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The Virginia State Penitentiary, as seen on Aug. 3, 1972 (Photo by P.A. Gormus Jr., courtesy Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine)
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A shakedown at the Virginia State Penitentiary after a disturbance on June 2, 1973 (Photo by P.A. Gormus, courtesy Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine)
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Officials survey the prison yard on Nov. 1, 1966. (Photo courtesy Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine)
While doing research on the former Virginia State Penitentiary, Dale Brumfield went to locate the property. He circled the entire block between Byrd, Spring, Belvidere and South Second streets, but could find no sign of it.
“I wondered if I even had the right property,” says Brumfield, a digital archaeologist and author (and occasional Richmond magazine contributor). “There was no clear record of it being there, no sign or anything. I asked local businesses, and they confirmed that I had the right place, but the whole time I thought it was all a big conspiracy.”
He was first turned on to the topic by a friend who claims that an old warden of the penitentiary told him that there were prisoners who were admitted and never came out.
“Rumor is that people came out through the incinerator or in trash bags because they ratted out the wrong person,” Brumfield says. “There were a lot of unanswered questions.”
Brumfield enjoys the challenge of digging up peculiar and previously unexplained historical events that others have glossed over. Eventually, his research led him to accumulate a body of work related to incarceration with a focus on the death penalty.
A circa 1920 postcard photo of the Virginia State Penitentiary (Image courtesy Dale Brumfield)
History of the penitentiary
The penitentiary opened in 1800. However, death sentences had been carried out long before that. In his story “An Executioner’s Song,” Brumfield writes that the first was actually in 1608, by firing squad. Public hangings, known as “carnivals of death” for the crowds they would bring, were common until executions were moved to the penitentiary and made private.
Execution by electric chair began in 1908, and there were 100 executions by electric chair at the penitentiary from 1908 through 1920, Brumfield says. All told, Virginia has executed more prisoners than any other state in the union, though Texas has carried out the most since 1976.
The Virginia State Penitentiary closed in December 1990, and was demolished in 1992. The property where the penitentiary stood is now owned by NewMarket Corp.
“Old Sparky,” the nickname given to the electric chair, was moved to Greensville Correctional Center in Jarrett. It was not until 1994 that the state officially switched over to lethal injection for executions, though electrocution is still used if drugs are not available.
The historical marker
Through his research, Brumfield concluded that the penitentiary site should have a historical marker to distinguish it. In order to do so, he had to put in an application with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) and find a benefactor to pay the $1,600 fee (paid in this case by a silent partner). Anyone can apply for a permanent historical marker as long as he or she goes through the process.
“It’s a little surprising that there was not already a marker, especially considering the penitentiary’s origins in the late 18th century and that Thomas Jefferson had involvement with it,” says Jennifer Loux, highway marker historian at the DHR. “It was a major site on Richmond landscape for so long.”
Jefferson commissioned the penitentiary in 1796, and it was designed by architect Benjamin Latrobe, who also designed the U.S. Capitol.
Loux explained that since the 1970s, the marker program has been based almost entirely on applications from the public. It is often a matter of what people take an interest in, so sometimes obscure things get recognition before obvious ones.
Brumfield was pleasantly surprised to find that no one was opposed to the idea of commemorating this landmark.
“I did not find one soul who was against it, not even the current property owners, which was such a relief,” Brumfield says. “They even helped me find the perfect spot in the sidewalk between Belvidere and Spring.”
A dedication for the marker originally planned for Jan. 23 has been rescheduled to take place Friday, Feb. 24, at 3 p.m. at the intersection of Belvidere and Spring streets.
While Brumfield is happy that the property is getting the recognition it deserves, he thinks the whole project has deeper meaning.
“The death penalty has its roots in pure racism — research has shown it,” Brumfield says, noting the disproportionate number of African-Americans who have been executed. “That’s Virginia’s legacy with executions and the penitentiary, and I think it’s something that the state needs to address.”
In his book, tentatively titled "The History of the Virginia State Penitentiary, 1796-1992," and set to come out in September, Brumfield writes:
The end of public executions was considered a victory not only for progressive reformers desiring a more civilized form of capital punishment, but for Jim Crow segregationists who wanted to eliminate any and all forms of black influence and stop large crowds of blacks from congregating ... The move from hanging to electrocution further denied black influence from the process, forcing the condemned to pay for their crimes not before large praying, singing and chanting crowds of peers but before small, somber white audiences of jurors and prison authorities.
“The only thing worse than burying history is letting it die and thinking someone else is gonna write about it," Brumfield says. "You’re obligated to write about it. That’s why the marker is so important to me.”