Tag Archives: criminal

- 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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- Man Caught by Husband with Drawers Down, Killing Ruled “Eminently Proper”


Engraving from Harper's Weekly, 9 August 1879. (Image used courtesy Library of Virginia Special Collections.)

On the night of 4 August 1882, James M. Duesbury heard pistol shots coming from the nearby home of Christopher Goode and ran to see what the matter was. Goode, a resident of Richmond, Virginia, lived at 709 West Marshall behind what is now the Siegel Center near Virginia Commonwealth University. When Duesbury arrived at the home, Goode stated “I have shot a man; here he is lying down on the floor.” When Duesbury asked why he shot him, he answered, “I caught him on top of my wife.” Policeman Lewis Frayser arrived at the scene and found Winston Robinson “lying on the floor with his pants and drawers down to his knees”  and met Mahala Goode, the wife, in a dress that was “very much disarranged” and “bleeding very freely” from the gunshot wounds she accidentally received during the altercation.

In his testimony to police, Christopher Goode stated, “My God Master, I couldn’t help it to save my life, I shot him and couldn’t help it.”  Mr. Goode further elaborated, explaining that he had been “under the porch and heard them hugging and kissing” and heard his wife invite Robinson upstairs, but Robinson declined saying he “didn’t care about going upstairs” because “if the old man came there would be a fight and one or the other would be killed.”  When Goode heard them … read more »

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- The Tri-State Gang in Richmond: Murder and Robbery in the Great Depression


The Tri-City Gang in Richmond:  Murder and Robbery in the Great Depression, by Selden Richardson, The History Press, 2012.

Tomorrow historian Selden Richardson will speak at the Library of Virginia on his new book, The Tri-State Gang in Richmond: Murder and Robbery in the Great Depression. Here is a brief description of the book from the publisher:

“The 1930s was a tough decade, one made even tougher by Prohibition. During this lawless time in American history, a group of criminals called the Tri-State Gang emerged from Philadelphia and spread their operations south, through Baltimore to Richmond, wreaking bloody havoc and brutally eliminating those who knew too much about their heists. Once termed the “Dillingers of the East,” Robert Mais and Walter Legenza led their men and molls on a violent journey of robberies, murders, and escapes up and down the East Coast.”

Richardson, a former archivist at the Library of Virginia, will recount the story of this whirlwind of crime and how it finally reached its climax in Richmond. The talk, part of the “Books on Broad” series, is free. Light refreshments (wine and cheese) will be served (5:30­–6:15 pm), followed by author talk (6:15­–7:15 pm), and book signing (7:15­–7:30 pm).  His book can be purchased through The Virginia Shop at the Library of Virginia.

Selden made extensive use of the records at the Library of Virginia. The gallery accompanying this post consists of some examples from our local, state, and … 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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- 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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- Mug Shot Monday: Will Liddle, No. 6484 and No. 7341


Photograph of Will Liddle, #6484, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs and Negatives, Box 73, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

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.  Will Liddle, the subject of this week’s post, served two nearly back-to-back terms, escaped for 20 minutes and was paroled in 1913.

On 4 April 1906, 24-year-old Will Liddle entered the Virginia Penitentiary to serve his one-year sentence for writing a bad check in Tazewell County.  He was discharged on 15 February 1907.  His freedom was short lived.  Liddle returned to the Penitentiary on 21 September 1907 to begin serving a three-year term for stealing a mule.  He also was given an extra five years for his second conviction.   Liddle’s good behavior quickly earned him “trusty” status which provided him with extra privileges.  In the spring of 1908, Liddle’s trusted status allowed him to assist some carpenters working on the outside of the Penitentiary and the opportunity to escape.  On 12 June 1908,  Liddle, under the guise of going to the tool box, used a crowbar to break into the carpenter’s storage room.  He put on a carpenter’s suit over his prison clothes and walked away from the prison.  The guards quickly noticed his absence and sounded the alarm.  After a 20 minute search Liddle was recaptured four blocks away.  Those 20 minutes of “freedom” added an extra year … read more »

- 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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- CSI: OLD VIRGINIA: SCENES OF MURDER AND MAYHEM IN THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT RECORDS COLLECTION

Chesterfield County, County Court, Criminal Causes, and Grand Jury Presentments, Commonwealth v. Willis and Whitehead, 1870.

Editors Note: This post originally appeared in the Virginiana section of Virginia Memory.

The beautiful maps in the Voorhees collection and those that reside in Special Collections are well known to Library of Virginia researchers. Yet thousands of rough but informative maps exist in the Library’s local government records collection. Often classified as “plats,” these detailed property maps were created and filed as part of county land records, chancery records, or other legal proceedings.

Some of the most interesting local plats are found within criminal papers. Murder trials occasionally required jurors to consider a particular crime scene, and the resulting sketches created for this purpose offer fascinating glimpses into landscapes and violent episodes. One is featured on the Library’s 1997 web exhibit The Common Wealth: Treasures from the Collections of the Library of Virginia. This drawing shows a portion of Manchester, Virginia, in 1869, at the time of a barroom-related shooting, complete with building facades and streets. And in her 2003 book A Murder in Virginia, based on three Commonwealth Causes against Pokey Barnes, Solomon Marable, and Mary Abernathy, historian Suzanne Lebsock drew upon a court-directed plat from Prince Edward County to illustrate the scene of an infamous 1895 crime involving four black defendants.

While processing Henry County’s criminal causes, I came across a number of particularly gruesome plats. The most remarkable one … read more »

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