Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Everyone knew the jail run by the City of Richmond was a pathetic excuse for a place of detention.  The inmates had their own bootlegging service inside, the jailers were corrupt, and the only food available was a kind of bean gruel unless you had somebody on the outside sending you canned goods.  In 1934, convicted murderers Walter Legenza and Robert Mais shot their way out of the building, aided in large part by the ineptitude of the Richmond jailers who allowed two pistols to be delivered to the convicts in a canned chicken. 

A few weeks after Mais and Legenza’s escape, and after being closely questioned by the investigating Grand Jury as to his role in the escape, one of the jailors returned to the jail after his shift.  Once inside, he produced a revolver from a desk drawer and killed himself with it inside an office.  Expanding ripples of horror and fear, guilt and recrimination roiled sleepy little Richmond while reminding the nation what a hick town it was.

The Henrico County Courthouse and jail as they appeared in the 1930s.

While the manhunt for Mais and Legenza swept the East Coast, President Franklin Roosevelt told the press he had conferred with the Attorney General Cummings about the security of Federal prisoners in the Richmond jails.  The Attorney General reported the Richmond jail was not secure and all prisoners held on Federal charges had been moved to the much more secure and better-managed Henrico County jail.

The eight escapees broke through a wall and
squeezed through a small hole, visible above the window.

Today, no trace remains of the breach they made in the brickwork.

Imagine the surprise, then, when eight desperate young men, most convicted burglars and car thieves, apparently vanished from their cells before headcount on the morning of November 5, 1939. Seven of the eight had attempted to escape only weeks before by slugging the driver of a prison bus near Fredericksburg, and were facing long sentences for that attempted escape. Instead of assaulting their jailors, this time they managed to get on top of a steel jail tier and burrow out through the brickwork above a first-floor window of the jail.

A Richmond officer peers through the hole in the brickwork of the
Henrico jail through which eight men squeezed to freedom.

The eight were poorly dressed for November, wearing only the blue shirts and overalls of their jail uniforms.  Nevertheless, a group escaped as far as North Carolina, where three were recaptured.  Police in Raleigh picked up two of the men while another escapee got as far as High Point before being accosted by a traffic cop.

Walter Smith, age 22, also made it to North Carolina, but pining for his hometown of Cincinnati, reversed his course and returned to Richmond.  In fact, the night of November 7 found Smith not only back in Richmond, but warming himself in a Main Street cafĂ©, once again within sight of the Henrico County jail.  Cold and homesick and still wearing his dirty jail uniform, Smith must have been a forlorn sight as he slumped in the corner of a booth, drinking a cup of coffee and pondering his slim options.

Smith had returned to Richmond the night before in the same way he escaped it: in a freight car.  He spent most of that evening wandering around town wondering what to do, even pausing in front of the Henrico jail and looking up at the brick walls he had so recently slipped through.  Smith knew his knock on the jail door would result in an enthusiastic if not exactly friendly reception. Dragging his tired frame up those steps would, on the other hand, guarantee escape from the winter cold, sleep between sheets, and hot food.

The lure of Cincinnati was too much, though, and Smith made his way out Main Street to the C&O rail yard in the East End.  He was still sitting there, shivering by the tracks and waiting for a westbound coal train of emptys to take him to Ohio, when Smith was taken into custody by Richmond police and returned to the Henrico jail.

The following month saw seven of the eight escapees rounded up, back in custody in Richmond, and on trial.  Judge Pollard gave them each five years for automobile theft (for commandeering the prison bus), five years for theft from stealing the bus guard’s handcuffs and revolver, and five years for each of the two escapes.  Research has yet to reveal the fate of the eighth escapee, or even if he was ever recaptured. 
The former Henrico County Courthouse and Jail as it appears today.  The escape took place in the passage between the courthouse on the left and the jail on the right.

With the memory of the bloody shootout and escape that so rocked the city in 1934 still fresh in many minds, Richmonders must have heaved a sigh of relief when seven of the eight men who escaped five years later were put under secure guard and shipped to the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta.

In the 1930s, Richmond was widely regarded as a sleepy Southern town with lax cops and tin can jails. The changes brought about by a world war would soon overtake Richmond, and hasten its transformation into a modern American city – and eventually, a city with modern jails.  This was a process that sometimes took decades.  The grim, red brick Henrico jail on Main Street served the county for another thirty-four years after the eight-man escape, finally moving to its location on Parham Road in 1974.
- Selden

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Richmond 150th Civil War Anniversary Events

Richmonders set their own city on fire.

Richmond 150th Civil War Anniversary Events - see this site for more details.

