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 »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that the records of the Virginia Penitentiary (Accession 41558) are now available to researchers. The collection contains 289 bound volumes and 698 boxes of paper records spanning nearly 200 years (1796-1991; bulk 1906-1970). Included are administrative records such as annual reports, correspondence, office and subject files, minute books, photographs, and blueprints, as well as specific records related to the State Convict Road Force and State Convict Lime Grinding Board. Also included are financial records such as account books, cash books, ledgers, payrolls, and receipt books. The prisoner-related records include: prisoner registers, 1865-1980; photographs and negatives, 1906-1914, 1934-1961 and 1965-1966; medical records; commitment orders; punishment records; escape reports; index cards; and execution files. The records of the Virginia Penitentiary document the institution’s operational history, prisoners, and the evolution of corrections in Virginia.
The Virginia Penitentiary collection came to the Library in multiple accessions over several decades. In many cases, the original order of the material had been disturbed or was unidentifiable. The bulk of this collection has never been accessible. Researchers are strongly urged to read the Virginia Penitentiary finding aid. The guide describes the contents of the collection in detail. It also notes the significant gaps in the collection as well as cross-references to other collections at the Library of Virginia containing Penitentiary material.
I found … read more »
The recent deactivation of Fort Monroe as a military installation and its transfer back to the Commonwealth of Virginia calls to mind the fort’s rich history. This history is well documented in the archives of the Library of Virginia. The Executive Papers of Governor Wilson Cary Nicholas contain a letter from President James Madison dated 29 May 1816 on the need to protect the Chesapeake Bay and fortify Old Point Comfort (Accession 41612). The Executive Communications to the Speaker of the House of Delegates include a letter from Secretary of War John C. Calhoun to Governor Thomas Mann Randolph in 1821 regarding the cession of the fortifications under construction at Old Point Comfort and the shoal called Rip Raps (Accession 36912, Miscellaneous Reel 5389). The archives also preserve a quartermaster letter book from the 1830s describing the day-to-day operations of the fort during that time period (Accession 24542, Miscellaneous Reel 475). A recently discovered letter from John Grant, acting engineer and draftsman for the Potomac Department, to Captain Matthew Fontaine Maury of the Advisory Council of Virginia contains Grant’s map illustrating Fort Monroe and nearby Fort Calhoun (Accession 50135). The fort continued to protect the Bay during the First and Second World Wars. The papers of George Edward Barksdale note the experiences of a soldier in the Army Medical Reserve Corps … read more »
Created in 1919 by Governor Westmoreland Davis, the World War I History Commission’s task was to collect, edit, and publish source material concerning Virginia’s participation in the Great War. The Commission also conducted a survey of World War I veterans in Virginia using a printed questionnaire mailed to each soldier or nurse by local branches of the Commission. The soldier or a family member completed and returned the questionnaire to the local branch, which forwarded a copy to the Commission’s Richmond office. In June 1928, the Commission disbanded, transferring all records to the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia). An invaluable source of genealogical and military information on Virginians who served in World War I, this collection of nearly 14,800 questionnaires was processed and microfilmed in 1996 and digitized in 1998.
When I joined the State Records section in 1999, I began processing the remaining records of the World War I History Commission. Much to my surprise, I discovered additional questionnaires filed separately, which had not been filmed or included in the digital collection. As it turned out, staff of the Commission had set these records apart from the remainder of the collection by design.
In preparation for its first source volume, Virginians of Distinguished Service of the World War, published in 1923, the World War I History … read more »
Last week President Barack Obama made minor news when he incorrectly signed the guest book at Westminster Abbey in London “24 May 2008.” Obama did not make the same mistake when, as a U.S. senator from Illinois and Democratic presidential candidate, he signed the guest book at the Virginia Executive Mansion on 17 February 2007. Obama was the keynote speaker at the state Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Richmond. Governor Tim Kaine endorsed Obama for president that night, becoming the first governor outside of Illinois to endorse a 2008 candidate for president. The guest book page signed by Obama is a good example of what archivists call a record with secondary value. The Society of American Archivists defines secondary value as “the usefulness or significance of records based on purposes other than that for which they were originally created.” The significance of the guest book is derived from future events: Obama winning the 2008 presidential election and Kaine’s importance as an early supporter. Another example of secondary value is a 21 July 1987 letter written by Mark R. Warner to Governor Gerald L. Baliles. The content of the letter is quite ordinary – a young businessman wants to get involved in Virginia politics and requests a meeting with the governor. The letter’s secondary value originates from Warner’s election as governor in 2001 and United … read more »