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
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 »
Editors Note: This post originally appeared in the former ”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 »