- Mug Shot Monday: Walter E. Stiars, No. 5833


Photograph of Walter E. Stiars, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sunday Magazine, 2 December 1934, page two.  This photograph was probably taken while Stiars was incarcerated in Ohio in 1907.

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.  Walter E. Stiars, the subject of this week’s post, is in essence the father of Mug Shot Monday.  His daring 1906 escape from the Virginia Penitentiary, eerily similar to Andy Dufresne’s in the film The Shawshank Redemption, was the catalyst for requiring that prisoners be photographed.

On 28 February 1905, the Manchester Corporation Court sentenced Walter E. Stiars, age 30, to eight years in the Virginia Penitentiary on two counts of breaking and entering.  Penitentiary officials considered Stiars dangerous.  They assigned him to work in the office of the Davis Boot and Shoe Company in order to keep him under constant surveillance and away from any tools.  The noon dinner bell rang as usual on Saturday, 16 June 1906.  During roll call, Stiars did not answer “adsum” when his name was called.  A search of the prison revealed he was not on the premises and Penitentiary officials presumed he escaped sometime on the evening of 15 June.  Or had he?  As a precaution, extra guards were posted along the outer walls.  Penitentiary Superintendent Captain Evan F. Morgan was confident Stiars would be captured.  “We expect to land him,” Morgan told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on 17 June, “and … read more »

- Anatomy of a Marriage


Residence of Nannie and William Shelley, circa 1900s, Arlington County Chancery Cause Nannie R. Shelley vs. William C. Shelley, 1907-055.

Divorces reveal much about the inner-workings of a family, usually much more than outsiders should ever discover. While processing the Arlington County chancery causes, I came across a divorce case that filled two whole boxes. That’s .90 cubic feet of possible scandal and mayhem! The case Nannie R. Shelley vs. William C. Shelley, 1907-055, was quite the interesting case featuring interracial relationships, mental institutions, and an overly dramatic, possibly unstable daughter.

In 1907, Nannie Shelley sued for divorce, alleging infidelity and physical and mental abuse. She claimed William Shelley treated her not as a wife but as if she were a “despised and hated slave.” He forbade her any social relations and made her religion a “matter of scorn and ridicule.” He choked her and dragged her across the floor and finally threatened to kill her saying he would “try the McCue act on her.” (At the time of this divorce case, former Charlottesville mayor J. Samuel McCue’s alleged murder of his wife and subsequent trial was much in the news.)

Nannie suffered a nervous condition, supposedly as a result of her husband’s cruel treatment, that William used as an excuse to incarcerate her for three months in a “private mad house.” Although not declared legally insane, three doctors examined her and determined she suffered from paranoia. Nannie believed she ought to have been … read more »

- Buying and Selling Servants


Indenture between Patrick Larkin and Thomas Blood, 17 August 1766, Virginia Miscellany Legal Papers, 1657-1791, Private Papers Collection, Library of Virginia (Accession 24715).

Two types of immigrants came to America without paying their own passage—indentured servants and redemptioners. Indentured servants would sign a contract, called an indenture, before they sailed agreeing to serve for a period of years in exchange for passage to America. The term of service was typically between four to seven years. Redemptioners were a similar type of immigrant; however they made their agreement with the shipping merchant to be transported without paid passage. Upon landing in America, they were given a short period of time to find family or friends willing to pay all or part of their passage. If funds could not be secured, they then signed on as servants and their indentures could be sold in order to satisfy the debt.

The practice of buying and selling redemptioners and indentured servants can be found in Augusta County Chancery Cause James Kelzo, etc. vs. Samuel McChesney, 1796-008.  James Kelzo (spelled frequently as Kelso) and James Wilson of Augusta County and Samuel McChesney of Culpeper County formed a partnership to purchase and sell indentured servants.  Wilson and McChesney were to make the arrangements for selling the servants, and the partners agreed to divide the net profits equally among them.

With three men responsible for reporting accounts and divvying up profits, it wasn’t long before accusations of withholding funds landed the business partnership … read more »

- Stories of Surry Co.


Surry County (Image used courtesy of Historical Markers Database and Laura Troy.)

The Surry County Chancery Causes, 1785-1922 (bulk 1806-1917), contain valuable biographical, genealogical, and historical information and document a broad spectrum of citizens of Surry County—rich and poor, black and white, slave and free. Following are a few suits of interest found in the collection.

