Tag Archives: Commonwealth Causes

- Commonwealth of Virginia versus Abolitionism


Bill of indictment, September 1849, found in the Commonwealth of Virginia versus Jarvis C. Bacon, 1849. Local government records collection, Grayson County Court Records, The Library of Virginia.

During the 1820s and 1830s, northern antislavery groups that demanded the immediate abolition of slavery began to emerge. Led by abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Arthur Tappan, and Theodore Weld, they instituted an aggressive print campaign against slavery. Abolitionist societies published newspapers and pamphlets that bitterly condemned slavery and called for its extinction. Needless to say, abolitionist literature was not well-received in slaveholding states, including Virginia.

In 1835, a Frederick County, Virginia, grand jury issued a criminal presentment against the Abolition Society of New York. In a lengthy and strongly worded indictment, the grand jury referred to the antislavery organization as an “evil of great magnitude” and accused it of disturbing the peace of the commonwealth and threatening the lives of its citizens by inciting slaves to rebel. The grand jury encouraged local law enforcement agencies throughout Virginia to adopt “increasing vigilance … in the detection of all fanatical emissaries, and in the suppression of their nefarious schemes and publications.” Furthermore, it called on the General Assembly to enforce present laws and enact stricter legislation against written or printed material that encouraged slave insurrection. The presentment also named Arthur Tappan, whom the grand jury considered to be the “prime mover” in the society. Tappan helped found the Abolition Society of New York in 1831, which two years later evolved into the American Anti-Slavery Societyread more »

- Lawless!

On 29 August, the movie Lawless, starring Shia LaBeouf, Gary Oldman, and Jessica Chastain, opens around the country. Based on the bestselling novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, the film tells the story of the infamous Bondurant Brothers – bootlegging siblings who made a run for the American Dream in Prohibition-era Franklin County, Virginia, reputed to be the “Moonshine Capital of the World.” Much of the film’s action centers around moonshiners paying “protection money” to corrupt local authorities to guarantee their loads of moonshine would be safe in the county. The Bondurant brothers refused to cooperate and ended up paying the consequences.

Part fiction, part family history, the movie Lawless tells the story of the Franklin County bootleggers, but what about the automobiles used to run their moonshine? Their stories can be found at the Library of Virginia in the Franklin County Determined Papers and Franklin County Common Law Papers. Automobiles used by bootleggers were seized by law officers when bootleggers were arrested and reported to the local Commonwealth’s Attorney who would file a criminal charge in the name of the Commonwealth against the automobile, e.g., “Commonwealth vs. REO Roadster Automobile.” These documents record the date of seizure, type and make of automobile, license number, engine number, and reason for seizure. The automobile would then be condemned and sold … read more »

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- Freedmen’s Bureau in the Local Courts


The Freedmen's Bureau -- illustration from 25 July 1868 edition of Harper's Weekly. (Image public domain/Wikipedia)

In the years following the Civil War, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly referred to as simply the Freedmen’s Bureau) provided assistance to former slaves still living in the South, helping them transition from a society based on slavery to one allowing freedom. Established as part of the War Department by an act of Congress on 3 March 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau, operational until 1872, helped introduce a system of free labor, provided food and clothing, helped locate families and legalize marriages, promoted education, supervised labor contracts, and provided legal representation.


14 February 1866 letter from the Freedmen's Bureau found in the Commonwealth vs. Alexander McCray, Highland County Commonwealth Causes.

One of the Bureau’s most important roles was to help safeguard the rights of African Americans and ensure they received justice from the court system. Following the Civil War, several southern states, including Virginia, enacted a series of laws commonly known as “black codes” that restricted the rights and legal status of freedmen. African Americans were often given harsh sentences for petty crimes and were sometimes unable to get their cases heard in the state courts. In September 1865, Freedmen’s Bureau courts were established to adjudicate cases involving freedmen. By February 1866, Virginia had amended her laws and the Bureau courts were discontinued by May of that same year, but because of the failure of many local court officials to administer equal justice, the Bureau courts were reestablished in certain areas … read more »

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- “This is a bad fix I am in…”


Order finding Sam, a slave, guilty of the murder of Francis Sheridan and sentencing him to be hanged by the neck until he be dead, Commonwealth vs. Sam (slave), 1856 August, Highland County Commonwealth Causes (Barcode 0007281802).

