Tag Archives: Western State Hospital

- The Asylum Poisonings: Death, Politics, and “Low Cussedness” in Staunton


Western State Hospital, ca. 1838.  https://wayback.archive-it.org/335/20090115144155/http://www.wsh.dmhmrsas.virginia.gov/history.htm

In 1883, the year when Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solved the case of the Speckled Band, an equally baffling real-life killing drew another noted team of detectives to the Western Lunatic Asylum (later renamed the Western State Hospital) in Staunton, Virginia.

On the morning of 24 February 1883, just after receiving their regular liquid medications, seven male patients lost consciousness.  Four died almost immediately, two died in the next three days, and one recovered.  An eighth patient vomited and experienced other ill effects, but recovered in a few days.  A coroner’s inquest concluded that the victims’ cups of medicine must have been poisoned while sitting in an unlocked hall cabinet the previous evening.  Other patients, taking the same medicine which had not been left in the cabinet, had no problems.  Dr. W.W.S. Butler, head pharmacist at the asylum, testified that no poisons were missing from the dispensary.  Autopsies were performed, and University of Virginia chemistry professor John W. Mallet used the latest forensic techniques to analyze three of the victims’ stomachs and their contents.  Mallet concluded that the poison used was aconitia (also known as aconitine), an extremely toxic extract of the aconite or monkshood plant, and the coroner’s jury agreed.  The asylum pharmacy had a bottle of highly diluted “tincture of aconite,” but Mallet thought it was not strong enough to … 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 … read more »

- Murder at the Second Market

View of Western State Hospital, Staunton, undated.
Editors Note: This post is a modified version of an article that originally appeared in the former “Virginiana” section of Virginia Memory.

The following story was gleaned from a case book found in the Western State Hospital collection (Accession 41404). Included in this volume are approximately twenty pages of physician’s entries, as well as a copy of the commitment order, a letter to the court, and several Richmond Dispatch newspaper articles relating to Mrs. Anne E. Kirby. Some of the dates and information are conflicting, but I have done my best to present the story as accurately as possible, well aware of the sometimes questionable nature of 19th century journalism and the possibility of human error within the case book entries.

NOVEMBER 21, 1865…

A shot rings out in the middle of a bustling crowd at Richmond’s Second Market. A fish and oyster vendor staggers through Pink Alley, bleeding from the neck, only to die minutes later in the back of a wagon. Several stunned witnesses pounce on the shooter. Holding the gun is the victim’s young wife, Anne, the mother of his three children. What might have driven her to commit such a bold act in a busy public place? Was the murder in retaliation for her husband’s infidelity or was it merely the work of a mad woman? Depending upon what one … read more »