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Tag Archives: murder

- Mug Shot Monday: My Hometown Edition


Mugshots of Joseph Winsey, Chester Lewzewski, John Lutz, and William Schmitz, Reading Eagle, 11 March 1919, page 1.

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. John L. Brown, James L. Davis, Charles C. Williams, and Joseph L. Cary, the subjects of this week’s post, pleaded guilty to robbery in Petersburg in November 1911 and were sentenced to 12 years in the penitentiary. The four first caught my attention while processing the penitentiary records in the early 2000s, when I saw the police from my hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, wanted them for murder. Ten years later, thanks in part to Google News Archive and Ancestry.com, I am able to tell the story of how their Pennsylvania crime spree, culminating in a senseless murder over apple pies, ended in central Virginia.

On Tuesday, 14 November 1911, A. W. Harman, son of the Virginia state treasurer, arrived at the Byrd Street train station in Richmond at 8:15 pm. As Harman started walking up 8th Street, two men stepped out in front of him. “Both of them pointed revolvers at me,” Harmon later told the Richmond News Leader, “and ordered me to throw up my hands.” When Harman resisted, they struck him on the head with a blunt instrument. Two other men arrived; the four dragged Harman behind some freight cars, stole his watch and $10, and fled … read more »

- A Colonial Cover-up: Lunenburg County Records Reveal New Information


Front cover, The Killing of Reverend Kay, courtesy of cynthiamattson.com.

Has researcher and author Cynthia Mattson uncovered a sordid, centuries-old murder conspiracy and cover-up?  There’s good reason to believe she has.

Reverend William Kay was a lightning rod for controversy. As Virginia’s nascent planter elite sought to consolidate their social position in the mid-18th century, they ran into one obstacle: the Anglican Church, which, with the weight of the British government behind it, occasionally took precedence over the even the wealthiest laymen. This put Kay on a collision course with Tidewater planter Landon Carter.

In the past centuries, aspects of Kay’s life have warranted comment in a number of history books, including ones by such high-profile authors as Eric Foner, but the manner of his death has never been addressed. Indeed, as Mattson wrote to me, “I happened upon a lone entry in a court order book from the fall of 1755… recording the jailing of three of Kay’s slaves for killing their master. I was astonished by my finding, for I had thoroughly researched the Kay/Carter affair and not one of the historical accounts, nor the histories of Lunenburg County, mentioned that Kay had met a violent death a mere two years after the conflict with Carter had ended.”

Suspicious of this murder, Mattson attempted to dig deeper. Strangely enough, however, no record of the trial made it into Lunenburg’s official court order … read more »

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- The Legacy of John Henry James


A flag announcing a lynching is flown from the window of the NAACP headquarters on 69 Fifth Ave., New York City in 1938. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On 12 July 1898, an Albemarle County grand jury met to hear evidence against an African American man named John Henry James accused of assaulting a young white woman named Julia Hotopp the previous day.  In an all-too-common response, the local white citizenry became enraged, gathering to exact vigilante justice.  The fact that the young woman was the daughter of a prominent county citizen likely fueled their anger further. Hotopp’s father, William Hotopp, was founder and owner of Monticello Wine Company, the largest wine making company in the county.

Fearing a lynching, local authorities placed James on a train for Staunton the night before the convening of the grand jury. When the train reached Wood’s Crossing near Charlottesville, it was met by an angry mob. The size of the mob varied from 20 to 200 people depending on which newspaper account one reads. Armed men stormed James’s car, placed a rope around his neck, and dragged him to a nearby tree. They demanded that James confess to the crime, gave him a few minutes to pray, and hanged him. James’s death did not quench the mob’s thirst for revenge. They fired dozens of bullets into James’s hanging body. As the mob dispersed, people began taking pieces of the tree and James’s clothing as souvenirs. With his bullet-riddled body still hanging from a tree, the grand … read more »

- The Murder of John R. Moffett: Race, Politics, and Local Control


J. R. Moffett portrait, Thompson, S. H., The Life of John R. Moffett. Salem, Virginia: Mrs. Pearl Bruce Moffett, 1895.

On the evening of 11 November 1892, attorney and Democratic Party operative John T. Clark shot and fatally wounded Reverend John R. Moffett on the streets of Danville. Moffett, minister of North Danville’s Missionary Baptist Church, had feuded with Clark previously. Religious people and churchmen claimed that he was targeted for loudly proclaiming his intense anti-liquor views. In their minds, Moffett was “the first martyr to the Temperance cause,” a heroic figure battling the bottle and its terrible social consequences. In reality, as historian Richard F. Hamm has persuasively argued, Moffett’s murder reflected deep divisions in Danville—and Virginia—of race, politics, and issues of local control. As a closing chapter of our blog posts related to the exhibition “Teetotalers and Moonshiners,” we will take a look at Library sources related to the events leading to the murder and the trial and its aftermath to tease out these themes.

