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 café, 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.