Monday, July 6, 2020

The Hapless Herbert Richardson and the Fate of His Faithless Wives

The story had all the makings of a dramatic picture show, but not the kind you would see down on Broad Street at the Bijou.  A dead blonde on her back in the front yard of a house on Grove Avenue.  A smooth-talking son of some Richmond FFVs on trial for his life.  Another dead woman, this time on a bed in the back of a building on West Grace, where the flies were starting to tap against the inside of the windows.  And all tied together by the thread that was the life of Herbert E. Richardson, Jr., luckless son of middle-class Richmond, veteran, and a man eventually driven to and over the brink.

In 1922, the apartment on the second floor of 2518 Grove Avenue was the home of Thomas Pollard, age 33, a successful real estate agent.  Pollard was also the son of a former Richmond City Attorney and cousin of John Garland Pollard, who at the time was the Dean of the William and Mary law school and would go on to serve as Governor of Virginia.  Thomas Pollard lived on Grove Avenue as a bachelor as he was separated from his wife, Helen, who moved out and returned to her parent’s house with their one daughter. 

 Thomas Pollard, 1888-1936
Author’s collection.

Today, the front yard of 2518 Grove has been given over to various plants and flowers, but in 1922, the yard was grass.  On the afternoon of December 11, 1922, Pollard was having a heated discussion in the front yard with his former employee, Thelma Ham Richardson, who he recently fired from her job at his business where she had been his stenographer. 

The discussion between Thomas and Thelma in the front yard became more agitated and turned into what witnesses later called a struggle and then a “scuffle.”  It ended with a gunshot, and the 24 year-old Thelma, described as “a blonde and very pretty,” fell dead with a bullet through her heart.  Her body lay across the narrow concrete sidewalk that still defines the side of the front yard of the home. 

Lt. R. L. Bryant and Detective W. E. Waymack arrived and arrested Pollard and charged him with the murder of Thelma Richardson.  Her protesting friend, Mosby West was hauled in, too, as an accessory.  West had lunch with Thelma earlier that day and gave her a ride to Pollard’s house and was still waiting in his car for her when the argument broke out in Pollard’s yard.  The charges against West were later dismissed, but his role in the shooting and his relationship with Pollard and Richardson was never completely explained.  The police officers also recovered a revolver from the front yard where Thelma fell.  Pollard was held in the old Richmond jail in Shockoe Bottom on $10,000 bond and West’s was set at $500.

Pollard’s home at 2518 Grove Avenue today.

Thelma Richardson was dead when her body
landed across the narrow concrete sidewalk on the right.

Thelma and her ex-husband, Herbert E. Richardson, Jr., were married in 1918.  Herbert enlisted in the Army the same year, returning home from France in early 1919 after the end of the war.  When he came back to Richmond, he found Thelma working in Pollard’s office.  Their marriage became a deteriorating and humiliating mess for Richardson, as his wife and Pollard were often seen around town together and in restaurants.  The last straw for Richardson was when his wife arrived home in a stranger’s car early one morning.  The couple separated and were later divorced in September 1921.

The biggest headline on the Richmond Times-Dispatch front page on December 23, 1922 was, “WILL HEAR POLLARD CASE IN POLICE COURT TODAY; BOTH SIDES ARE PREPARED.”  Crowds of Richmonders flocked to City Hall to try and get a glimpse of these preliminary proceedings, and Justice John Ingram made it known that crowds milling around outside his courtroom would be ejected if things got out of hand. The Commonwealth’s Attorney stated he intended to demonstrate that Thomas Pollard killed Thelma Richardson in cold blood, while Pollard’s defense attorney mildly stated that the shooting was accidental and that Pollard would be quickly freed of any blame for the killing. 

