The Penitentiary Once on Route 1
When Belvidere Road officially became Route 1 through Richmond, Virginia in 1926, the Virginia State Penitentiary on the east side of the highway at the corner at Spring Street was already 126 years old. It was one of the first penitentiaries built in America.
And the legacy of the Jim Crow practices of that ancient, creaking facility, known sometimes as “the wall” from the formidable 18-ft barrier that separated it from Route 1 traffic, resonated until 1991 when it was finally demolished.
A profound concept is born
The radical idea of incarcerating prisoners inside a “gaol and penitentiary-house” was Thomas Jefferson’s, after he saw the practice of “labor in confinement” in Europe while serving as Ambassador to Paris. In 1785 he expressed the concept to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry, writing “…I had heard of a benevolent society in England which had been indulged by the Government in an experiment of the effect of labor in solitary confinement, on some of their criminals, which experiment had succeeded beyond expectation.”
After numerous starts, the Virginia government approved the switch to the penitentiary form of punishment in 1797, and construction on the penitentiary began in earnest. In April of 1800, the still-unfinished structure accepted its first prisoner, a murderer named Thomas Merryman.
At the time, the prison was the largest single structure south of Washington D.C. It was located a few miles west of the then-small village of Richmond, on a six-acre plot overlooking the James River near a huge plantation owned by William Byrd III. The architect, a French immigrant named Benjamin Latrobe, who went on to design the first White House and was the second architect of the U. S. Capitol Building, was a genius, but this penitentiary had many issues. The steel-plated oak cell doors had no windows, so guards had to open them to check on the inmates inside. The prison was unheated, so inmates shivered under a cheap German-made blanket while wind, rain, and snow howled through the open, barred window. There was originally no exterior wall, and contraband could be passed through outside first-floor windows. With no sewage system, inmates collected waste in buckets then emptied them down a trough into a nearby holding pond, where the stench was reportedly unbearable.
These conditions improved little over the next 190 years, as Richmond grew west and surrounded the facility. The prison repeatedly suffered from neglect and frequent mismanagement, despite its unique status as the only state penitentiary in Virginia. In 1806 (after open only 6 years) Superintendent Mims wrote to the governor that “The situation of this place is truly disagreeable and dangerous.” In 1919, the State Board of Charities and Corrections called it a “torture chamber” and the Prisoner’s Relief Society of Washington, D.C. the same year called it “the most mismanaged prison in America.” In 1968 Frank Adams, executive secretary of the Virginia Council on Human Relations, called the penitentiary “a Dachau on Spring Street.” A July 1990 inspection by the ACLU for the National Prison Project revealed the buildings were filthy and roach-infested, the summer heat was unbearable, and the toilets frequently stopped up. After this tour, the penitentiary became known as “the most shameful prison in America.”
The history of egregious, horrific racism against Blacks in the criminal justice system, and especially the penitentiary was palpable. In researching the structure for the book “Virginia State Penitentiary: a Notorious History,” this writer found pervasive legal, cultural, and social race-based tragedies, including absurd crimes, misidentifications, coerced confessions, sham trials with no legal counsel, threats of lynchings and other inequities designed simply to incarcerate as many Blacks as possible in the commonwealth’s sometimes frenzied quest to solve the crime.
For example, after 1908, executions were centralized in the electric chair, located in the Penitentiary “A” Building basement. In October of that year, a mentally disabled 17-year-old Black Midlothian teenager, Winston Green, was electrocuted for the crime of scaring a 12-year-old white schoolgirl. He could not read nor write and had no legal counsel.
Women were housed separately from the men, and penitentiary records showed many women having babies up to five years after their admission. With conjugal visits non-existent, and zero contact with the male inmates, it has to be assumed they were raped by guards. By law, babies born in the prison stayed with their mothers until age four, but records show many children remained there with nowhere else to go until age seven or eight.
Obviously, a penitentiary is no place for children. In 1875, while serving four years for arson, and while working as a sweeper in the penitentiary kitchen, a Black inmate named Thomas Nowlin fell in a tub of boiling coffee and was horribly scalded. He died five days later of his burns. Thomas was 10 years old. There were no reformatories or juvenile justice system in those days – children as young as 9 years of age were imprisoned in the general population alongside murderers and rapists.
On November 16, 1866, a 19-year-old Black Prince George County man was admitted to the penitentiary with a seemingly arbitrary 10-year sentence for housebreaking. The admittance ledger listed him as 5’-1” and identified with “a small scar on left arm above elbow.” He was convict #497, going by the name John Henry.
Henry was arrested and sentenced according to a recently-passed set of laws called “black codes,” which were enacted in 1865 and 1866 by the legislatures of not just Virginia but several other Deep South states. These codes were designed specifically to entrap Black men frequently in nonsense crimes, starting an artificial crime wave and affording Virginia a larger pool of inmates who could be leased out as railroad workers. Virginia during reconstruction was anxious to shake off the agrarian, antebellum shackles of the South and grow north and west. Railroads were the key to this growth.
The convict leasing system was a disaster, in that it put inmates in a sadistic limbo between slavery and freedom, under the direct control of the railroad barons, who frequently worked them literally to death. In all, over 10 percent of the inmate workforce died both on railroads in rock quarries.
And it was around this time that the legend of John Henry, the steel-drivin’ man, was born.
Whether the 5’-1” John Henry from Prince George County was the spark that created the legendary railroad folk hero that single-handedly beat modern technology is hypothetical, but it seems more likely that the name evolved to represent the hundreds of Black convicts who gave their lives in labor on these railroads between 1866 and 1889.
Also, as the song goes, if John Henry was indeed brought back to Richmond’s “white house” (the central penitentiary building) and “buried in the sand,” he could be one of the 300 skeletons unearthed in the 1991-92 demolition. Eighty percent of those skeletons have been proven by forensic anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institute to be Black men in their early twenties.
A modern era
Throughout the twentieth century, egregious abuses of Blacks continued on that notorious block of Route 1. In 1949, at the dawn of the civil rights movement, seven Black men from Martinsville were convicted by all-white juries under an 1894 law of the rape and aiding and abetting the rape of a white woman. All seven were executed in the penitentiary basement in 1951. It was the largest mass execution in Virginia history, with four executed one day and the remaining three executed two days later.
A major court case, Landman v. Royster, emerged in the early 1970s from a 1968 sit-down strike that paralyzed both the penitentiary and the Virginia criminal justice system. A parade of forty-six inmates – Black and white – described arbitrary and inhuman treatments under guards who appeared to operate with little guidance and no impunity.
The court under Judge Robert Merhige Jr. ruled in the inmates’ favor, and the long-lived brutal and prejudiced penal system that robbed penitentiary inmates of their personal liberties and stole their self-respect was finally over.
On December 14, 1990, the crumbling penitentiary finally closed. The final four inmates – Bobbie Rogers, Paul Stotts, Albert Vanderstuyf, and Dean Ratliff – left in a van to Greensville Correctional in Jarratt, Virginia. On February 26, 1991, the electric chair was boxed up and moved to its new home also at Greensville Correctional. Then, starting in August, Thomas Jefferson’s “Gaol and Penitentiary-House” was physically erased from the property by Wrecking Corp. of America of St. Louis, Missouri, for the property owner, Ethyl Corporation. The demolition took almost one year.
Today a historical highway marker, sponsored by this writer, stands silent witness on Route 1 to the former “most shameful prison in America.”
Dale Brumfield is Field Director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty as well as a journalist and the author of eleven books. His website is www.dalebrumfield.net.
Dale Brumfield VA Richmond Dec 20, 2020 History