Commemorating Richmond's journey from the end of slavery and Civil War to today

April 2, 1865
While in church at St. Paul's, Confederate President Jefferson Davis received a telegram from General Robert E. Lee stating that he could not hold his position any longer and recommending that the Confederate government evacuate the city. Fires begun amidst the evacuation confusion consumed portions of the city late that night.
Thursday, April 2, 2015 commemorative programs will include
  • Late morning program at St. Paul's Church exploring the story of the Confederate evacuation, featuring remarks by Nelson Lankford of the Virginia Historical Society, author of Richmond Burning.
  • Tours of the historic areas of Richmond exploring the Confederate government's evacuation of the city and what that meant for residents, both free and enslaved.
  • In the evening, an artistic illumination of areas of the city that were destroyed by the evacuation fires, along with guided lantern tours of the burned areas.
April 3, 1865
At the invitation of the mayor, Union army units, including a large contingent of Unites States Colored Troops, entered Richmond, assumed control of the Capitol and city, and helped to extinguish the devastating evacuation fires. With the arrival of Union troops, thousands of slaves in the city were emancipated and experienced their first day of freedom.
Friday, April 3, 2015 commemorative programs will include
  • Morning bus tours following the path of entry of Union army units into the city early on April 3, 1865.
  • Tours throughout the city exploring the arrival of Union forces and what that meant for residents, both free and enslaved.
  • A special evening program commemorating and celebrating the 150th anniversary of emancipation in Richmond.
April 4, 1865
President Lincoln visited Richmond, including the former Confederate White House and the Capitol. As he moved through the city, he was surrounded by a growing, jubilant crowd of former slaves eager to greet the man they regarded as the great emancipator.
On Saturday, April 4, 2015, a full day of programs will commemorate the immense changes that occurred in Richmond 150 years ago, and the reverberations of those events in our Region today.
At the Virginia State Capitol:
  • The day will open with the arrival of a procession of living history Union military units recreating the Union army's arrival in Richmond, including United States Colored Troops. A brief commemorative program will follow the arrival of the procession.
  • Throughout the day, Richmond's history and cultural institutions will collaborate to present programs, living history, and temporary exhibits exploring the story and meaning of the historic events. The Virginia HistoryMobile will be open nearby.
  • Staff and rangers from local history and cultural organizations will lead tours of the Capitol and surrounding area of the city to explore sites associated with the Confederate evacuation, the transfer of civic control to Union forces, the enslavement and emancipation of the city's African American population, and President Lincoln's visit to the city.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Richmond Now and Then - Broad and 4th Street.

Postcard image from the early 1960s showing downtown Richmond. You can see G. C. Murphy's and Grants on the right which stood at the corner of 4th and Broad St.  The G. C. Murphy's building was demolished in 2004. The Grants building is still there - it's now a Subway.

Google image of the same block - the 300 block of E. Broad St. I think I prefer the older version of downtown Richmond.

- Ray

Friday, March 27, 2015

Nixon visits Richmond, Oct. 3, 1960 and the photographs of Malcolm O. Carpenter.

  Vice-President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) on E. Main Street in Richmond, Virginia, October 3, 1960. Photo by Malcolm O. Carpenter, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographic Division.

About a month ago Dale Brumfield, Richmond author and journalist, tracked down Malcolm Carpenter, who attended Richmond Professional Institute (RPI) from 1958 to 1961. RPI was the forerunner to VCU on the Monroe Park campus. I had seen Malcolm's photographs in the RPI student newspaper, the Proscript, and had hoped one day to contact him. Dale, an excellent writer and chronicler of Richmond history, is also a great sleuth. He put me in touch with Malcolm after a few weeks of detective work. 

Malcolm, a native of Falls Church, Virginia, worked as a photographer both in high school and while he attended RPI. His work was often used by the United Press International (UPI) wire service.He would go on to serve in the Army in Europe, first as a soldier for 3 years, then as a government employee for nearly four decades. The entire time he worked as photographer, writer, and editor.Although now retired, he is still an active photographer and film-maker. 

 Photo by Malcolm O. Carpenter, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographic Division.

This image is probably the most well-known photograph that Malcolm took. It has appeared in many periodicals, books, and exhibits. It was published in LIFE magazine soon after the event. It shows Ruth Nelson Tinsley being being carried across Broad Street by two Richmond police officers on February 23, 1960. Tinsley was a bystander standing outside Thalhimers department store where a sit-in strike by Virginia Union University students was taking place. Tinsley refused to "move on" by the police and was arrested. Tinsley's husband, Jesse M. Tinsley, had been president of the Richmond chapter of the NAACP since 1931. Mrs.Tinsley was a senior adviser to the NAACP’s Youth Group and worked closely with her husband on civil-rights issues. She died in 1970. To read more about the sit-in event in Richmond and her arrest, click HERE. Read Dale's recent article about Malcolm and his famous photograph which appeared in VCU's Commonwealth Times HERE. Malcolm took a number of other images of Tinsley and protestors both inside and outside of Thalhimers that day. I am hoping to share those images on a web site at VCU in the future.

While the Tinsley image is well-known, these images of Richard Nixon in Richmond are not. Malcolm shared these images with me and gave me permission to use them on this site. The original photographs and negatives are held by the Library of Congress. In 1960, Nixon was Vice-President of the United States and was running for President as the Republican nominee against Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee. He spent the day in Richmond on October 3, 1960. Malcolm took these images for UPI.

Nixon speaking in Capitol Square, Oct. 3, 1960. 
Photo by Malcolm O. Carpenter, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographic Division.

Vice-President Nixon, Pat Nixon, and supporters, Capitol Square, Oct. 3, 1960.
 Photo by Malcolm O. Carpenter, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographic Division.

Nixon's remarks in Richmond are available online from the American Presidency Project. And a film showing television coverage from WSLS in Roanoke of Nixon campaigning in Richmond that day is available from the Virginia Center for Digital History at UVA.  

Thank you Malcolm for sharing these images.

- Ray

Thursday, March 26, 2015