Among the important witnesses who would testify were City Coroner James M. Whitfield, who examined Thelma Richardson’s corpse, and Jerry Jones, who lived next door on Grove Avenue and said that Pollard told him immediately after the shooting, “I’ve shot somebody!”  The lurid case, with its scandalous nature and Pollard’s old Virginia family connections threatened to eclipse even Christmas preparations in the attention of people all over Richmond.

A reporter observed a tearful Herbert Richardson with his dead wife’s brother at the train station making arrangements to send her body to Atlanta, where she was buried in a family plot under her maiden name.  Richardson and Thelma’s brothers also hired noted attorney Richard Evelyn Byrd to assist with the prosecution of Thomas Pollard for murder.  Richardson’s obvious distress about his former wife’s death and his close relations with her family gave rise to rumors that the couple planned to reconcile, but Richardson made no comment.

Gravestone of Thelma Ham Richardson in
Atlanta, Georgia, Courtesy of Find a Grave

By mid-February 1923, a jury was empaneled and the actual trial of Thomas Pollard for the murder of Thelma Richardson began.  Over the course of nine days, a variety of often-conflicting testimony was heard from witnesses such as Mosby West, Thelma’s driver.  There were several different accounts of who was actually in the front yard at 2518 Grove Avenue, where Pollard and Richardson stood, and what exactly was said.  An architect named Paul Lublenski who lived a few blocks away on Grove Avenue was walking by, noticed the people in the front yard of Pollard’s house, and described the scene just seconds before Thelma was shot. 

Other clues emerged in the course of the trial.  A local doctor who treated Thelma during an office visit testified he noticed she carried a pistol in her purse.  Richmond police discovered yet another woman in Thomas Pollard’s life and said they were researching “the extent of Pollard’s relations with the ‘other woman.’” There were rumors that Mrs. Richardson had threatened Pollard’s life on two occasions and a letter found in Thelma’s purse by the police from a friend of hers said, “Hmmm.  I swear I wouldn’t take him back if he got down on his knees and begged me to.  I don’t believe any man could make me miserable and get away with it.”

The final day of the trial saw huge crowds outside the courtroom, filling the hallways of City Hall and even lining up outside.  The arguments became more heated, with Herbert Richardson coming in for some scathing remarks concerning his love for his ex-wife.  “If this brave soldier had an ounce of red blood in him,” thundered Hiram Smith, one of Pollard’s attorneys, “…he would have taken one of the guns he brought from France and blown Tom Pollard’s brains out.”  In contrast, the closing remarks for the prosecution seemed rather bland even if conducted by the famous Richard Evelyn Byrd.  “Herbert Richardson is, perhaps, the most pathetic figure in this case” said  Byrd.  “…he gave his service to his country, and when he returned home, he found Tom Pollard’s picture in his wife’s vanity case – and Herbert Richardson was persona non grata in his own home.” 

Herbert E. Richardson, Jr.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Poor Herbert Richardson was at least recognized as a veteran of a war that was still much in the minds of Richmonders.  In the words of Mr. Byrd: “I don’t say he is very smart…but facts speak louder than words.  The facts are that Herbert Richardson enlisted….and Thomas Pollard stayed here.”  Pollard, for his part, was attacked for leaving Thelma dead on his front yard.  Instead of summoning help or taking her to Retreat Hospital (only a block away), Pollard instead called for somebody to contact his brother, a lawyer.  And yet, Byrd could not make a persuasive argument for a guilty verdict.  So lackluster and rambling were the prosecution’s closing arguments that it seemed an acquittal was imminent. 

Two hours to the minute after Byrd’s address stumbled to a close and the jury retired, a verdict of innocent was read by the foreman.  Pollard, elated, exchanged hugs with his famous family, and with his face flushed, burst into tears.  Louise Beck, mentioned in testimony as the “other woman” in the story, stood smiling and then quietly left City Hall without commenting.  The distraught Herbert Richardson moved into his father’s house at 1807 Grove Avenue.