Chancery Cause 1830-037, Mary Pettway, etc. vs. Admr. of John Pettway Judkins, etc. is an estate settlement suit. John Pettway Judkins died without a will; therefore, the court had to determine who all was related to Judkins in order to ensure they received their fair share of his estate, including slaves. The suit contains a list of Judkins’ relatives showing how they were related to him.

Chancery Cause 1869-002, Enna (or Rosenna) Rowena Messersmith by etc. vs. Joseph M. Messersmith is a divorce suit that had its origins in the Civil War. Joseph served in a local Surry County unit attached to the 13th Virginia Regiment. He and Enna were married on 23 September 1862 in Surry County while Joseph was on a short furlough. Emma rarely saw her husband over the next two years. Enna informed the court that she last saw her husband in January 1864 in Petersburg. She learned from someone who served with Joseph that in the spring of 1864 Joseph went AWOL and was believed to have fled to western Virginia. Enna told … read more »

- “What Did You Learn in School Today?” – The Records of the Virginia Pupil Placement Board


Senate of Virginia, 1956, Foster Studio, Richmond, Virginia, Library of Virginia Special Collections, Prints & Photographs.

As public schools across Virginia open this week, Out of the Box would like to spotlight the records of the Virginia Pupil Placement Board, a state agency created in 1956 in reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) United States Supreme Court decision.  The Pupil Placement Board, as one arm of Virginia’s policy of Massive Resistance, was charged with assigning, enrolling, or placing students to and in public schools, a task formerly under the control of local school boards and divisions of superintendents.  The board operated from 1957 to 1966, but its power diminished with the end of Massive Resistance in 1959.  The collection, now available to researchers, contains 746 boxes of paper records.  Included are correspondence and subject files, personnel files, board minutes, legal files, maps, publications and newspaper clippings, and applications for student placement.

The board’s authorizing legislation required members to take several factors into consideration when placing a pupil in a school. Factors included but were not limited to the health of the pupil, his or her aptitudes, the availability of transportation, and, “such other relevant matters as may be pertinent to the efficient operation of the schools or indicate a clear and present danger to the public peace and tranquility affecting the safety or welfare of the citizens of such school district.” Students who were already in … read more »

- Love hurts, love scars


Postcard, circa 1915. Permelia F. McKinney va. Frank Roberts, Petersburg (City) Judgments, 1915-1916, Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

The romantic landscape may seem ambiguous in 2013, but courtship in 19th-century Virginia was no different. Think those text messages are hard to decipher? Try reading an 1850s love letter full of rigid social etiquette. Dating and its inherent potential for rejection have always been hard. A letter found amongst chancery papers from Middlesex County attests to the fact that romantic rejection can happen to anyone, regardless of the time period.

One woman who had no use for ambiguity when it came to rejecting a would-be suitor was L. B. Powers. On 26 September 1849, she responded to Henry Sears’ letter requesting the “privilege of waiting on” her. She was to the point, not bothering to spare feelings, and offered up her reasons for refusing his courtship:

“I have no objection of your waiting on me but as you are in a hurry for a wife I think it is best for you to dispense with your conversation as I think there is no earthly chance of my agreeing with your proposal for it is something I never intend to give my consent to marry a man without I love them therefore I think it is best for us both to dispense with our writings and conversation as I cannot love you.

I do not think that my age will suit yours not

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- Remembering Craig Moore, 1971-2013



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Craig Moore, State Records Appraisal Archivist, died on August 13 after a lengthy battle with cancer.  While long time readers of Out of the Box will know Craig from his many posts, he was anonymous to most researchers conducting archival research at the Library of Virginia.  For most of Craig’s 15 years at the Library, he worked behind the scenes in the State Records section making some of the Library’s most significant collections accessible.  His work will contribute greatly to understanding the state’s history for generations.

I met Craig in 1998 when he joined the Library’s Archives Reference staff.  A year later we both started new positions in the State Records section and became “office mates.”  Craig and I shared an office which was unusual in our (then) new building.  Sharing a workspace can be a minefield of personality quirks.  For us, it worked and we became good friends.  We had similar interests (baseball, football, South Park, listening to Howard Stern, fantasy football, the music of Genesis, etc.), the same sense of humor (potty jokes made us giggle like school girls), and a love of history and our work as archivists.   We laughed at the names he would see in the records such as:  Bittle C. Keister, Reekes & Goode, Attorneys at Law, Garland P. Peed, M.I. Snoody, and many others that are … read more »

- A Child is Waiting


An advertisement touting the success of WRVA's A CHILD IS WAITING documentary, produced on behalf  of the Children's Home Society of Virginia.

