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 … read more »
On 16 May 1936 at 8:15 PM, Bob Addison, #35074, a prisoner assigned to Camp 16 of the State Convict Road Force located in Fauquier County, escaped. Addison used a fake shackle to fasten himself to the chain that bound all the inmates together at night. He quickly used an iron bar to open the back cell door, fled into the night and disappeared without a trace. Addison remained a fugitive for the next 30 years until his past finally caught up with him.
Bob Addison was born in Tazewell County in July 1913. In May 1932, at the age of 19, Addison was convicted in Tazewell County of assault with a knife and sentenced to four years in the Virginia Penitentiary. He served 2 1/2 years and was released. Addison got in trouble again in 1935 in Russell County. He was arrested for cutting another man with a knife but escaped prior to his trial and fled to West Virginia. He met a girl, Edna Sanders, whom he married in October 1935. Addison used his real name during the ceremony and was captured five days later. He was tried in December 1935 in Russell County and received … read more »
In June 1936 in the Augusta County Circuit Court, Sylvia Elwood Huffman was convicted of first degree murder in the death of W.H. Riddle, an Annex merchant. Huffman shot and killed Riddle in a botched robbery attempt that netted him less than $5. He was sentenced to die in the electric chair at the Virginia Penitentiary on 7 August 1936. Governor George C. Peery granted Huffman four respites during his two appeals to the Virginia Supreme Court. On 27 December 1937 Governor Peery commuted Huffman’s death sentence to life in prison after receiving a report from the Board of Mental Hygiene that stated Huffman was not sane. Huffman had been a patient at Western State Hospital on two separate occasions (January-June 1924 and December 1931-June 1935) and Huffman’s defense attorneys unsuccessfully presented an insanity defense.
Huffman’s mug shots caught my attention because they showed how much he had aged in prison. I was curious why there were two negatives, one from 1937 and a second one dated 3 March 1959. Huffman’s entry in Prison Book No. 2 noted that he had been returned to the Penitentiary in 1959 for violating his 1957 conditional pardon. Governor J. Lindsay Almond, … read more »
In April 1935 James “Jimmie” Strother, a blind musician, was convicted of second degree murder in Culpeper County in the death of Blanche Green, his wife. Strother received a twenty-year prison sentence. He was received at the Virginia Penitentiary on 21 May 1935 and transferred to the State Farm in Goochland County six days later. He was pardoned by Governor James Price in 1939.
According to a Virginia Department of Historic Resources Historical Highway Marker, famed folklorist John A. Lomax visited the Virginia State Prison Farm and the Virginia Penitentiary in Richmond in 1936. The marker states that “working for the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Song, Lomax canvassed southern prisons in search of traditional African American music. On 13 and 14 June 1936, Lomax, assisted by Harold Spivacke, recorded quartets, banjo tunes, work songs, spirituals, and blues at the State Farm. Among the notable performers were inmates Jimmie Strother and Joe Lee. The Library of Congress first released songs from the sessions in the 1940s and they have appeared on many recordings since. These sessions are among the earliest aural records of Virginia’s black folk-song tradition.”
In 2002-2003, the Library of … read more »
Welcome to Mug Shot Monday! This is the first in a series of new weekly posts highlighting inmate mug shots in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary. This series will include inmate photographs of the famous (or infamous), photographs that document the aging process of long-term prisoners, and any other photographs that I found interesting while I processed the collection. Each Mug Shot Monday entry will include the prisoner’s mug shot, prisoner register entry and a brief overview of their case. It is not meant to be a definitive history. The intention is to highlight the collection and encourage additional scholarship.
The Virginia Penitentiary began photographing new and existing inmates sometime in 1906. The collection contains approximately 50,000 prisoner images (negatives and/or prints) from 1906-1914, 1934-1961, and 1965-1966. The mug shots also reflect the changes in photography. The Penitentiary used three different types of negatives: glass plate, 1906-1914; nitrate, 1914-1934; and acetate, 1934-1960s. Nitrate negatives are very flammable; only about 100 nitrate negatives from 1914 have survived. Acetate or safety film can degrade overtime producing a strong vinegar odor; channels form between the base of the negative and emulsion as it deteriorates. Most of the inmate negatives from the 1930s to early 1940s show evidence of deterioration. The remainder of the collection is in stable condition.
Edith Maxwell, a 21-year old teacher, was convicted … read more »
Sixteen-year-old Lizzie Dodson was convicted of burglary in Fairfax County in 1897 and sentenced to five years in the Virginia Penitentiary in Richmond. After serving half her prison term, Governor James Tyler granted Dodson a conditional pardon on 24 March 1900 and she was discharged two days later.
The conditional pardon would not be the last time a sitting governor would intervene for Dodson, later described by the Richmond News Leader as a “dangerous character.” Her remarkable story of crime, clemency, and violence is one of many contained in the Virginia Penitentiary Records Collection, 1796-1991 (bulk 1906-1970), at the Library of Virginia.
In order to receive a conditional pardon under the 1897 law, a prisoner had to serve one-half of his or her term, have a good prison record, and obtain post-prison employment. F.B. Robertson gave Dodson a job at his grocery store in Richmond, but her freedom was short lived. On 5 June 1900 Dodson was found guilty of grand larceny and sentenced to three years in the Penitentiary (she also had to serve the remaining time from her first conviction and five additional years for her second conviction). Dodson was the first prisoner ever to violate a conditional pardon and returned to the Penitentiary.
Dodson’s stay at the Penitentiary was brief. At 5:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve 1900, Dodson, clad only in her … read more »
On 16 August 1912, 17-year-old Virginia Christian was electrocuted at the Virginia Penitentiary for the 18 March 1912 murder of Ida Belote, her white employer. Today, she remains the only woman to be executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia since the General Assembly centralized executions at the Virginia State Penitentiary in 1908. That historic distinction may be about to change. Barring any intervention by the judicial system or Governor Robert McDonnell, Teresa Lewis will be executed on 23 September 2010 at the Greensville Correctional Center for her role in the murder of her husband, Julian Lewis. Lewis’s pending execution has sparked renewed interest in the Christian case.
The Library of Virginia has a variety of documents concerning Virginia Christian’s execution. Rather than summarizing the case, I will let a representative sample of 51 documents tell the story from all sides: Christian’s family and her attorneys, Belote’s family, the prosecutor, and Governor William Hodges Mann. These documents were drawn from various State Records collections including: Virginia Dept. of Corrections, State Penitentiary; Secretary of the Commonwealth, Executive Papers; and Records of Governor William Mann. Each image caption includes the citation of the document. The records of the Virginia State Penitentiary Collection, 1796-1991 (Accession 41558) are now open to researchers.
Readers interested in exploring how the Christian case was covered in the media should consult the Library … read more »