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 Vischio had recently withdrawn from classes at RPI because of the fragile nature of his mental health, with stated intentions of returning to the school.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.