Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Sodom on the James: A Murder at R.P.I.

VCU's Brandt Hall and Rhoads Hall,
700 block of W. Franklin St.

Today, 712 West Franklin Street is the address of a high-rise VCU dormitory called Rhodes Hall, but sixty years ago an old brick home typical of the area once stood on the same spot.  The house, constructed in the late 1880s by one of Richmond’s Scott families, was a mashup of projecting bays and odd window framing, combined with fussy belts of decoration.  As many as 80 young men called it home after it was sold, like so many Franklin Street properties, to Richmond Professional Institute, now VCU. RPI converted the house at 712 West Franklin into the school’s first dorm for men in 1949. 

Albert Vischio, (1935-2007), convicted of the
murder of his former friend James Whitlow in 1956.
Tragedy struck the house in the form of a slender, dark-haired young man who climbed the steps to the second floor on the evening of May 7, 1956.  It had been almost 80 degrees that day, but Albert Vischio, Jr., was nevertheless dressed in a dark suit and tie.  A native of Brooklyn, New York, Vischio had been discharged after 15 months in the U. S. Navy for a “nervous breakdown.”  Later, enrolling in RPI, Vischio became friends with his roommate at 712 West Franklin, James Whitlow. 

James Whitlow (1936-1956), murdered in his
bed in a RPI dorm room on West Franklin Street.
Whitlow was described as a “quiet, likable” 22-year-old country boy from Clover, Virginia who had transferred from sleepy Bridgewater College in the western part of the state to go to school in the big city of Richmond. The two young men became close, with Whitlow traveling to New York the previous Christmas to visit Vischio’s parents and later the two took a trip to Florida together. Vischio had recently withdrawn from classes at RPI because of the fragile nature of his mental health, with stated intentions of returning to the school. But nobody imagined his return would be like this.

The RPI dormitory at 712 West Franklin where, in a second floor bedroom,
Albert Vischio shot and killed Jim Whitlow. VCU’s Rhoads Hall now
stands on the site. The iron fence still stands on this spot.
As Vischio climbed the old stairs to the dorm room he once shared with his friend Whitlow, he must have felt the unaccustomed weight of a recently purchased Smith & Wesson 5-shot revolver in his jacket pocket. What transpired once Vischio reached that second-story dorm room? Was Whitlow (dressed in shorts and a t-shirt) asleep in bed?  Or did the two men talk and at the end Whitlow simply turned his head away on his pillow? All we know is that Vischio bent down and deliberately emptied all five shots in the revolver, one after another, into the back of Whitlow’s head, killing him instantly. An hour later, Vischio was found wandering with the revolver in his hand on the grounds of McGuire Veteran’s Hospital. He was disarmed and arrested without a struggle. Just two weeks earlier, Vischio had been discharged from McGuire’s after a second nervous breakdown. Police records showed he went directly from the hospital to apply for a permit to buy a pistol.  
Albert Vischio is bundled into a police van on the grounds of
McGuire Veterans Hospital, having just been arrested for murder.

Part of the horror of the shooting of James Whitlow was the very deliberate and at the same time detached attitude of Vischio. “You never think of yourself in a situation like this,” the sociology major mused for a newspaper reporter, “I suppose it has to do with environment and the way you were raised. But it just doesn't seem possible.” Vischio, described as “115 lbs., large, dark eyes and manicured hands,” added, “I don’t care what happens, all they can do is send me to the electric chair.” 

Newspaper descriptions of the nature of the relationship between the murderer and his victim were sprinkled with casual implications, like references to Vischio’s manicured hands which would have been unmistakable to even readers of the staid Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Vischio was very jealous of Whitlow,” recalled one of the men who lived in the dorm, “…he would become angry and upset if Jim went with anybody else to eat at the cafeteria.” 

