On 16 August 1912, 17-year-old Virginia Christian was electrocuted at the Virginia Penitentiary for the 18 March 1912 murder of Ida Belote, her white employer. Today, she remains the only woman to be executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia since the General Assembly centralized executions at the Virginia State Penitentiary in 1908. That historic distinction may be about to change. Barring any intervention by the judicial system or Governor Robert McDonnell, Teresa Lewis will be executed on 23 September 2010 at the Greensville Correctional Center for her role in the murder of her husband, Julian Lewis. Lewis’s pending execution has sparked renewed interest in the Christian case.
The Library of Virginia has a variety of documents concerning Virginia Christian’s execution. Rather than summarizing the case, I will let a representative sample of 51 documents tell the story from all sides: Christian’s family and her attorneys, Belote’s family, the prosecutor, and Governor William Hodges Mann. These documents were drawn from various State Records collections including: Virginia Dept. of Corrections, State Penitentiary; Secretary of the Commonwealth, Executive Papers; and Records of Governor William Mann. Each image caption includes the citation of the document. The records of the Virginia State Penitentiary Collection, 1796-1991 (Accession 41558) are now open to researchers.
Readers interested in exploring how the Christian case was covered in the media should consult the Library … read more »
There is an old saying that everyone has a double somewhere. To my surprise, I found mine in a most unlikely place: the Virginia State Penitentiary Collection. While processing the 47,000 prints and negatives of prisoners from 1934 to 1961, I suddenly found myself staring at a picture that looked remarkably like me when I was 18. Intrigued, I conducted further research on my doppelganger.
Prisoner 34402, David Armbrister, was an 18-year-old farmer from Wythe County, Virginia. On 14 August 1935, he was admitted to the Virginia Penitentiary in Richmond to begin serving his one-year sentence for statutory rape. At the time of Armbrister’s conviction, the Code of Virginia defined statutory rape as consensual carnal knowledge with a female child between the ages of 14 and 16 years and who also was not “an inmate of a hospital for the insane, or an inmate of an institution for the deaf, dumb, blind, feeble-minded, or epileptic.” However, if the man married the female and did not desert her before her 16th birthday, the charges would be dropped. Apparently Armbrister opted for prison instead of marital bliss. He was released in 1936 and died on 23 January 1943 when the ship he was traveling on from Scotland to the United States was sunk by a German U-Boat.
The Virginia State Penitentiary Collection includes some unique items related to executions in Virginia in the late 1980s and early 1990s: keys to the electric chair control panel, head electrodes, and death chamber at the Penitentiary. These items were owned by Raymond M. Muncy, who served as warden from February 1987 until the Penitentiary closed in December 1990. They were donated to the Library of Virginia by Richard Oliver, a former Virginia Department of Corrections official. Other records include execution files for Earl Clanton (14 April 1988), Alton Wayne (30 August 1989), Richard Boggs (19 July 1990), Wilbert Evans (17 October 1990), and Buddy Justus (13 December 1990); and four audio cassettes describing the executions of Richard Whitley (6 July 1987), Wayne, Boggs and Evans. The recordings, made by unidentified Department of Corrections staff members in the death chamber, provide a chilling step-by-step description of each execution as it happened: the reading of the death sentence by the Warden, administration of last rites, final statement by the prisoner, attachment of the prisoner to the chair, administration of electric voltage, time of death, and removal of the body from the death house.
These records are part of the Virginia State Penitentiary Collection, 1796-1991 (Accession 41558). Access to the execution files and four audio cassettes … read more »