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 underwear, used a bench to climb … 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 of Virginia’s extensive newspaper collection. Click here … 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 »