The gravestone of Jim Whitlow in the town cemetery in Clover, Virginia, with
its dire epitaph, “Prepare for death and follow me." Image courtesy of Findagrave.com.
While Vischio was bundled off to jail, Whitlow’s parents returned to tiny Clover, Virginia, with the body of their son and buried him in the town cemetery. The tone of regret and disapproval in the epitaph they put on Whitlow’s tombstone, “Prepare For Death and Follow Me,” is stark. It may have been intended as a warning to every young man lured north by the big city to what must have seemed to the mourners in Clover like Sodom-on-the-James.

The inexplicable, implacable nature of Whitlow’s murder impressed even Vischio himself, who mused, “I’ll probably go to Southwestern State (at Marion, Va.), won’t I?  I hear that’s a pretty tough place. But I suppose I’ll get along all right. I can always play cards with the attendants.” 

He was shipped there by June 12 for psychiatric observation. Vischio’s relationship with Whitlow was “close” according to the psychiatric report produced at the mental hospital, and they quoted Vischio’s statement, “he taught me how to dance” as being emblematic of the relationship between the two young men. 

Even, in an era that saw homosexuality cruelly classified as a mental illness and even though the psychologists characterized him as “a homosexual and potentially suicidal individual,” Vischio was still found to be sane to stand trial. The following November he was back before Richmond’s Hustings Court. On January 6, 1957, Albert Vischio, Jr. was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to the murder of James Whitlow. 
Richmond Professional Institute quickly moved to absolve itself from responsibility for Whitlow’s death, despite a glaring six-hour period where school officials were aware Vischio was back on campus and in possession of a gun.  In March 1957, the school produced a report saying it had had “no information on the day of the murder that should have suggested action to prevent the slaying.” The report also stated it was “unable to discover any direct evidence of an immoral nature involving students, faculty members, or persons now connected with Richmond Professional Institute.” The report concluded that, at the time of the murder, Vischio was officially not a RPI student, so his actions and proclivities were not a concern or responsibility of the school.

The student newspaper took pains to suppress the rumors that Vischio and Whitlow were more than just friends. “It has become all too obvious in the past that many of the greatest critics of RPI are members of the student body,” stated an editorial  in the student newspaper, Proscript, defending the school. “Some students became eloquently loquacious in denouncing the Administration for their action or lack of action concerning the recent tragedy, and reporters covering the case were handed juicy tidbits of local gossip, many of which were based solely on hearsay…RPI could well afford to do without these students.”

Albert Vischio, Jr. served his time in the Virginia State Penitentiary on Belvidere Street, just a mile away from the scene of his murder of Whitlow. He survived his time in prison and died in Massachusetts at age 72 in 2007. As a veteran, he qualified for a grave in the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne. 

Today, almost no one remembers the shock that roared through the RPI. student body at the news of the shooting of Jim Whitlow by Albert Vischio. The victim has been in his rural grave more than sixty years and the house which was their dorm is long gone. The old bedroom that once contained such an unimaginable scene as cold-blooded murder has been erased as though its brick walls never existed. Today, only the view across the street into Monroe Park is probably similar as when Albert Vischio emerged onto the front porch of 712 West Franklin, adjusted his tie, and strode off down the sidewalk to his classes. With the passage of six decades, there are probably now very few who remember the story of the flash of bloody rage, jealousy, and madness in a Franklin Street dorm that once cost two young men their lives.

Thanks to A. Judd for research assistance.

- Selden. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Richmond Myths and Misconceptions

"Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t." - Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897.

If you spend any time exploring Richmond’s fabulous history and culture, you have probably heard some of our urban legends.  We’ve got some good ones.  More often than not, this kind of local lore is the foundation for local tours. Perhaps you have heard some intriguing stories on your way around town by trolley, canal boat, or other mode of transportation.  Most of what you heard is probably true, or very close to the truth.  Some of what you heard might be real whoppers, however. To follow are some of the most common myths and misconceptions about Richmond.  Maybe you have heard them too!

Currier and Ives, 1865, The Fall of Richmond, Virginia on the Night of April 2nd, 1865.

