Tag Archives: coroners’ inquisitions

- 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 »

- Have You Seen The Vigilante Man?: Reconstruction Era Violence

Thomas Nast.

Life for African Americans in Virginia following the end of the Civil War can be described as uncertain at best. As the social balance between white and black Virginians was virtually turned on its head, Virginia’s African American population expected to be governed by the same system of law and order as their white neighbors. Unfortunately, this was usually not the case, and stories of mob violence directed towards African Americans permeate the historical record immediately following Emancipation. These stories are being uncovered daily by the Library of Virginia’s African American Narrative project and made public by the Library’s new exhibit, Remaking Virginia: Transformation Through Emancipation. These acts often erupted out of allegations of crimes committed by African Americans and usually ended in an illegal execution of the alleged criminals, bypassing the standard presumption of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Two instances of such violence were recently discovered in the Library’s collection of Coroners’ Inquisitions. Coroners’ inquisitions are investigations into the deaths of individuals who died in a sudden, violent, unnatural or suspicious manner, or died without medical attendance. They are a revealing and sometimes gruesome source of historical information. In Accomack County, sometime in early April 1866, a coroner and his jury were sent to examine the body of an African American man found hanging from a tree. He was named James Holden, but little … read more »

- Hampton Coroner Records Reveal Social History

Elizabeth City County (now Hampton) Courthouse.

Dr. Paul Parker, medical examiner of Elizabeth City County, Virginia, wrapped up a 19 April 1935 coroner’s inquest by ruling that “Dorothy McGaha Reeves came to her death on April 15th, 1935, of general peritonitis and perforated uterus as a direct result of a criminal abortion performed by Dr. N[elson]. F[rederick]. McNorton, of York County (Yorktown), Virginia, on the 9thday of April, 1935. Death occurred at the Dixie Hospital, Hampton, Virginia, on April 15th, 1935, about 12:20, A. M.”

Dr. McNorton was arrested on 15 April but charges were not disclosed. Authorities were led to him based on a deathbed statement given by Reeves, as well as Dr. Parker’s inquest findings. The Danville Bee reported that Reeves purportedly went to Dr. McNorton’s office for the illegal operation on the evening of 9 April in the company of Nellie Frye. Five days later, without ever having returned to work, Reeves was taken to the hospital where she died the following morning. In addition to Dr. McNorton’s arrest, later revealed to be on charges of second-degree murder and performing an illegal operation, Frye was also arrested. She was held as a material witness and also on the charge of being an accessory to the illegal operation.

Dr. McNorton belonged to a noted and influential African American family in Yorktown. His father, … read more »

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- The Jury’s Gut Feeling: Bedford County Coroner’s Inquisitions


A recent episode of BackStory With the American History Guys entitled “On The Take” addressed the topic of corruption in American politics and government. Host Brian Balogh interviewed legal scholar Nicholas Parrillo, who pointed out that, in an effort to prevent such corruption around the turn of the 20th century, government officials’ salaries were often paid through the fees and fines that they levied. Essentially, they were paid on commission. Some coroner’s inquest records from Bedford County recently brought that practice to light.

On 30 May 1890, jurors selected to inquire into the death of James Brown, a resident of Bedford County’s Big Island, were stumped. After reviewing the evidence, half of the jury thought that the deceased came to his death by poison, and the other half thought the cause of death was unknown.  They all agreed on one thing –that Brown had shown symptoms of having been poisoned, and they wanted his stomach analyzed.

Apparently, what they wanted was expensive and somewhat complicated. State Assayer and Chemist Dr. William H. Taylor wrote from his laboratory at 606 E. Grace St. in Richmond, Virginia, a letter that described exactly how much it would cost and what he would need. He explained that the fee for the stomach analysis was $200, and that the State would only cover $25 of the cost, … read more »

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- Come On, Make Some History!


We’re happy to announce that Making History: Transcribe is now live! This site will enable users to transcribe documents in the Library of Virginia collections in a collaborative online work space that will host 5-10 projects at a time. The goal is to generate transcriptions to allow full-text searchability in Digitool or other future delivery platforms and increase ease of use. We hope to engage the public in deciphering some of the most interesting items in the Library of Virginia Collections and, with everyone’s help, build a more searchable and useful way to access Virginia history.

The need for transcription vastly outstrips library staff time, both here at the LVA and globally. What better way to solve this dilemma than to engage the public around areas of interest? Developments in open source transcription tools, such as the Scripto for Omeka, are making it possible for users to assist cultural institutions in improving access to and understanding of our resources. Our transcription site is closely modeled after the University of Iowa’s DIY History site, in which they further developed the Omeka Scripto plugin used for crowdsourcing the transcription of documents. UI-Libraries also provided the Scribe theme which dictates the look and experience of the project. The Library of Virginia made only minor changes to UI-Libraries solution, all of which can be found within one of … read more »

- The Razor’s Edge: Using the Coroner’s Inquests in Elizabeth City County

Hampton, City of. County and Circuit Court, Felony Papers, 1926-1936, Box 61, Local Government Records Collection, The Library of Virginia.