Three Highland County Commonwealth Causes (Barcode 0007281802) reveal a tangled web of conspiracy, murder, and secret affairs. The cast of players includes Elizabeth Sheridan, wife of the deceased; Mary Ann Wily, Elizabeth’s daughter from a previous marriage; Sam, a slave; and Ellen, a slave and Sam’s wife. Commonwealth vs. Sam (slave), 1856 August; Commonwealth vs. Ellen (slave), 1856 August; and Commonwealth vs. Elizabeth Sheridan and Mary Ann Wily, 1856 November concern the murder of Mr. Francis W. Sheridan by Sam, a slave hired by Sheridan from William Wilson. Sam’s wife, Ellen, was also charged with being “concerned in the murder,” while Elizabeth Sheridan and her daughter Mary Ann Wily were charged as accessories.  The cases contain assorted court documents including depositions and statements from various neighbors and acquaintances of the accused and the murder victim. 

A document entitled “Evidence in Support of Prosecution” offers a wealth of information.  Notes from the coroner’s inquest give revealing physical facts about Francis Sheridan.  He was described as a small man about the age of 21 or 22 years whose body displayed visible signs of trauma due to strangulation.  The report reveals that the body was found lying face down in a drain twenty or thirty feet away from the public road and gives a detailed forensic account of Sheridan’s bedroom, where the murder actually took place.… read more »

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- “Tell the court that I love my wife…”

Commonwealth vs. Richard Perry Loving and Mildred Delores Jeter was the criminal case that began in 1958 in Caroline County and terminated in a landmark civil rights decision by the United States Supreme Court in 1967. The Supreme Court decision declared Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, to be unconstitutional, thereby ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States.

Mildred Delores (Jeter) Loving, an African American woman, and Richard Perry Loving, a white man, were residents of Caroline County who married in June 1958. The wedding took place in the District of Columbia because Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act banned marriages between any white person and any non-white person. Upon their return to Caroline County, they were charged with violation of the ban. On 6 January 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty and were sentenced to one year in prison, with the sentence suspended for 25 years on condition that the couple leave the state of Virginia. The trial judge in the case was Leon M. Bazile who wrote the famous opinion of the court for the Lovings’ appeal of their original sentence – since God had created people of different colors and placed them on different continents He therefore never intended for the races to intermarry.

The Lovings moved to the District of Columbia even though they found it a … read more »

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- Hey, We Drink Out Of There!


Photograph of Fannie Lillian Madison, circa 1883. (Commonwealth of Virginia versus Thomas J. Cluverius, 1885, Barcode 1170946)

On the morning of 14 March 1885, Lysander Rose, caretaker of the Old Reservoir in Richmond, went about his normal duties, but this morning would not be a typical one for Rose. As he approached the reservoir, Rose found what appeared to be a piece of broken shoe string, a woman’s red glove, and what he described as signs of a “desperate struggle.” When he peered over into the water, Rose saw “floating near the top the flounce or something of a woman’s dress and one leg jutting up.” After the coroner arrived, the muddy body of a young woman was lifted from the water. A cursory examination revealed that she had slight bruising on her face, a swollen mouth, and a rent in her gown at the elbow. Later, it would be discovered that she was also eight months pregnant. Several days and several false identifications passed before the body was finally identified as that of Fannie Lillian Madison.