The Great Fire of April 1865 was started by Federal Troops as they entered the former Capital of the Confederacy.  This is a myth that has survived for generations. Once on a crowded tour at the Museum of the Confederacy, several guests carried on a running argument with the tour guide about this. They were positive that Yankee invaders had started all the trouble.  The truth is harder to explain, as it often is.  The retreating Confederates lit what has come to be known as the Evacuation Fire.  This was an old trick going back to antiquity when defeat was inevitable, goods and weapons were destroyed so the enemy would not have access to them.  Perhaps this was their motivation.  Whatever it was, things got very bad very fast.  It was a windy day in April, and the fire quickly got out of hand and spread dramatically, destroying a major part of downtown.  This was reported in the New York Times April 8, 1865:

“The evacuation of Richmond commenced in earnest Sunday night, closed at daylight on Monday morning with a terrific conflagration, which, was kindled by the Confederate authorities wantonly and recklessly applying the torch to Shockoe warehouse and other buildings in which was stored a large quantity of tobacco. The fire spread rapidly, and it was some time before the Fire Brigade could be gotten to work. A fresh breeze was blowing from the south, and the fire swept over great space in an incredible short space of time. By noon the flames had transformed into a desert waste that portion of the city bounded between Seventh and Fifteenth streets, from Main-street to the river, comprising the main business portion. We can form no estimate at this moment of the number of houses destroyed, but public and private they will certainly number six or eight hundred.
“At present we cannot do more than enumerate some of the most prominent buildings destroyed. These include the Bank of Richmond, Traders' Bank, Bank of the Commonwealth, Bank of Virginia, Farmers' Bank, all the banking houses, the American Hotel, the Columbian Hotel, the Enquirer building on Twelfth-street, the Dispatch Office and job rooms, corner of Thirteenth and Main streets; all that block of buildings known as Devlin's Block; the Examiner Office, engine and machinery rooms; the Confederate Post-office Department building; the State Court-house; a fine old building situated on Capitol-square, at its Franklin-street entrance; the Mechanics' Institute, vacated by the Confederate States War Department, and all the buildings on that square up to Eighth-street and back to Main-street; the confederate arsenal and laboratory, Seventh-street.”

According to the Virginia Highway Marker at Main Street near 9th in the heart of the devastation:

“After midnight on 3 April 1865, Confederate soldiers set fire to several tobacco warehouses nearby on orders from Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, as the army evacuated Richmond and marched west. Two distinct fires spread rapidly throughout the commercial and industrial sections of the capital. The core of the burned-out area, some 35 blocks, extended from the James River in some areas as far north as Capitol Square, and from 4th St. east to 16th St. Frightened citizens huddled in Capitol Square while looters rampaged and firefighters battled the fires. The Union army, which occupied the city early on 3 April, finally brought the fires under control in the afternoon.”

 The Jefferson Hotel Grand Staircase.

The staircase in the Jefferson Hotel inspired the famous one in the film Gone With the Wind.  Where there is a whiff of a rumor like this one, there may be a trace of truth.  Perhaps it began when the wife of someone involved in the production of the movie was a guest at the Jefferson.  If so, she’d have been in distinguished company because celebrities and heads of state have selected the Jefferson Hotel as their first choice accommodation for generations.  Real fans of the movie will know better, however.  If you think about it, there were several significant staircases in Gone With the Wind.  There was a distinctive one at Twelve Oaks Plantation during the barbeque scene.  There were couple of them at Tara. Then finally the granddaddy of all staircases in the film was the one at Rhett and Scarlett’s Atlanta home.  Those who cling to the myth that Scarlett swished up or down a staircase just like the one at the Jefferson need not despair. It is still a remarkable gem of a landmark in a city that is studded with them.  Anyone seeking to impress out of town visitors only need escort them inside the Main Street entrance of the Jefferson for the ultimate view of the Grand Staircase.  After that, it is difficult to get them out of there.