Rev. Moffett published a newspaper dedicated to the Prohibitionist cause. The Tennessee State Library and Archives recently donated a rare issue of Anti-Liquor to the Library. The masthead proclaimed that “Anti-Liquor is a temperance and prohibition monthly, issued for the sole purpose of educating the people upon the evils of the drink habit, and especially to turn light upon the question of Legal Prohibition.” Moffett’s powerful words, delivered in speeches and in the pages of Anti-Liquor and the … read more »

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- Mug Shot Monday: John Henry Green, No. 44916


Photograph of John Henry Green, No.44916, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs and Negatives, Box 238, 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. John Henry Green, known as the “Singing Ice Man,” murdered his wife and sister-in-law after a quarrel in 1941.


Marriage Certificate of John Green and Thelma Pointer, married 30 June 1938, Ancestry.com. Virginia, Marriage Records, 1936-2014 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.

John Henry Green, age 17, married 16-year-old Thelma Pointer on 30 June 1938 in Richmond. Green worked for the Richmond Ice Company. He was well known for singing on local radio programs and while he worked delivering ice and coal. By 1941, the couple was estranged. On 9 February 1941, Thelma and Dorothy McClure, Green’s sister-in-law, went to Green’s home at 1205 West Leigh Street to beat him up. When Green opened the door, the two women attacked him. Green pulled out his .38 caliber pistol and shot each woman once in the head. Thelma died instantly; Dorothy the next morning. Witnesses stated that after the shooting, Green casually left his home and walked to the police station to turn himself in.

Green was found guilty of manslaughter on 1 April 1941 in the Circuit Court of Richmond and sentenced to two five-year consecutive terms in the Virginia Penitentiary. He was paroled on 18 June 1945.

Twelve years later history repeated itself.  On the evening of 7 February 1953, Green got into an argument with John French and his sister, Katherine … read more »

- 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 »

- The Asylum Poisonings: Death, Politics, and “Low Cussedness” in Staunton


Western State Hospital, ca. 1838.  https://wayback.archive-it.org/335/20090115144155/http://www.wsh.dmhmrsas.virginia.gov/history.htm

In 1883, the year when Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solved the case of the Speckled Band, an equally baffling real-life killing drew another noted team of detectives to the Western Lunatic Asylum (later renamed the Western State Hospital) in Staunton, Virginia.

On the morning of 24 February 1883, just after receiving their regular liquid medications, seven male patients lost consciousness.  Four died almost immediately, two died in the next three days, and one recovered.  An eighth patient vomited and experienced other ill effects, but recovered in a few days.  A coroner’s inquest concluded that the victims’ cups of medicine must have been poisoned while sitting in an unlocked hall cabinet the previous evening.  Other patients, taking the same medicine which had not been left in the cabinet, had no problems.  Dr. W.W.S. Butler, head pharmacist at the asylum, testified that no poisons were missing from the dispensary.  Autopsies were performed, and University of Virginia chemistry professor John W. Mallet used the latest forensic techniques to analyze three of the victims’ stomachs and their contents.  Mallet concluded that the poison used was aconitia (also known as aconitine), an extremely toxic extract of the aconite or monkshood plant, and the coroner’s jury agreed.  The asylum pharmacy had a bottle of highly diluted “tincture of aconite,” but Mallet thought it was not strong enough to … read more »

- Mug Shot Monday: Ernest Harper, No. 18903


Photograph of Ernest Harper, #18903, Escaped Inmate Card, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 43, 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.  Ernest Harper, the subject of this week’s post, brutally murdered an unrequited love interest and was sentenced to 20 years in the penitentiary.  Eighteen months into his sentence, Harper escaped in dramatic fashion and was never recaptured.


Photograph of Mrs. Alice Moore, Norfolk Journal and Guide, 22 November 1922, page one.

On Thursday morning, 2 November 1922, Ernest Harper, armed with a revolver, burst into the room of Mrs. Alice Moore in Norfolk.  He shot Moore seven times, emptying his weapon; she was able to run down the stairs but died in the doorway.  Harper was quickly captured.  His motive was jealousy.  Harper had fallen in love with Moore, who was estranged from her husband, Luther Moore.  Alice rejected Harper’s advances and the Moores had recently reconciled.  After learning the news, Harper shot Moore in a jealous rage.  In May 1923, Harper was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in the Virginia Penitentiary.


Photograph of Frank McGee, #16897, Escaped Inmate Card, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 42, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

Upon Harper’s arrival at the Penitentiary on 23 May 1923, he was placed in the cell of Frank McGee, who was serving a 15-year sentence for housebreaking.  The two cell mates planned one of the most sensational and well-planned escapes in penitentiary history.  “Eighteen inches of steel-re-enforced concrete, a three-quarters of an inch steel plate, … read more »

- 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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- 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 »