Sunday, May 3, 2015

So where was this house?

Built in the early 1890s, this Richmond building was demolished in the 1950s.
The image dates from the late 1940s. Where was it?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Lawson Street Is a Dead End

The story of James Lacy Carter ended badly.  His arrival in Richmond years earlier, however, was like that of many rural Virginians who migrated to this city and similar industrial centers in the early 1900s. Born in Prince Edward County in 1889 to a Confederate veteran and his wife, Lacy married Pearl Gibbs when he was 21 and she was an alarmingly young girl of 14.  The lure of opportunity in the city drew Lacy and his wife out of rural southern Virginia, with the couple moving to Richmond in 1911.  Lacy hoped to support his wife by plying his trade in the big city as a carpenter and blacksmith.

Lacy Carter photographed when a young man.
The years before World War I found Pearl and Lacy Carter living with her parents at 3700 Lawson Street in South Richmond, a dead end street of small frame houses near the intersection of Hull Street and Belt Boulevard.  Lacy registered with the city draft board in June 1917, two months after the United Stated entered World War I.  The registration form describes him as being of medium build and complexion, with dark hair and dark brown eyes.  He listed his occupation as “blacksmith,” his status as self-employed, and his business address as 2618 Hull Street, near its intersection with Midlothian Turnpike. In his photographs, Lacy Carter appears to be a perfectly ordinary young man whose only distinguishing feature was a slightly dejected cast to his mouth.

Carter in his police uniform, 1920s.
With the birth of two sons, James and Earl, the growing Carter family was crowding Lacy’s in-laws at 3700 Lawson Street.  Perhaps it was Lacy himself who built the small and ungraceful-looking house at 3704 Lawson in 1920.  Pearl’s father, James Gibbs, was also a carpenter by trade, and may have helped his son-in-law construct his new home.  This house of 900 square feet has three rooms downstairs, each approximately 15 x 15 feet, with a tiny porch and, upstairs, one small bedroom.  3704 Lawson Street is sited above grade and could be easily seen from the house of his in-laws nearby.

Lacy Carter must have seen the job of blacksmith was a lost cause as soon as he arrived in Richmond. The same decade that witnessed World War I also saw an America flooded by millions of Henry Ford’s Model T automobiles, one of the first mass-produced and affordable automobiles. Richmond itself boasted of the 11,000 “pleasure vehicles” owned by city residents in 1923. For the first time in two hundred years, horses were no longer part of the street scape.

Third Police Station at 14th and Stockton Streets. This is the station where Lacy Carter worked and began his patrols around South Richmond.

In 1922, Lacy left blacksmithing and got a job with the Richmond Police Department as Patrolman.  He and Pearl took up permanent residence in the odd little house with its one-room second story in 1924. Pearl remained a housewife, raising the Carter’s two sons.  The boys grew to be adults and married in the 1930s, and those two couples lived in the former home of their grandparents, the larger of the two Carter houses on Lawson Street.

When Officer Carter began his patrols, they began at the Third Police Station on the corner of 14th and Stockton streets in south Richmond.  In the 1930s, being a Richmond cop was probably a pretty good job, especially for one like Carter with some seniority.  Although they were paid comparatively little, the post may have afforded policemen of the era security during an otherwise extremely uncertain decade.  This was in an era of policing on foot, and Officer Lacy must have been a well-known fixture in the Hull Street corridor and around the neighborhoods of old Manchester during the Depression.

Lacy Carter photographed in the late 1930s.

The story of Pearl and Lacy Carter was repeated all over the country as families struggled through the 1930s, a decade made more unusual, more colorful, and often more deadly by Prohibition. In October 1933, Richmonders voted 4 to 1 to repeal the same great “social experiment” whose bathtub gin and home-brewing efforts had made minor criminals out of so many Americans.  Easing the liquor laws and clearing the courts of prohibition cases must have made the task of the Richmond Police Department and its officers a little easier.  As the decade ground by, Richmond recovered from the Depression faster than many American cities, helped along because two of the main props of the local economy were inherently stable: the tobacco industry and government jobs. The city’s general outlook brightened toward the late 1930s.  Things were looking up.

The small house at 3704 Lawson Street where Pearl and Lacy Carter lived.

But on Lawson Street, during the last days of that tough decade, something went horribly wrong.  Christmas was on a Monday in 1939.  The following Thursday night, at exactly 12:20 AM, Earl Carter, his brother James and their families were all awoken by a series of gunshots coming from a nearby house – their parent’s house.  The dreadful cadence continued to echo up and down the neighborhood as Pearl and Lacy’s sons hurriedly tumbled out of bed and out into Lawson Street.

Bursting into their parent’s home, the horrified sons discovered that Lacy had taken his service revolver and fired five shots into Pearl, killing her, then put the gun to his own head and shot himself.  City coroner George Williams was quickly summoned and after one look at the two people sprawled in Lacy and Pearl’s bloody bedroom, he quickly ruled it a case of murder and suicide.

The bodies were taken to Woody’s Funeral Home, two caskets were prepared, and the couple was buried side by side in Maury Cemetery the next day.  Lacy and Pearl Carter had gone from warming themselves on a cold December night in their little Lawson Street home, to being shot to death, embalmed, mourned, and buried, all in 38 hours.

The graves of Pearl and Lacy Carter in Richmond’s Maury Cemetery, both buried the day after he murdered her and killed himself.

Nobody knows what took place that made Lacy Carter shoot his wife five times and then kill himself.  Nobody knows to what depths of misery the mild-looking policeman had descended or what role, other than victim, Pearl played in events that had such a dreadful ending.  Nor can we gauge, at the distance of almost eighty years, the effect on the sons who found their parents dead under such soul-searing circumstances.  Some things are best surrendered to time.

Still standing, although in poor condition, the ugly little house at 3704 Lawson Street has a notice of condemnation on its door and may soon disappear, taking its memories of moments in 1939 with it.  Despite its humble appearance, this house was once the stage on which two people unknowingly played out the dramatic last acts, the last minutes of their otherwise ordinary lives. The extinguishment of their hopes and aspirations, everything they knew, thought, felt or said, all utterly erased in a just few seconds from one winter’s cold hour is jarring and disturbing.  It is like a sinking ship, with all that achievement and life replaced by nothing more than the silent sky and the flat, implacable, sea.

White-hot rage, mortal fear, abject terror and desperate regret each tore through the Carter’s little house that cold night.  As vivid and real as these emotions and events were in 1939, today they are just a distant memory barely rescued from the brink of obscurity.  The life-and-death story of Pearl and Lacy Carter is now but the tiniest of events among so many in the long and colorful history of Richmond.  Today, the six terrible shots once heard distinctly up and down Lawson Street ring only in the imagination of the reader:


A pause.


- Selden.

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