Lee Monument on Monument Avenue. This postcard image (postmarked 1916) shows
Virginia Military Institute cadets marching down the avenue.

There is a hidden meaning in the direction the Monument Avenue statues face, or the way the horses are posed.  This includes stories that if the monuments faced north or south, that represented defeat or victory.  There is another that if their horses have a hoof in the air, or on the ground, that symbolizes whether or not they died in battle. If you travel up and down Monument Avenue, several things become obvious.  First, not all the figures are on horseback, so that shoos that theory.  Jefferson Davis is standing with his arm outstretched like a classical figure from antiquity.  Matthew Fontaine Maury, known as the Pathfinder of the Seas, is shown seated because at the age of 33 he broke his right leg in a carriage accident and it never healed properly. Since 1996 with the installation of the Arthur Ashe monument, not all the figures on Monument Avenue even represent Confederate heroes. It is worth mentioning that Arthur Ashe is the only Richmond native depicted on Monument Avenue.  The bottom line is, the way the monuments were mounted depended upon the artistic expressions of their creators. 
Allen and Ginter cigarette card, ca. 1880s.

Lewis Ginter, who built the Jefferson Hotel and developed Ginter Park, was the inventor of the cigarette.  While it is true that Lewis Ginter, a Richmond transplant from New York, did make one of his fortunes in tobacco, he did not invent the machine rolled cigarette.That distinction belongs to Roanoke native James Albert Bonsack. What Lewis Ginter did invent, however, was something that today is very collectible.  He noted that the paper packets holding the early cigarettes often collapsed, crushing them.  So he created cardboard advertising cards to insert into the packets.  Seeing no need to let a marketing opportunity go to waste, he decided to use the cards to promote his products with decorative motifs.  So he designed images and stories to go along with them.  The cards had themes like the Tropics, Flags of all Nations, American Presidents, and beautiful women.  These Allen & Ginter cigarette cards, many of which featured sports popular at the time including baseball, were most likely the early inspiration for baseball cards, and can be found in antiques stores as well as online.  

Image of Richmond from the Richmond Progress periodical, 1870.

Like Rome, Richmond was built on seven hills.  This is an old myth that just won’t go away on its own.  No one is disputing that there are hills in Richmond.  If you travel around the city, you have no doubt realized that there are some serious inclines, as well as equally generous valleys (Shockoe Bottom).  This came to a discussion at city council in the 1930s, and they drafted an ordinance naming the original “seven” hills.  The reason the ordinance was never adopted is perhaps because they could not agree to disagree on which to include.  Because there are not or have not been seven hills.  If you count some of the former ones along with the current ones they are:

Chimborazo Hill
Church Hill
Council Chamber Hill
French Garden Hill
Fulton Hill
Gambles Hill
Libby Hill
Navy Hill
Oregon Hill
Shockoe Hill
Union Hill

It gets even more confusing if you research old Richmond records, because several of these hills have gone through an equal number of names.  Church Hill has been Richmond Hill and Indian Hill.  Church Hill gets its name from the many churches there, but in particular, the first church, St. John’s.  Fulton Hill was also called Powhatan Hill.  Fulton was named for James Alexander Fulton who married Eliza Mayo, and built a (then) suburban house they named Powhatan there.  Legend has it that is where Powhatan’s son Parahunt met with English adventurers John Smith and Christopher Newport in May of 1607. Eliza Mayo is from the family that built the Mayo Bridge over the James River. Those of you fond of recreating and residing in the former municipality of Manchester across the James River will also be reminded of Forest Hill and Westover Hills.

Richmond's Church Hill now has many churches, but the original one that inspired the name was historic St. John's dating to 1741.  Before this it was called Richmond or Indian Hill.  Photo by Alyson.

There are lots more peculiar and puzzling myths and misconceptions about a city with Richmond’s diverse and interesting history.  What are your favorites?

- Alyson Lindsey Taylor-White.

Rocket Werks - A Must Site To Explore.

