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Tag Archives: coroners’ inquisitions

- Adultery and Murder: A Bedford County Coroner’s Inquisition

On an August night in 1882, Adam Wilkerson returned to his Bedford County home to an unpleasant surprise. When he pushed the door open, he found his wife, Sally, in bed with Ben Quarles.

The following morning, neighbors Charlotte and William Hicks recounted what happened.   Charlotte said that Sally “called me this morning three times about day.” William heard someone holler and Charlotte said it was Sally. William then saw Adam who “told me he had killed Sally…he had found Ben Quarles in bed with his wife; Sally told Ben to kill him.” William described Adam as “not wearing any clothes but a striped shirt, and [he] had a bloody knife in his hand.” Wilkerson brought his children to the Hicks’s house and asked William to write a letter to his mother and father telling them to retrieve the children. William said, “He told me he was going on to Liberty to give himself up and to come on and go with him out there, but I did not go.”

According to the 3 September 1882 edition of the Daily Dispatch, Wilkerson, incorrectly identified as Abram, was “charged with the murder of his wife …tried in the County of Bedford…and sentenced for eighteen years, the extreme penalty of the law for murder in the second degree.”

The Coroner’s Inquisition, dated 3 August 1882, stated … read more »

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- “The Body of an Infant There and Then Laying Dead”: Infanticide in Coroner’s Inquisitions At The Library of Virginia





Editor’s Note: The Library of Virginia, in partnership with
Virginia Humanities, sponsors residential fellows during the academic year to conduct in-depth research in the Library’s collections. Kristen Green, an independent author whose previous work was Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County, spent the year researching and writing The Devil’s Half-Acre.

A newborn girl smothered just after birth. A baby girl killed after being struck on the forehead and above the mouth with a brick. An infant boy strangled to death.

All three cases of infanticide were the subject of coroner’s inquisitions in Henrico County in the 1830s and 1840s– and in all three cases, the victims were born to enslaved women and therefore were also enslaved. Virginia law stipulated that the slave status of the babies followed that of their mothers.

When juries were assembled to investigate the three suspicious deaths, each one pointed the finger at the enslaved mother of the baby.

Perusing the Library’s digital collection of inquisitions from around the Commonwealth, I was drawn to these stories of dead babies and the enslaved women investigated for murdering them. Coroner’s inquisitions are county investigations into deaths that are violent, unnatural, or suspicious, and juries are assembled to determine how the person was killed and by whom. The inquisitions, which exist from 1789 to 1942 for Henrico … read more »

- “I Could Not Tell Who Was Shooting”: The Death of Lump Moore

When Petersburg’s coroner filled out the death certificate for farmer Lump Moore, he wrote a simple “no” in answer to the question, “Was disease or injury in any way related to occupation of deceased?”  And it was true – farming had nothing to do with how Moore died. It was his other, less than legal, occupation that led to his death in early March 1931.

Lump Moore was a bootlegger and had been convicted twice of violating prohibition law. He was known to local law enforcement in Brunswick County as “a very bad man” who carried a shotgun. Moore had his gun with him the night of 27 February [1] when five Special Police Officers found him and fellow moonshiners dismantling a still. After a bootlegger discovered the officers lying in ambush and raised the alarm, a firefight broke out. When it ended, Moore had shot Officer Leslie Daniel and Officer Norman Daniel had shot Moore.

It was not a clean wound. Norman Daniel’s gun was loaded with buckshot, and the coroner’s postmortem examination noted that both bones in Moore’s left leg had been shattered. Moore did not die immediately, but the officers, in their haste to get Leslie Daniel to a doctor, left the injured bootlegger, covered “with some bags and blankets,” by the still site. They did not return for … read more »

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- Forsaken: The Digital Bibliography


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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


coronersinquest

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!


transcribe

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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