Tag Archives: Virginia State Penitentiary

- Mug Shot Monday: Theodore Gibson, No. 32872


Photograph of Theodore Gibson, #32872, 25 October 1934, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 23, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

[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 »

- Mug Shot Monday (Halloween Edition): Benjamin Gilbert


Photograph of Benjamin Gilbert, 5th person executed at the Virginia Penitentiary, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 23, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

Welcome to Mug Shot Monday (Halloween Edition)!  This is the latest entry in a series of posts highlighting inmate photographs in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary.

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 »

- Mug Shot Monday: Bob Addison, No. 35074


Photograph of Bob Addison, #35074, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 26, 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 mug shots in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary.

On 16 May 1936 at 8:15 PM, Bob Addison, #35074, a prisoner assigned to Camp 16 of the State Convict Road Force located in Fauquier County, escaped.  Addison used a fake shackle to fasten himself to the chain that bound all the inmates together at night.  He quickly used an iron bar to open the back cell door, fled into the night and disappeared without a trace.  Addison remained a fugitive for the next 30 years until his past finally caught up with him.

Bob Addison was born in Tazewell County in July 1913.  In May 1932, at the age of 19, Addison was convicted in Tazewell County of assault with a knife and sentenced to four years in the Virginia Penitentiary.  He served 2 1/2 years and was released.   Addison got in trouble again in 1935 in Russell County.  He was arrested for cutting another man with a knife but escaped prior to his trial and fled to West Virginia.  He met a girl, Edna Sanders, whom he married in October 1935.  Addison used his real name during the ceremony and was captured five days later.  He was tried in December 1935 in Russell County and received … read more »

- Mug Shot Monday: Sylvia Elwood Huffman, No. 38770


Photograph of Sylvia Elwood Huffman, #38770, 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 mug shots in the records of the Virginia  Penitentiary.

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 »

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- Mug Shot Monday: James “Jimmie” Strother, No. 33927


Photograph of James Strother, #33927, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 25, 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 mug shots in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary.

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 »

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- Mayhem and Skull Fragments in Rockbridge Co.

Skull fragments of Lone B. Vess used as an exhibit in the Rockbridge County Commonwealth Cause vs. Oliver R. Bane alias Dock Bane, October 1903.

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 »

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- Mug Shot Monday: Edith Maxwell, No. 38599


Photograph of Edith Maxwell, #38599, 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 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 »

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- Johnny 99: The Records of the Virginia Penitentiary Now Available


Aerial view of Virginia Penitentiary, 24 January 1954, Adolph B. Rice Studio, Rice Collection 257B, Special Collections, Library of Virginia.

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 »

- “I shall die by my hands” – The Death Row Suicide of Joseph “Cocky Joe” Robinson

Mug shot of Joseph Robinson, 12 April 1951,  Virginia Dept. of Corrections, State Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries E. Execution Files, Box 384, Folders 3-4, Accession 38103. 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 »

- Born to Run: The Odyssey of Lizzie Dodson


Photograph of Lizzie Dodson, No. 4092, probably taken soon after her 3 July 1900 return to the Penitentiary.  Virginia Dept. of Corrections, State Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 19, Accession 41558.

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 »