In 1964, the Children’s Home Society of Virginia (CHS) sought to make use of the power of radio, requesting some air time from WRVA to let the public know of a problem it faced. Taking this request several steps beyond the agency’s expectations, WRVA co-producers Harry Monroe and Brick Rider crafted a comprehensive documentary designed to illuminate “the problem of the unwanted child.”  As the program explained, the number of children available for adoption was greater than the number of families stepping forward to parent them.  The CHS hoped to alleviate this imbalance by detailing their services, debunking misconceptions about adoption, and making the public aware of the need for adoptive parents.  A transcript of “A Child Is Waiting,” the resulting documentary, is found in the Records of the Children’s Home Society of Virginia (Accession 44227)

Airing 23-27 November 1964, first individually as nine five-minute segments and then as one complete program, the documentary included interviews with CHS staff, boarding mothers (the women in whose care children were placed while awaiting placement), adoptive parents, and perhaps most poignantly, an unwed mother who had given her child up for adoption.  The issue was examined from all angles in a way that CHS Executive Director Lois Benedict described in a 9 March 1966 letter as “a deeply understanding presentation…avoiding the clichés and inaccurate dramatics that are … read more »

- Slavery at Hampden-Sydney


Remains of a slave cabin located near Hampden-Sydney College's observatory. (Image taken by Elizabeth Baker and available on The Untold Story: Slavery and Black History of Hampden-Sydney College.)

Once a neglected subject, the role that African American slaves played in Southern colleges has become the focus of new research. Virginia being no exception, our oldest and most established institutions of higher learning such as the University of Virginia, William and Mary, and Hampden-Sydney College all relied on slaves for providing the colleges with necessary services.  Often, the slaveholders in neighboring areas allowed their own slaves to be hired out to the colleges as servants.  The slave’s master was then paid a salary, typically at a yearly rate, for the services that his slave provided to the college.  These African Americans worked to construct buildings, provide general upkeep and maintenance of the college grounds, and act as servants to faculty, students, and staff.

Found in the Library of Virginia’s Local Records Collections is a City of Lynchburg judgment, A. D. Dickinson vs. Hampden-Sydney College, which sheds light on this often under-studied type of Southern slavery.  In this case, A. D. Dickinson sued Hampden-Sydney College for not paying him the proper amount of money for the services that his slave, David Ross, provided the college.  Charles Martin, the college curator, and A. D. Dickinson agreed that Hampden-Sydney would pay Dickinson a yearly sum of $150 for Ross’s work.  The tasks that Ross was expected to fulfill were specified in the deposition given by Martin … read more »

- Arsenic, Lies, and Bigamy

 

Photograph of Junius R. Williamson, #9470, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs and Negatives, Box 130, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

Cornbread and cabbage turned lethal for one Petersburg woman, but it was another woman’s need for some chicken feed that exposed the death as something more nefarious than a simple case of food poisoning. Parmelia Williamson became “deathly sick” after consuming what proved to be her last meal on 9 June 1909. Junius Williamson, Parmelia’s husband, first used the word “poison” to describe his wife’s condition because he did “not think she washed the ham as it oughter [sic] have been.” Even Parmelia said “her stomach felt like it did when she was poisoned in the country.”

Attended by her husband and neighbor Delia Brooks, Parmelia was examined by a Dr. W. C. Powell who pronounced it a case of “Cholera Morbus,” but Parmelia insisted, “I have no Cholera Morbus, I am poisoned.”  He gave her a hypodermic injection, put hot water bottles to her feet, and left.  As she continued vomiting, her condition worsened, and she threw her arms up and said, “Delia, save me, do not let me die…save me for the sake of my poor little infant baby.”  Another doctor, James E. Smith, was called and pronounced that Mrs. Williamson would not live two hours and that she had been poisoned by arsenic or “Paris Green,” a compound used as an insecticide for produce in the 1900s. After she gasped … read more »

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