. Thanks for reading the blog!

    • T.Cureton said:
      22 December 2011 at 11:07 am

      I would like to thank you for highlighting the history & incarceration of my Great Grand Mother” Mary Lee Jones Morst. I met my Great grandmother when I was a kid of eight or nine. Yes I knew what had happen, but had very few details of When?, Where, Why and how things had happened. My Grand Mother Martha and her twin brother Joseph were eventually raised by there Grand Father ( Mary Lee Morst ) father after release from the Catholic Orphanage. After Mary’s pardon from prison, she regained custody of her twins.!

  4. Tracey said:
    11 January 2012 at 12:17 pm

    I am so glad that Martha and Joseph went on to lead wonderful lives as well as their children and children’s children. I’m sure Mary was a wonderful mother and grandmother, who as they said, “snapped” under the torchure of her violent husband.
    Good to see her decendants posting here as well :-)
    Really enjoyed reading this piece of Virginia History.

  5. eliott morst said:
    8 June 2012 at 1:09 pm

    My father was right, I found the proof. WOW!

  6. Tony G. Cureton said:
    12 January 2014 at 9:52 pm

    previous post should read – Mary Morst Family -