For a new and fresh look at Richmond history (architecture and many other topics) and many other subjects (including rockets and science and humor) please visit and subscribe to rocket werks. It is a very interesting tumblr site full of images and lots of information. It is a MUST for Richmond history. Lots of sources of information. It's going to take me months to explore it all. It is a fun site and you might learn something too. Now that's good.

- Ray

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Paean to a Punchbowl

Richmond had a tough time in 1870. Political discord during a contentious mayoral race resulted in a highly charged trial held in a courtroom in the Virginia Capitol. The structural insecurity, or the massive weight of the crowd attending the case, resulted in a tumultuous collapse that killed dozens and wounded many more. The state and nation eulogized Robert E. Lee who died that October.  And at Christmastime, the popular Spottswood Hotel on Main Street went up in flames.
Though not the city’s finest hotel, the Spottswood earned a reputation since its creation in 1861 as a luxurious restorative in a city known for its hospitality.  Celebrities of literary and political fame called it home when they visited Richmond. A lot of memories went up in smoke with it.

Spottswood Hotel on Main Street (Library of Congress).

The loss of life in that fire was about seven individuals.  Yet a substantial number of Richmonders mourned the loss of an inanimate object from that disaster in the form of a ceramic punch bowl.  They included volunteers from the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, lawyers, judges, legislators, and other leading citizens.  The Spottswood Hotel fire destroyed the symbol of an entire generation of citizens, including Revolutionary War heroes.  

Richmond Light Infantry Blues volunteers replaced the old Quoit Club
punch bowl after the original's demise, but the taste was never the same.

That was long before Richmond became a popular tourism “food destination.” It was likewise eons before such a thing as a cocktail was conceived.  And so it was that many Richmonders reeled at the loss of a humble, chipped, much loved ceramic punch bowl just as if it a person had died.  No one is sure if there was a proper funeral for the huge (said to hold 32 quarts) ceramic symbol of fraternity and conviviality, but there certainly was a memorial of sorts as many former celebrants attempted to unsuccessfully replicate the delicious punch recipe for old time’s sake.  Try as they might, and they are still trying to this day*, the replicated versions of the punch never tasted so sweet as the original did in the cool shade of Buchanan’s Spring.  A passable recipe has been brought to our attention, though its origins in mixology are murky.  Even so, when imbibers of the excellent elixir were still alive who knew their brew, poor imitations never passed their taste test.   

 No one is sure about the origin of punch bowl or the punch recipe, but most sources agree where it came into its own.  Alternate Saturdays when the weather was fine, gentlemen and their guests retired to a place called Buchanan’s Spring for recreation and refreshments.  Today’s Carver neighborhood is close to the spot.  The Quoit, or Barbeque Club as it became known, included famous frequenters like the Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall. Samuel Mordecai in his Richmond In By-Gone Days described Buchanan’s Spring as “under the oaks of original growth, with no other shelter than the shade they afforded, and an open shed, to protect the dinner table. Quoits was the game, and toddy, punch and mint julep, the beverages, to wash down a plain substantial dinner, without wines or dessert.” 

Chief Justice John Marshall by St. Memin ( Library of Congress).

The catering was in the capable hands of Jasper Crouch.  A rotund man of color, Jasper Crouch also recruited the help of whoever was officiating as host that week to acquire and prepare the victuals. Members took turns hosting.

It is likely that other men of color like John Marshall’s major domo Robin Spurlock also assisted in the preparations.  Robin was certainly in charge of the arrangements for the monthly Sunday evening lawyer’s dinners held at the Chief Justice’s home at 9th and Marshall Streets.  There everyone who was anyone was invited to partake of an excellent array of dishes, and Madeira enjoyed pride of place as refreshment of choice. At these events, as with the Quoit Club, no one was barred due to political persuasion, thus a civility existed the likes of which we wish we had today.  Marshall had a habit of seating those of opposing viewpoints near each other.  Perhaps they agreed to disagree.  Or it is more likely than not that there was an unspoken rule not to discuss politics, as is the case with many social and civic groups that survive today in Richmond. This not only contributed to the conviviality of the club, but also the civility among its members.