Dr. Paul J. Parker ruled on 11 June 1935, that “James A. Branch came to his death of gun shot wound while gun was in hands of Lewis Smith at No 4 Curry St Phoebus Va [sic].” However, five months later he modified his ruling when he wrote, “James Branch came to his death by a gun shot wound just below the lobe of the left ear, this occurred at the corner of Curry and County Streets, Phoebus, Va.” Lack of an explanation for this momentous change amplified the intrigue and portended a unique case in the otherwise straightforward files of Dr. Parker.

As the medical examiner for Elizabeth City County, later the City of Hampton, Dr. Parker was tasked with conducting coroner’s inquiries into any sudden, violent, unnatural, or suspicious deaths, or any death which occurred without medical attendance. These inquiries included conducting depositions to determine how the victim came to his or her death and, if so warranted, forwarding his findings to the Elizabeth City County Circuit Court for grand jury consideration.

In the case of James Branch, Dr. Parker, after deposing eleven witnesses, found that Lewis Smith had held the gun that fired the fatal shot. Included in this group of witnesses was Mr. Smith, whom Dr. Parker advised had been charged with murder. Interestingly Dr. Parker then did what … read more »

- Magic Lantern After-Show Turns Deadly

Phantasmagoria by James Gillray, 1803. (Image used courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.)

Sometimes what starts out in fun can turn into a deadly accident.  That’s exactly what happened on 5 September 1894, in Bedford County, Virginia, when John Robinson decided it would be amusing to play a prank on some friends.

The friends had attended a magic lantern show held at the “Negro church” in Montvale, Virginia, and it was after the show that John Robinson devised his idea for a prank. Bud Anderson was there that night and told about the events that led up to the incident. “The show closed at 10:15 P.M. I stayed a few minutes afterwards and went with Bob Rosebrugh and met [Robinson] on the railroad crossing.” Robinson had “proposed a plan to scare Hunter Clark and John Minter, who had gone home with the Flood girls.” He shared his plan with Anderson and Rosebrugh, who told him, “I’m afraid Hunter Clark will shoot.” Not to be deterred, Robinson left for “some minutes” and returned with a rope and white garment.  Robinson took the rope and garment and crossed the creek “by the Bluff Road.” Some 20 minutes later, Anderson and Rosebrugh heard four pistol shots.

Hunter Clark was able to fill in the details about the prank that went horribly awry: “Just before we got to the creek at Rice’s Mill, I ran against a white garment tied to a … read more »

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- Death by Eggnog

Vintage postcard, circa 1900.

During the holiday season we are warned to avoid overindulgence.  There are many temptations around this time of year—turkey and stuffing, grandma’s pecan pie, and, perhaps, even eggnog.  Sadly, we often hear of folks who would have done better to take a more moderate approach during holiday festivities.  Addison Williams was one such person.

On 25 December1872 in Bedford County, Virginia, Williams paid a visit to the home of Cornelia and Charles Abram.  He arrived “about light” and was given a dram of whiskey by William Ogden.  Ogden then made a gallon of eggnog, and Williams “drank a glass and repeated several times.”   Everyone present “drank eggnog freely,” but Williams enjoyed it most of all, drinking more than the rest of the party.  He “left the house and threw up,” only to come back and take another drink.  Afterwards, Williams “left in a run, as in a prank,” never to be seen again. Williams “had commenced showing he was under the influence of liquor,” but no one at the party thought him too drunk to make it home. As one partygoer put it, “…as I thought he was going so well it was useless for me to go with him.”

Unfortunately, Williams could have used a little assistance. He was found on Christmas morning “dead and frozen” mere yards from his house.  The resulting coroner’s … read more »

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- 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 … read more »

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- Murder Most Fowl


Selden's Funny Farce, A Spring Chicken, circa 1898. (Image used courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.)

On 17 April 1875, Anna Williams of 313 Canal Street in Richmond heard a noise and went outside to investigate only to discover a plank pulled off of her hen house and a man “breaking chicken necks.”   Emmet W. Ruffin, a neighbor enlisted to assist her, later testified as to what happened next., “I jumped back and drew my knife and waited for him to come out…. Just then the man jumped out of the chicken house and threw a handful of sand or dirt in my eyes…. As soon as I got the sand out of my eyes, I went after him… and struck him with the knife as he was going over the fence.”  The thief dropped some of the chickens inside the yard, but Ruffin continued to follow him.  Shortly, a chase ensued, with people joining in and crying “murder” and “thief.”   Some members of the group began throwing stones.  One struck the thief on the side of his head knocking him to the ground.  The chicken thief, later identified as Robert Bland, never got back up.

The Richmond coroner’s statement reveals that the chicken thief came to his death from a stab wound, inflicted by Emmet W. Ruffin, received while engaged in stealing chickens. The jury was of the opinion that Ruffin “[deserved] the thanks of the community for his … read more »

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