Pollard returned to his real estate business in Manchester.  He later married Louise Beck, the “other” woman cited at his trial, and they moved to West 27th Street in South Richmond.  Louise died in 1935 at age 37 of a brain tumor.  Pollard himself died the following year of emphysema.  The Pollard family still deals in real estate today and a member of the Pollard family is one of the principals of the modern Richmond firm, Pollard & Bagby.

The hapless Herbert Richardson went on with his life after the Pollard trial, working as a salesman at various businesses such as the Sun News Company.  Less than three years after the death of Thelma Richardson, her former husband was once again front-page fodder for the Richmond newspapers.  Herbert Richardson had been found in a car parked at Laburnum Avenue and Brook Road at 6:30 am on the morning of Monday, September 21, 1925.  He had shot himself, the bullet tearing through his stomach and liver.  Although in considerable pain, Richardson gave police detectives the keys to his apartment at 1125 West Grace Street, instructing them to go to there and, when they came back, “he would tell them everything.”  “The front door is bolted,” he gasped, “so you will have to go in the back way.”

Herbert and Billy Richardson lived in this apartment
building at 1125 West Grace Street in 1925.

The maiden name of Richardson’s second wife was Della Clark, although she went by “Billy.” She was a manicurist in local barber shops, which is where she met Richardson.  They lived in an apartment in the rear of 1125 West Grace Street.  As directed, Richmond Detectives Cousins and Dufy clattered up the alley stairs to the top floor and entered the Richardson apartment through the kitchen door.  There they found Billy Richardson dead, her naked body discolored and decomposing on a bed in the heat of a 90-degree late September afternoon.

Della “Billy” Clark Richardson
Richmond Times-Dispatch

This is where Richardson told them he came home Saturday night to find his naked wife with an unidentified man.  According to Richardson, there had then been a fight in the apartment during the course of which Richardson wounded the man with a knife and his wife had been knocked down on the floor.  He described how he went to a dresser where he kept a revolver to shoot the man, but said he’d found the gun empty.  The unidentified man fled through the front door with Richardson following, yet the front door was still securely bolted from within when Richmond detectives arrived, just as Richardson had described it.  A complete inspection of the apartment by the police turned up a fully-loaded Colt revolver in a drawer, but everything was in order and no trace of a fight or struggle or blood could be found. Richardson, in pain and clearly out of his head with shock and grief, babbled to the police that his wife had killed herself during the fight in the apartment, and then asked if she was really dead, even after having put her body on the bed himself.

The rear of 1125 West Grace in 1922.  The window of the Richardson apartment has been marked with a star in this photo that appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The rear of 1125 West Grace Street today.

After returning to the apartment and, in a daze, placing the blackening corpse of his wife on the bed, Richardson fled the building and wandered aimlessly around Richmond all day Sunday, trying to summon up enough courage to shoot himself.  In his pocket was a letter directing his funeral arrangements and where money was available to pay for the services.  Later, and his misery now compounded by the pain of his gunshot wound, Richardson was taken to Retreat Hospital, the same place his first wife’s body had been taken just two years before.

The wretched Richardson, recovering from surgery to his intestines and liver, was arrested in his hospital bed and a guard put on his door.  He must have been appalled at the coverage of this case and the details of the sordid story as reported by Richmond newspapers.  National news services began to cover the story, and it appeared across the country.  Not only was Richardson described as a liar and a fool on the front page, but worse, a murderer.  The Richmond Times-Dispatch trumpeted the headline, “POLICE DOUBT STORY – Say They Do Not Believe Man’s Tale of Strange Man in Bedroom.” Of course, most of the news articles of the day recalled the fate of the first Mrs. Richardson, gunned down in Tom Pollard’s front yard two years before, bringing that painful memory to the fore once again.  Everyone in Richmond, including poor Herbert Richardson, must have marveled at the miserable downward path his life took as soon as he returned from duty overseas. 

