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 »
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.
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.
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
In 1879, Charles C. Curtis was working at the retail store of Wingo, Ellett, and Crump at 1000 Main Street in Richmond. A customer, a young lady named Isabel Cottrell, visited the store to try on a pair of shoes, and found Mr. Curtis’s behavior “exceedingly offensive.” Instead of allowing her to put the shoes on, he insisted on holding the shoe for her to put her foot in and on buttoning the shoe after she had “begged him” to let her do it herself. She encountered Mr. Curtis on a second visit to pick up a pair of shoes she had ordered, and he insisted that she try them on in the store. Cottrell instead took the shoes home.
On a third visit, she took both pairs of shoes back to the store “with the purpose of leaving one pair of shoes and having the heels of the other plated.” Cotrell claimed Curtis opened the bundle of shoes and remarked, in a rather impertinent way, “what a pretty little shoe, I certainly would like to put them on you. I don’t see how you can walk with such a foot.” Ms. Cottrell “was very much provoked, and told him he would oblige [her] by not commenting on [her] foot.” She was further annoyed when Curtis accompanied her to the phaeton, where a friend was … read more »
16 August 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the execution of Virginia Christian for the brutal murder of Ida V. Belote in Hampton, Virginia, on 18 March 1912. Out of the Box featured select documents from the Christian case in September 2010. The 23 September 2010 execution of Teresa Lewis for her role in the murder of her husband, Julian Lewis, sparked new interest in Virginia Christian, who up to that time was the only woman to be executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia since the General Assembly centralized executions at the Virginia State Penitentiary in 1908.
Often in high-profile criminal cases, the victim and victim’s family are an afterthought. To mark this infamous anniversary, I decided to write a post on Ida V. Belote. Who was she? What happened to her eight children? Two of her young daughters discovered their mother’s body and testified at the coroner’s inquisition. What became of them? My search for answers led me to the Belote coroner’s inquisition, newspaper articles, and Ancestry.com. What follows is a fragmentary picture of Ida Belote and her family.
Ida Virginia Hobbs, the daughter of James and Harriette Hobbs, was born in March 1861 in North Carolina. Hobbs married James Edward Wadsworth Belote (17 February 1846-6 June 1911) on 5 November 1879 in Northampton County, North Carolina. By 1880 the … read more »
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 »
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 newspaper collections.… read more »
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 »