On Friday, 24 February, a new historical highway marker will be unveiled at the site of the former Virginia Penitentiary at the intersection of Belvidere and Spring Streets in Richmond. The marker, sponsored by Richmond author Dale Brumfield, was approved by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources on 30 June 2016. The Penitentiary closed on 14 December 1990. The Ethyl Corporation, which purchased the 16-acre property for $5 million in December 1987, demolished the Penitentiary in 1991-1992 to build their corporate headquarters on the site. The records of the Virginia Penitentiary at the Library of Virginia document the closing and demolition of the buildings.
After the state sold the site to Ethyl, the plan was to close the Penitentiary on 1 July 1990. By that time, two new correctional facilities being built in Buchanan and Greensville counties would be finished and operational. Construction delays pushed back the openings of these new prisons and the closing of the Penitentiary was rescheduled for December 1990. In April 1990, A Building, the oldest prison building built in 1904, was closed and the prisoners relocated to B Building. A Building was in terrible condition: rusted cells, peeling paint, and pigeon droppings on the floor. B Building, built in 1939 and opened in 1942, wasn’t much better. A July 1990 inspection by the American Civil Liberties Union … 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. John Henry Green, known as the “Singing Ice Man,” murdered his wife and sister-in-law after a quarrel in 1941.
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 »
This summer’s announcement that Mayo’s Island is again for sale prompted a look back at the history of of the most well-known of the James River islands.
Mayo’s Island is located at degrees 37˚31’45.47”N, 77˚25’59.14”W and can easily be viewed through Google Earth. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names officially registered “Mayo’s Island” as a feature name in 1979. The name also appears on earlier maps and atlases of Richmond, including the Beers (1877) and Baist (1889) atlases. Going back even further, the land mass was unnamed on the Young (1809) and Baist (1835) maps of Richmond, identified only as number “314.” An untitled manuscript map of the city drawn circa 1838 merely labels the island as “Toll Gate,” and an 1873 office map of Richmond identifies present-day Mayo’s Island as two islands: Long Island and Confluence Island.
Plats and certificates from the late 18th and early 19th centuries are extant and they reveal that the islands were commonly known as Long and Confluence Islands; parcels of land were granted by the Virginia Land Office to John Mayo (Long Island) in 1792 and to Thomas Burfoot and Milton Clarke (Confluence Island) in 1830. Mayo had petitioned the General Assembly in November 1784 to build a bridge at his own expense and desired to levy a toll to recoup his costs. While John Mayo never saw his … 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. Dr. Robert S. Fitzgerald, the subject of this week’s post, was tried for performing abortions on three women between 1927 and 1937. All three died as a result of Fitzgerald’s “illegal operation.”
Melva Victoria Royal was in trouble. The unmarried 18-year-old North Carolinian King’s College student learned in the fall of 1927 that she was pregnant. Melva wanted to terminate her pregnancy but didn’t know how. A North Carolina physician provided James Royal, Melva’s father, with a name of someone who could perform the operation: Dr. Robert S. Fitzgerald of Richmond, Virginia. On 10 October, Melva and her father arrived in Richmond and made an appointment to see Dr. Fitzgerald. After examining Melva, Dr. Fitzgerald, according to James Royal’s later court testimony, said he would not take the case for less than $200. Royal obtained the money from a local bank, returned to Fitzgerald’s office at 6 p.m., and paid him. Fitzgerald told James Royal take a walk for about half an hour. When he returned, Melva was asleep. At 8:30 p.m. the Royals took a cab to their place of lodging. Melva complained that she did not feel well. At 9 a.m. on 11 October, Royal entered his … read more »
On 17 April 1875, Anna Williams of 313 Canal Street in Richmond heard a noise and went outside to investigate only to discover a plank pulled off of her hen house and a man “breaking chicken necks.” Emmet W. Ruffin, a neighbor enlisted to assist her, later testified as to what happened next., “I jumped back and drew my knife and waited for him to come out…. Just then the man jumped out of the chicken house and threw a handful of sand or dirt in my eyes…. As soon as I got the sand out of my eyes, I went after him… and struck him with the knife as he was going over the fence.” The thief dropped some of the chickens inside the yard, but Ruffin continued to follow him. Shortly, a chase ensued, with people joining in and crying “murder” and “thief.” Some members of the group began throwing stones. One struck the thief on the side of his head knocking him to the ground. The chicken thief, later identified as Robert Bland, never got back up.
The Richmond coroner’s statement reveals that the chicken thief came to his death from a stab wound, inflicted by Emmet W. Ruffin, received while engaged in stealing chickens. The jury was of the opinion that Ruffin “[deserved] the thanks of the community for his … 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 »
On 15 May 1883, a seemingly intoxicated man approached Richard Stevens and his group of friends as they were standing together at 513 N. 17th Street in Richmond’s Church Hill area. The man was James Harris, a fortune teller or maybe just a swindler, who asked if he could tell their fortunes. Most of the group declined, but Richard Stevens agreed, and they went to a nearby passageway after Mr. Harris suggested they find a more private location. To the skeptic’s delight, this fortune teller was not able to see his own unfortunate end coming.
The pair settled in on a bench, but before he would tell Stevens’ fortune, Harris requested payment. Stevens informed him he would give him the money only after he told his fortune, but the fortune teller claimed, “I’ve been bit too often.” James Harris then got up and started backwards, staggering. Richard Stevens provided an eyewitness account of the events that followed:
“He had a stick with a crooked handle which he nearly dropped, and I tried to help him with it by catching hold of the …end. He was intoxicated and was at that time on the edge of the doorsill and seemed to have such a slender hold on to his end of the stick that I aimed to catch [him] by his garments to prevent him
… 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 »
Anatomical dissection is a matter of course for today’s medical student. Those who selflessly donate their bodies to science are treated with utmost respect for the critical service that they provide to burgeoning doctors and surgeons. Medical schools in the 19th century had a more difficult time with this aspect of education and often had to turn to “anatomical men” or “resurrectionists” to procure cadavers for study by their students. Virginia schools had no legal means of acquiring bodies until 1884 when legislation established the state anatomical board and made the bodies of prisoners and the indigent available for study. An August article in Style Weekly piqued the interest of some Library of Virginia (LVA) archivists, which turned up some interesting archival records about Richmond’s own “anatomical man,” Chris Baker.
Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) professor Shawn Utsey has endeavored to uncover the thus-far unknown history of Baker’s work for the Medical College of Virginia (MCV). In that effort, he has combed the archives of MCV and the LVA as well as other sources. So far revealed is that from sometime after the Civil War until just after World War I, Baker worked as a janitor in MCV’s Egyptian Building. However, his duties went far beyond the tidying of the dissection room. With the tacit approval of the college, Baker and his cohorts (often including young medical … read more »