Tag Archives: Virginia State Penitentiary

- Mug Shot Monday: Willie Williams, No. 17280


Photograph of Willie Williams, No. 17280, Escaped Inmate Card, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 42, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

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. Willie Williams’, the subject of this week’s post, unruly behavior led a State Convict Road Force (SCRF) officer to shoot him in 1934.

Willie Williams was only 16 years old in August 1921 when he was convicted of housebreaking and sentenced to three years in the Virginia Penitentiary by the Richmond Circuit Court. Williams was then assigned to State Convict Road Force Camp 21. He was not a model prisoner. He was punished three times prior to his escape on 20 June 1923.


Letter from Sgt. M.C. Russell, dated 1 January 1934, to Superintendent R.M. Youell, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Box 527, Folder 6.

Williams was on the run for over nine years. After his recapture on 1 August 1932, Williams was assigned to SCRF Camp 15 in Wythe County where he continued to be disruptive. In 1933 alone he was disciplined three times for fighting with other prisoners and once for talking back to one of the guards. For each infraction his punishment was standing in cuffs for several hours. By the end of the year, SCRF Sgt. M.C. Russell had had enough. On 30 December 1933, Williams claimed he was sick and refused to work. A doctor’s examination found Williams fit and able to work. When informed of the doctor’s findings, Williams said “this was a hell of a … read more »

- Mug Shot Monday: William H. Oehlert, No. 11708 and 17831


Photograph of William Oehlert, No. 17831, Escaped Inmate Card, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 43, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

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. William Oehlert had a lengthy criminal record, a history of escapes, a love of shooting guns, and was one of the worst behaved prisoners in the Virginia Penitentiary – until his incarceration finally broke him and he became a model prisoner.

William H. Oehlert, the son of German immigrants, was born on 21 July 1884 in Alexandria, Virginia. His father, August Oehlert (1851-1914) was a cigar maker and Alexandria’s police commissioner. Oehlert’s first known brush with the law occurred in January 1905, when he was arrested in Alexandria on suspicion of robbery. The case was dismissed but other arrests in Alexandria soon followed:

  • March 1905 – arrested on suspicion of robbing freight cars. Case dismissed due to lack of evidence.
  • January 1910 – arrested on suspicion of robbery. Case dismissed due to lack of evidence.
  • September 1911 – arrested for assault and fined $10 for creating a disturbance.
  • August 1912 – arrested for transporting stole goods. Charges dropped.
  • August 1912 – charged with stealing a spark coil from a Southern Railway Company freight car. Acquitted.
  • January 1913 – arrested for assaulting his brother-in-law A.E. Smoot and shooting a pistol in the street. Fined $10 for assault.

In October 1912, … read more »

- Mug Shot Monday: John Henry Green, No. 44916


Photograph of John Henry Green, No.44916, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs and Negatives, Box 238, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

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.


Marriage Certificate of John Green and Thelma Pointer, married 30 June 1938, Ancestry.com. Virginia, Marriage Records, 1936-2014 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.

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 »

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- The Old Ball and Chain

In the colonial period, married Virginians had very few legal grounds for divorce. Over the years, though, standards loosened up a bit, and eventually the old justifications of adultery and impotency were joined by reasons such as abandonment, cruelty, or being a fugitive from justice. In 1873, a new justification was added to the list: if either party was sentenced to confinement in the penitentiary. One of least common reasons for divorce, this kind of suit does pop up in chancery from time to time when the spouses of criminal Virginians took advantage of the law to get rid of the old ball-and-chain.

W. H. Bonaparte and Emma G. Lee were married in Hampton in 1888. In January 1889, W. H. was convicted of a felony for transporting a woman named Ruth Tennelle into Hampton for the purpose of concubinage and was sentenced to five years in the penitentiary. Emma filed for divorce in February 1891 and her petition was granted one month later. (Elizabeth City County chancery cause 1891-007 Emma Bonaparte by etc vs. W. H. Bonaparte)

In 1898, Rosalie Mayo and Daniel N. Huffer were united in matrimony. In 1901 Rosalie filed for divorce while pregnant with her second child, stating that her husband had recently been sentenced to one year in the penitentiary for a terrible assault on their little … read more »

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- Mug Shot Monday: Sterilization Edition


Dr. Charles V. Carrington, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1 November 1911, page one.

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.   The genesis of this post came from reading Paul Lombardo’s 2009 book, Three Generations, No Imbeciles:  Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell.  My curiosity about Virginia’s eugenics program (1924-1979) was sparked by legislation in the Virginia General Assembly to compensate victims of this policy, and the Library of Virginia’s collections of archival records from Central Virginia Training Center and Western State Hospital, both including sterilization records.

