In June 1936 in the Augusta County Circuit Court, Sylvia Elwood Huffman was convicted of first degree murder in the death of W.H. Riddle, an Annex merchant. Huffman shot and killed Riddle in a botched robbery attempt that netted him less than $5. He was sentenced to die in the electric chair at the Virginia Penitentiary on 7 August 1936. Governor George C. Peery granted Huffman four respites during his two appeals to the Virginia Supreme Court. On 27 December 1937 Governor Peery commuted Huffman’s death sentence to life in prison after receiving a report from the Board of Mental Hygiene that stated Huffman was not sane. Huffman had been a patient at Western State Hospital on two separate occasions (January-June 1924 and December 1931-June 1935) and Huffman’s defense attorneys unsuccessfully presented an insanity defense.
Huffman’s mug shots caught my attention because they showed how much he had aged in prison. I was curious why there were two negatives, one from 1937 and a second one dated 3 March 1959. Huffman’s entry in Prison Book No. 2 noted that he had been returned to the Penitentiary in 1959 for violating his 1957 conditional pardon. Governor J. Lindsay Almond, … read more »
In April 1935 James “Jimmie” Strother, a blind musician, was convicted of second degree murder in Culpeper County in the death of Blanche Green, his wife. Strother received a twenty-year prison sentence. He was received at the Virginia Penitentiary on 21 May 1935 and transferred to the State Farm in Goochland County six days later. He was pardoned by Governor James Price in 1939.
According to a Virginia Department of Historic Resources Historical Highway Marker, famed folklorist John A. Lomax visited the Virginia State Prison Farm and the Virginia Penitentiary in Richmond in 1936. The marker states that “working for the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Song, Lomax canvassed southern prisons in search of traditional African American music. On 13 and 14 June 1936, Lomax, assisted by Harold Spivacke, recorded quartets, banjo tunes, work songs, spirituals, and blues at the State Farm. Among the notable performers were inmates Jimmie Strother and Joe Lee. The Library of Congress first released songs from the sessions in the 1940s and they have appeared on many recordings since. These sessions are among the earliest aural records of Virginia’s black folk-song tradition.”
In 2002-2003, the Library of Virginia … read more »
At the October 1903 session of Rockbridge County court, Oliver R. Bane, called “Dock” Bane (alternately spelled Bain), was convicted of unlawful assault against Lone B. Vess (alternately spelled Vest) and sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary. The grand jury indictment of Bane charged him with making “an assault and him the said Loane B. Vest feloniously and maliciously did strike, beat, cut and wound with intent him the said Loane B. Vest there and then to maim, disfigure, disable and kill.” The official charge was mayhem. A newspaper article from the Lexington Gazette gives a fuller picture of the circumstances surrounding the crime. The article states that Bane and Vess had gotten into a fight at the home of Mr. Dave Potter while returning home from a dance. “Knucks and chairs were freely used in the battle” and Vess was struck on the head with a fire shovel. Jury instructions from the case file indicate that part of Bane’s defense was that Vess had attacked him first and without provocation. The article explained that Vess was not expected to recover and that the doctor had extracted several fragments of bone from his wounded skull. Preserved as evidence in the case file are these bone fragments, wrapped up in tissue paper. Vess did survive the attack and the loss of pieces of his … read more »
Welcome to Mug Shot Monday! This is the first in a series of new weekly posts highlighting inmate mug shots in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary. This series will include inmate photographs of the famous (or infamous), photographs that document the aging process of long-term prisoners, and any other photographs that I found interesting while I processed the collection. Each Mug Shot Monday entry will include the prisoner’s mug shot, prisoner register entry and a brief overview of their case. It is not meant to be a definitive history. The intention is to highlight the collection and encourage additional scholarship.
The Virginia Penitentiary began photographing new and existing inmates sometime in 1906. The collection contains approximately 50,000 prisoner images (negatives and/or prints) from 1906-1914, 1934-1961, and 1965-1966. The mug shots also reflect the changes in photography. The Penitentiary used three different types of negatives: glass plate, 1906-1914; nitrate, 1914-1934; and acetate, 1934-1960s. Nitrate negatives are very flammable; only about 100 nitrate negatives from 1914 have survived. Acetate or safety film can degrade overtime producing a strong vinegar odor; channels form between the base of the negative and emulsion as it deteriorates. Most of the inmate negatives from the 1930s to early 1940s show evidence of deterioration. The remainder of the collection is in stable condition.
Edith Maxwell, a 21-year old teacher, was convicted … 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 »