At the time of her death, Lillian Madison, as she was commonly called by friends and family, was 23 years old, pregnant, and unmarried. Lillian had checked into the Exchange Hotel in Richmond under the name Fannie Merton mere days before her body was discovered. Lillian’s pregnancy (without the prospect of a husband) supported the coroner’s initial ruling of suicide, but as more evidence began … read more »

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- Drunkenness is no excuse…

 "Drunken Man" etching by Walter Geikie (1795-1837). Original can be found at National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. (Image public domain/Wikipedia.)

Ever want to claim you were too drunk to be responsible for committing a criminal act?  In Virginia in 1915, you would have been out of luck.  Jury instructions found in the Staunton criminal case of Commonwealth vs. Vaughan Bell (Staunton Commonwealth Causes, barcode 1184535) suggest that Mr. Bell, indicted for housebreaking with the intent to commit larceny in the store house of H. N. Tinsley, tried to use being drunk as an excuse for his accused criminal behavior.  He also may have tried to claim insanity, as a notation on the case wrapper indicates that a commission was held to inquire into his mental state.  The commission found him sane and the jury found him not guilty.  Additional jury instructions speak to the necessity of proving beyond a reasonable doubt not only the housebreaking but the intent to commit larceny and that any doubt must cause the jury to judge in Mr. Bell’s favor.  Clearly the jury did have doubts and Mr. Bell went on his merry way, dubious excuses and all.

-Sarah Nerney, Senior Local Records Archivist

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- Mayhem and Skull Fragments in Rockbridge Co.

Skull fragments of Lone B. Vess used as an exhibit in the Rockbridge County Commonwealth Cause vs. Oliver R. Bane alias Dock Bane, October 1903.

At the October 1903 session of Rockbridge County court, Oliver R. Bane, called “Dock” Bane (alternately spelled Bain), was convicted of unlawful assault against Lone B. Vess (alternately spelled Vest) and sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary.  The grand jury indictment of Bane charged him with making “an assault and him the said Loane B. Vest feloniously and maliciously did strike, beat, cut and wound with intent him the said Loane B. Vest there and then to maim, disfigure, disable and kill.” The official charge was mayhem.  A newspaper article from the Lexington Gazette gives a fuller picture of the circumstances surrounding the crime.  The article states that Bane and Vess had gotten into a fight at the home of Mr. Dave Potter while returning home from a dance.  “Knucks and chairs were freely used in the battle” and Vess was struck on the head with a fire shovel.  Jury instructions from the case file indicate that part of Bane’s defense was that Vess had attacked him first and without provocation.  The article explained that Vess was not expected to recover and that the doctor had extracted several fragments of bone from his wounded skull.  Preserved as evidence in the case file are these bone fragments, wrapped up in tissue paper.  Vess did survive the attack and the loss of pieces of his … read more »

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- Everybody’s Doing What? The Turkey Trot!: Irving Berlin’s Song and Latest Dance Craze Too Much For Newport News.

Watch the full episode. See more Masterpiece.

(Editor’s Note: The short scene above from Downton Abbey, part of PBS’s Masterpiece, though an English period drama, is set only weeks after the trial in Newport News and is a great example of a couple dancing the Grizzly Bear to “Everybody’s Doing It Now.”)

If you’ve ever heard “America The Beautiful” or “White Christmas” then you know the music of Irving Berlin. Considered by many critics to be the country’s greatest songwriter, many of his songs are American classics. It was very strange indeed then when one of our archivists discovered the sheet music to one of Berlin’s songs entered as evidence in an obscenity trial in Virginia.

On the evening of 3 April 1912, Newport News police arrested Olympic Theater owner E. T. Crall, song-and-dance troupe leader Palmer Hines, and his six dancing girls. That night’s act, judged too hot for the public good by police, combined Palmer singing the suggestively titled Berlin song “Everybody’s Doing It Now” with the girls dancing the Turkey Trot, the racy and very latest “animal” dance to sweep the nation.

The animal dances which emerged around 1909 and later, such as the Turkey Trot, Grizzly Bear, and Bunny Hug, were the dances of ragtime music, the popular music of its day. The Turkey Trot was the first … read more »

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