While reading Lombardo’s book, I was surprised to learn that Dr. Charles Carrington, surgeon to the Virginia State Penitentiary from 1900 to 1911, involuntarily sterilized 12 inmates between 1902 and 1910.  Carrington revealed his “work” in a series of articles in the Virginia Medical Semi-Monthly in 1908, 1909, and 1910.  Carrington’s actions occurred over a decade prior to the passage of the Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act of 1924.  While Carrington’s articles did not include the names of the prisoners he sterilized, I was able to identify 10 of the 12 using the penitentiary medical records.[1]  Nine of the 10 were black; seven of 10 were admitted to mental hospital while incarcerated.  In 1910 Dr. Carrington asserted that ten of the twelve were “insane, consistent … read more »

- Mug Shot Monday: Dr. Robert S. Fitzgerald, No. 38685


Photograph of Robert S. Fitzgerald, No. 38685, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 32, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

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 »

- Mug Shot Monday: Benjamin Liverman, No. 18759


Photograph of Benjamin Liverman, #18759, Escaped Inmate Card, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B.  Photographs, Box 43, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

Welcome to Mug Shot Monday!  This is the latest in a series of posts highlighting inmate photographs in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary.  Benjamin Liverman, the “Boy Bandit,” the subject of this week’s post, was first arrested at the age of ten.  By the age of 17, he had a lengthy criminal record.  His life of crime and the beginning of his reformation began in Norfolk in 1923 when he was convicted of robbery and sentenced to 53 years in the penitentiary.

Benjamin Liverman was born Donatto Siravo on 28 February 1905 in Fall River, Massachusetts.  The son of Italian immigrants, Siravo did not have a good home life.  According to the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, Alfred Siravo, Donatto’s father, worked as a weaver in Fall River.  He was “quick tempered and very emotional and is blamed for much of the [couple's] marital troubles.”  In September 1915, Siravo, only ten years old, began his life of crime when he was arrested in Fall River for trespassing.  Over the next six years, Siravo, still a minor, was arrested nine times and served time in the Lyman School for Boys and the Shirley Industrial School.  He escaped the Shirley Industrial School on 9 January 1922 and made his way to Norfolk, Virginia, by November 1922.  Over the next two months, Siravo, using the alias … read more »

- Mug Shot Monday: Ernest Harper, No. 18903


Photograph of Ernest Harper, #18903, Escaped Inmate Card, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 43, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

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.


Photograph of Mrs. Alice Moore, Norfolk Journal and Guide, 22 November 1922, page one.

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.


Photograph of Frank McGee, #16897, Escaped Inmate Card, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 42, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

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 »

- Mug Shot Monday: Herbert Irving Roberts, No. 22087


Photograph of Herbert Irving Roberts, #22087, Escaped Inmate Card, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B.  Photographs, Box 44, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

Welcome to Mug Shot Monday!  This is the latest entry in series of posts highlighting inmate photographs in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary.  Herbert Irving Roberts, the subject of this week’s post, was a career criminal, escaped from the Virginia Penitentiary in 1928, and was “taken for a ride” and killed in New York City in 1930.


Photograph of Mrs. Cook's Cafeteria, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 15 February 1927, page 3.

On the evening of 13 February 1927, Herbert Irving Roberts entered Mrs. Cook’s Cafeteria at 805 East Grace Street in Richmond.  His accomplice, John E. Morgan, waited outside as the lookout.  Roberts, armed with a gun, subdued and tied up a janitor and night watchman, cracked open the basement safe, and stole about $1,000.  Roberts went to the first floor to rob another safe when the door bell rang.  Frightened, Roberts left his tools and escaped through a rear window.  Roberts and Morgan hurried to the Broad Street railroad station and took the 11:50 p.m. train to Washington, D.C.  Richmond detectives contacted Washington police to be on the lookout for the two men.  They were arrested and transported back to Richmond.  Roberts, acting as his own lawyer, was tried and convicted on 14 April 1927 and sentenced to 18 years in the penitentiary.


Headline, Richmond News Leader, 4 July 1928, page one.

Roberts was not incarcerated very long.  On the night of 3 July 1928, Roberts made a dummy out of blankets, stuffing a … read more »

- Mug Shot Monday: John Henry Ellis, No. 28276, 33714, and 43346


Photograph of John Henry Ellis, #43346, Prisoner Negative, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Negatives, Box 234, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

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 Ellis, the subject of this week’s post, was convicted three times for housebreaking and grand larceny.  His temper got him in trouble several times while incarcerated.

John Henry Ellis was convicted in March 1932 in Richmond Hustings Court for housebreaking and sentenced to three years in the Penitentiary.  Ellis was sent to work on State Convict Road Force Camp 19 in Wythe County where he immediately clashed with the guards.  “Ellis has been saucy and impudent with the guard and foreman here,” reported Camp Sgt. M.C. Russell to Penitentiary Superintendent Rice M. Youell on 19 October 1932.  His work was unsatisfactory as well.  “The [State Highway Department] foreman called him out without any results,” Russell wrote.  “Finally he threatened to stand him on the bank and Ellis told him he didn’t give a damn what he did with him.”  Russell punished him on 5 October 1932 by making him “stand in cuffs from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. taking him down only for meals and to use the bucket.”

Ellis turned violent on 17 October 1932.  While a group of prisoners worked in a quarry, one of them broke wind.  Another prisoner, Robert Coleman, said to … read more »