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. This week’s entry will spotlight the photographs of escaped inmates. When an inmate escaped from the Penitentiary, State Farm, or a convict road camp, the superintendent issued to law enforcement 3″x5″ index cards. The front side contained the prisoner mug shot, while the back of the card provided basic information (name, inmate number, date and location of escape, crime, sentence), physical description, and the name and address of immediate family.
On 26 April 1925, Preston Waters, No. 18879, and Alfred Williams, No. 19912, two convicts at the Virginia Penitentiary in Richmond, sawed their way out of their cell with a hacksaw. Avoiding the guards, the prisoners made their way to the ground floor, climbed on top of a row of new cells, and cut their way through the metal ceiling in order to gain access to the roof at the southwest corner of the building. They lowered themselves down by rope to a window and then dropped the fifteen feet to the ground and escaped into the night.
In April 1923, 21-year-old Preston Waters of Culpeper County was sentenced to 15 years in the Virginia Penitentiary for attempted rape. Alfred Williams had a lengthy criminal record. In December 1920, … read more »
[Editors Note: Yes, we know it is not Monday. The Out of the Box staff had a technical glitch this afternoon and accidentally published Monday's post today. We will have a new, non-mug shot post on Monday.] Welcome to Mug Shot Monday! This is the latest entry in a series of posts highlighting inmate mug shots in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary. Theodore Gibson’s mug shots caught my attention because they showed how much he aged in prison. When I researched his case, I was shocked by what I found.
In the early morning of Thursday, 18 October 1934, William H. Woodfield, a 71-year-old night watchman for the coal yard of W.A. Smoot and Company in Alexandria, was murdered. Woodfield’s skull was crushed with a hammer. No money was stolen but Woodfield’s watch was missing. On Tuesday, October 23, acting on an anonymous tip, the Alexandria police arrested 25-year-old Theodore Gibson. He confessed to the killing two days later. Gibson stated that he was walking through the coal yard when he was accosted by Woodfield who ordered him to leave the yard. Woodfield struck him, Gibson claimed, so he grabbed a small sledge hammer and hit Woodfield in the head twice. Gibson dragged the body 50 feet and fled.
The speed of Gibson’s legal proceedings, according to the Washington Post, was “believed … read more »
At 7:15 A.M. on 19 March 1909 , Benjamin Gilbert, age 19, was electrocuted for the 23 July 1908 murder of Amanda Morse in Norfolk. Gilbert and Morse dated briefly. After Morse ended the relationship in the spring of 1908, Gilbert made frequent threats of bodily harm to her. On the evening of 23 July 1908, Gilbert approached Morse and several of her male companions on the Campostella Bridge. When Morse refused to speak with him, Gilbert pulled a revolver and fired three shots, hitting Morse twice in the back. She died the next day. Gilbert was convicted of first degree murder in October 1908 and sentenced to death. Virginia Governor Claude Swanson granted Gilbert two respites to allow his attorney to appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. The Court refused to grant a writ of error and the death sentence was carried out at the Virginia Penitentiary.
After Gilbert’s execution, the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch reported on an effort to revive him. Dr. J.P. Jackson of South Norfolk wanted to revive Gilbert with a respirator, an invention that he claimed could restore life if used immediately after death in cases of electrocution and asphyxiation. The 19 March 1909 … read more »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that the records of the Virginia Penitentiary (Accession 41558) are now available to researchers. The collection contains 289 bound volumes and 698 boxes of paper records spanning nearly 200 years (1796-1991; bulk 1906-1970). Included are administrative records such as annual reports, correspondence, office and subject files, minute books, photographs, and blueprints, as well as specific records related to the State Convict Road Force and State Convict Lime Grinding Board. Also included are financial records such as account books, cash books, ledgers, payrolls, and receipt books. The prisoner-related records include: prisoner registers, 1865-1980; photographs and negatives, 1906-1914, 1934-1961 and 1965-1966; medical records; commitment orders; punishment records; escape reports; index cards; and execution files. The records of the Virginia Penitentiary document the institution’s operational history, prisoners, and the evolution of corrections in Virginia.
The Virginia Penitentiary collection came to the Library in multiple accessions over several decades. In many cases, the original order of the material had been disturbed or was unidentifiable. The bulk of this collection has never been accessible. Researchers are strongly urged to read the Virginia Penitentiary finding aid. The guide describes the contents of the collection in detail. It also notes the significant gaps in the collection as well as cross-references to other collections at the Library of Virginia containing Penitentiary material.
I found … read more »
Joseph Robinson, alias “Cocky Joe”, was convicted on 9 April 1951 in the Portsmouth City Hustings Court for the 1943 murder of Marc A. Terrell and sentenced to die in the electric chair at the Virginia State Penitentiary on 11 May 1951. Court appeals delayed Robinson’s execution several times until the court set a new date – 4 May 1954. However, Robinson had no intention of letting the state kill him. At 5:30 a.m, ninety minutes before his scheduled execution, Robinson hung himself with a bed sheet in his cell. He was the first death row inmate to commit suicide in Virginia.
The circumstances surrounding Robinson’s suicide are documented in an investigative report dated 5 May 1954 written by W. F. Smyth, Jr., Penitentiary Superintendent, to R. M. Youell, Director, Division of Corrections, Department of Welfare. The report can be found in the Virginia Penitentiary Execution Files (Accession 38103), which also contain court records, Robinson’s mug shot, criminal record, death certificate, and suicide notes, as well as the razor blade he used to cut his wrist in his first suicide attempt.
Joseph Robinson’s saga began nine years earlier. In the spring of 1943, Robinson and his girlfriend Margaret Fowler Barnes went on a crime spree in Portsmouth, committing several robberies and assaults culminating in the armed robbery of the Capital Theater. On 11 May 1943 … read more »
Sixteen-year-old Lizzie Dodson was convicted of burglary in Fairfax County in 1897 and sentenced to five years in the Virginia Penitentiary in Richmond. After serving half her prison term, Governor James Tyler granted Dodson a conditional pardon on 24 March 1900 and she was discharged two days later.
The conditional pardon would not be the last time a sitting governor would intervene for Dodson, later described by the Richmond News Leader as a “dangerous character.” Her remarkable story of crime, clemency, and violence is one of many contained in the Virginia Penitentiary Records Collection, 1796-1991 (bulk 1906-1970), at the Library of Virginia.
In order to receive a conditional pardon under the 1897 law, a prisoner had to serve one-half of his or her term, have a good prison record, and obtain post-prison employment. F.B. Robertson gave Dodson a job at his grocery store in Richmond, but her freedom was short lived. On 5 June 1900 Dodson was found guilty of grand larceny and sentenced to three years in the Penitentiary (she also had to serve the remaining time from her first conviction and five additional years for her second conviction). Dodson was the first prisoner ever to violate a conditional pardon and returned to the Penitentiary.
Dodson’s stay at the Penitentiary was brief. At 5:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve 1900, Dodson, clad only in her … read more »
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.
These records are part of the Virginia State Penitentiary Collection, 1796-1991 (Accession 41558). Access to the execution files and four audio cassettes is restricted for 50 years from date of execution. This collection is currently closed for processing. [Update: this collection is now open to researchers. ]
–Roger Christman, LVA Senior State Records Archivist… read more »