On 17 April 1875, Anna Williams of 313 Canal Street in Richmond heard a noise and went outside to investigate only to discover a plank pulled off of her hen house and a man “breaking chicken necks.” Emmet W. Ruffin, a neighbor enlisted to assist her, later testified as to what happened next., “I jumped back and drew my knife and waited for him to come out…. Just then the man jumped out of the chicken house and threw a handful of sand or dirt in my eyes…. As soon as I got the sand out of my eyes, I went after him… and struck him with the knife as he was going over the fence.” The thief dropped some of the chickens inside the yard, but Ruffin continued to follow him. Shortly, a chase ensued, with people joining in and crying “murder” and “thief.” Some members of the group began throwing stones. One struck the thief on the side of his head knocking him to the ground. The chicken thief, later identified as Robert Bland, never got back up.
The Richmond coroner’s statement reveals that the chicken thief came to his death from a stab wound, inflicted by Emmet W. Ruffin, received while engaged in stealing chickens. The jury was of the opinion that Ruffin “[deserved] the thanks of the community for his action under the circumstances.”
The testimony and investigation into the death of Robert Bland, dated 18 April 1875, can be found in the Richmond Coroners’ Inquisitions. The collection is available at the Library of Virginia but is currently closed for processing.
In April 2013, almost 138 years later, chickens are again making headlines in the city of Richmond. City Council will be considering an ordinance that would allow residents to have chickens, and will vote on it on 8 April. A pro-hen group, Chickunz, along with other local chicken advocates, is helping spearhead this effort.
As far as stealing hens goes, as Robert Bland discovered chickens do come home to roost.
-Mary Dean Carter, Local Records Archival Assistant