“Billy” Richardson and Herbert Richardson
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Partially because of the deteriorated condition of her body, the City Coroner could not determine the cause of death of Billy Richardson.  There were no signs of trauma nor was poison found in her system.  The same announcement by that Coroner Whitfield that  Mrs. Richardson was definitely not poisoned noted the woman had an existing heart condition.  The Times-Dispatch opined that “Young Richardson, his mind at the breaking point because of his sorrows of the past few years…” had found a man in his house with his naked wife.  Billy Richardson, being caught red-handed, apparently went into shock and dropped dead, killed by a fatally weak heart.  The newspaper writer speculated Richardson paid little attention to his wife on the way out of their apartment and manufactured the story of a struggle taking place with the man in his home.  The sorrowful Richardson then went on a depressed drinking bender with two friends, a story which the young men confirmed.  Returning home Saturday afternoon and expecting to find his wife either penitent or combative, Richardson may have had a mental breakdown when he discovered her nude body, dead and deteriorating on the floor.  In a dazed reaction he moved her onto the bed and left, driving around Richmond, chain smoking cigars. Early Monday morning, trying to seek relief from his overwhelming mental and emotional distress, he finally pulled over beside Brook Road and shot himself.

Public opinion about the accused was obviously changing, and “General sentiment…is in support of the statement of Richardson…” noted a newspaper, and predicted “The charge against the young man, it is believed, will be quashed when he is arraigned in Police Court for a hearing.”  Indeed, on November 12, 1925, Justice Ingram dismissed the charges against Richardson on the testimony by the City Coroner that, despite considerable investigation of Billy Richardson’s body, he could only conclude she died of a heart attack.  Herbert Richardson, described as pale and still crippled from his suicide attempt, thanked the court following his dismissal and hobbled weakly out into the sunshine of Broad Street. 

The grave of Herbert Richardson
in Richmond’s Riverview Cemetery

Understandably, at this point Herbert Richardson had all he could stand of Richmond, Virginia, and left the city, moving to Indianapolis.  There Richardson married yet another woman named Thelma and had a son, and later he became a grandfather.  Herbert Richardson died in 1948 at age 54 and his body was shipped back to the place that had managed to generate so much abject misery for him: Richmond.  He is buried among his relatives in Riverview Cemetery.  After learning about his life, the inscription on his grave, “At Rest” seems to almost carry with it the sound of a grateful sigh.

The Pollard family plot in Hollywood Cemetery.
Somewhere in this plot are the unmarked
graves of Louise and Thomas Pollard.

The records of Hollywood Cemetery show that Thomas Pollard and his wife are both buried in the Pollard family plot, but there is no marker there for either of them. It is curious that Thomas would not provide one for Louise before he died, and that there was later no effort to mark either grave by his family.  Other Pollards buried there, like Virginia Governor John Garland Pollard and Richmond City Attorney Henry Robinson Pollard have imposing gravestones, but only grass marks the burying places of Tom and Louise Pollard.  Perhaps the fact their graves were left unmarked by their family is a last, tiny, invisible ripple generated that dreadful afternoon in the Fan when Thelma Richardson put a revolver in her purse and went over to Tom Pollard’s house to get things straight. 

- Selden.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Westwood Community Update

Richmond News-Leader article from February 19, 1947.

This is an update to our original post on the Westwood Community - please click HERE to that original posting from two years ago. 

The community of Westwood, located at Willow Lawn Drive and Patterson Avenue, has received approval from the Department of Historic Resources of an historical marker for Westwood Baptist Church:

Westwood Baptist Church This church traces its origins to 1872, when a group of formerly enslaved African Americans began meeting for Bible study at the home of Robert Pemberton. In 1876, the congregation’s trustees purchased a half-acre lot here for $25 for the Westwood Colored Baptist Church. The Rev. George Daggett, first pastor, served for two decades. Early baptisms took place in nearby Jordan’s Branch. A vibrant African American community, originally in Henrico County and later annexed by the City of Richmond, developed around the church. Many 20th-century pastors graduated from the Virginia Union University seminary. Their oratorical skills and political leadership fostered a thriving church.