Besides the catered cuisine, the featured sport of the club was that of Quoits, a ring toss game of some skill at which the Chief Justice of the United States reigned supreme.  Even as he approached old age, he was described as a graceful and skilled athlete.  It was not an uncommon to see the judge on all fours, measuring how closely the ring came to the meg with a straw.  He liked to play, but he played to win. 

Newcastle Miners playing Quoits.

The real fuel of the social discourse and sporting agility at the Quoit Club was the punch.  Some sources say there was never an overemphasis of drinking, but alcohol was then in its heyday.  As a practical matter, no one drove back then, so incapacitated celebrants could be, if the need arose, be poured into a cart or carriage and trundled home no worse for the wear.  Many popular punch recipes were served in large communal bowls.  Local lore has it that the Quoit Club punch featured, in addition to the expected fruit and alcoholic ingredients, John Marshall’s beloved Madeira. 

Marshall’s love of the Portuguese potable was life long.  He purchased Madeira by the pipe, or barrel, and maintained a generous supply wherever he went, including when he presided as Chief Justice in Washington, D.C.  One window into Marshall’s character is that he was the oldest of 15 children, so perhaps he learned growing up how to bring calm to chaos.  At any rate, as Chief Justice, he insisted that the members of the Supreme Court room together at the same boarding house.  Perhaps he reckoned that waking up, having meals, working all day together, and retiring as a body after a long day of deliberations, harmony would be achieved.  Consensus would be further assured by a soothing glass or two of Madeira at which time opposing opinions would soften.  However, there was a dark and dry period in this tradition.  At some point, the Chief Justice ruled that perhaps they were enjoying the fruit of the vine too much.  His Honor ruled that they could only drink when it was raining.  As his colleague on the Supreme Court, Justice Joseph Story related:

“It does sometimes happen that the Chief Justice will say to me, when the cloth is removed, ‘Brother Story, step to the window and see if it does not look like rain.’  And if I tell him that the sun is shining brightly, Judge Marshall will sometimes reply, ‘All the better, for our jurisdiction extends over so large a territory that the doctrine of chances makes it certain that it must be raining somewhere.’”

The Quoit Club punch likely began with a refreshing base of muddled citrus peels called oleo saccarum.  This makes a good foundation for lemonade as well as almost any other kind of punch.  Lemons, sugar, Madeira, rum, and lots of ice are the star ingredients.  A modern recipe includes the following (add your own brands):

Quoit Club Punch

(Makes one dozen cups)

Punch Base or Oleo Saccarum:  Peel at least a dozen lemons and put the peels in a large bowl.  Add sugar – use 2 ounces of sugar for each lemon’s worth of peel.  Four lemons need 8 ounces of sugar.  Muddle (mash using a heavy wooden spoon) lemon peel and work sugar into the mixture.  Take your time with this step.  This will release the fragrant lemon oil.  Leave this covered for at least one hour.  This also makes an excellent base for lemonade.
Punch: 12 lemons
2 cups sugar
750 ml. rum
750 ml. cognac
750 ml. Madeira
Squeeze lemons to produce at least 16 oz. of juice, strain to remove pips and pulp
Add oleo saccarum
Add rum, cognac, Madeira
Place generous amount of ice (one-third of bowl full)
Pour punch mixture over ice and stir.
Meet your friends and neighbors at a shaded spot and enjoy your game of Quoits!
*A modern version of the Richmond Quoit Club sponsored by Historic Richmond meets on a regular basis at historic sites all over the city. Rumor has it that they have enjoyed many incarnations of the legendary punch served at their gatherings over the years.

 - Alyson Taylor-White

Allyson is a historian and instructor of Richmond and Petersburg history at the University of Richmond.  History Press will publish her book on Richmond’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery this year.  We will soon add her to the masthead list of contributors to this blog.