Tag Archives: Charlotte Christian

- First Freedom: The Great Sabbath Debate, Part 2

Arrest Warrant, Charles Bibbins, 1909, Commonwealth v. A. Berson, et. als., Norfolk County (City of Chesapeake), Court Records, Criminal Papers, Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

In last week’s blog post, we learned about the efforts of two Richmond businessmen who lobbied to add an exception for non-Christians to Virginia’s Sabbath breaking law. An early 20th century criminal cause found in the Norfolk County (Chesapeake) court records illustrates that even this exception did not fully clarify the crime of violating the Sabbath.

Charles Bibbins and 27 other Norfolk County men employed by the Eustis Smelting Works were found guilty by a justice of the peace for violation of the Sabbath (Commonwealth v. A. Berson, et. als.). They appealed their convictions to the Norfolk County circuit court. The defendants were not being accused of “laboring at [their] own, or any other trade, or calling” on a Sunday, as Messrs. Levy and Ezekiel were in 1837. Rather they were convicted of being “engaged in business as merchandise merchants […] after sunset on Saturday and during the day commonly known as Sunday.” In essence, they were accused of violating “the exemption as to the Jews” by resuming their work on Saturday night rather than waiting for Sunday.

The case resulted in a ten-page opinion from the ironically named Judge J. T. Lawless, written in the form of an abbreviated dissertation on the history of the Sabbath. His Honor contended that prior to the enactment of the 1779 law by the General Assembly, “[a]t … read more »

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- Forsaken: The Digital Bibliography


In his debut novel, Forsaken, Ross Howell Jr. tells the story of an uneducated African American servant, Virginia Christian, who was tried for killing her white employer in 1912. She died in the electric chair one day after her 17th birthday, the only female juvenile executed in Virginia since 1908. Howell researched the case using a variety of documents and images related to Christian’s execution found in the Library of Virginia’s collections.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce a new digital exhibition, Forsaken: The Digital Bibliography, which spotlights the court records and newspaper stories used and referenced in the novel. Included are:  the coroner’s inquest for Ida V. Belote; Virginia Christian’s trial, appeal, and clemency records; and newspaper coverage of these events from the Newport News Times-Herald and Daily Press.

As noted at the beginning of the novel, Forsaken is a work of fiction, but many of the characters were real people. Forsaken: The Digital Bibliography includes brief biographical sketches and documents related to these individuals. Also included is additional background material on other historic events referenced in the text, such as Nat Turner’s Rebellion and the “Allen Gang.” The epilogue focuses on what happened to the real-life main characters: Charles Mears, Harriet and Sadie Belote, Charles Pace, and others.

While by no means comprehensive (and very much … read more »

- Virginia Christian: The Last Woman Executed by Virginia?

Photograph of Virginia Christian probably taken on 3 June 1912 when she was transferred from Hampton to the Virginia Penitentiary Death House in Richmond.   Virginia Dept. of Corrections, State Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B Photographs, Box 19, Accession 41558.

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 of Virginia’s extensive newspaper collection. Click here … read more »