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.
-Roger Christman, Senior State Records Archivist