For some reason, the church and its congregants have neglected one of the most historically important periods in its history. Seventy years ago, the church was the rallying point around which Westwood’s residents resisted a blatant attack whose goal was the complete obliteration of the entire community.

It is unfortunate that the Westwood community would be content to not recall this critical period in their history, and the fact Westwood Baptist Church was the principal fortress from which the residents fought the City of Richmond and surrounding white neighborhoods.  Services such as sewer and water were deliberately withheld, and the whole neighborhood was reduced to getting water in buckets from a single outlet.  White politicians proposed the entire area be demolished and turned into a City park.  Reverend Waller, leader of the church, spearheaded the resistance to this kind of naked racism that made Westwood a battleground in the battle for civil rights.  This is an important piece of Richmond history, and unless a separate marker will commemorate this struggle, the real history of the little neighborhood and its church will disappear.

The text of the proposed historical marker is a bland retelling of the history of Westwood Baptist Church, and not in keeping with today’s reexamination of Richmond’s history in general and African-American history in particular. 

In order that that heroic defense of Westwood not be ignored and the struggles the residents went through not be forgotten, we ask you to visit our original post on the subject from the pages of the Shockoe Examiner from two years ago.

Visit that original post HERE.

- Selden

Sunday, June 7, 2020

VCU’s Jefferson Davis Memorial Chapel - A threadbare tribute to the Confederate President

[We are re-posting this blog entry we had originally posted last year.
Time to rename this chapel is Now.]

It isn’t that hard to find the place in the West Hospital at the V.C.U. Medical Center, even if the way is not marked.  It is on the 17th floor, behind the only unlabeled door on the elevator lobby.  Inside, on the far end of an otherwise blank hallway is a monumental doorway in white marble, above which is the inscription: JEFFERSON DAVIS MEMORIAL CHAPEL.

A sterile hallway furnished with used office chairs leads to the Jefferson Davis Memorial Chapel. 

The City of Richmond is dotted with mementos of a failed age, vestiges of the Cult of the South filtered through the rosy lens of Victorian-era sentimentality.  Most of these statues and sites, cemeteries and museums celebrating what was sentimentally referred to as the “Lost Cause” were established during Reconstruction, bolstered first by Confederate veterans themselves and later codified by groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

A vintage postcard of the Memorial Chapel as it appeared when it opened in 1960.

The centennial of the American Civil War in 1960 gave new life to Confederate romanticism, even as the storm clouds of the struggle for Civil Rights swirled above this country.  In the American South, celebrations, publications, and events promoted the Lost Cause as the Good Cause – a production featuring the usual stereotypes: the Southern Belle, the Kindly Master, the Grateful Slave.  Slavery, that ever-present ugly subtext to any discussion of the Civil War, was trivialized or smothered under sentimentality.  The Jefferson Davis Chapel is a small, concentrated instance of that sentimentality.

The Jefferson Davis Memorial Chapel as it appears today.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy held their 87th annual meeting in Richmond in November, 1960, and among the items on their program was the inauguration of a small chapel at the Medical College of Virginia.  This space was dedicated to the memory of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  The U.D.C. felt the site would be especially appropriate, explaining the chapel would be near both the White House of the Confederacy and Davis’ grave in Hollywood Cemetery.  The U.D.C. also noted with pride that the Medical College of Virginia was “the only medical college to keep its doors open during the war between the states.” 

The U.D.C. delegates began their day of dedication by gathering at Davis’ grave in Hollywood Cemetery, where Samuel J. T. Moore, Jr., a Richmond attorney, described Davis in grand terms, assuring the crowd that the Confederate president “…headed the highest society within Anglo-Saxon civilization.”  In less lofty terms, Delegate Deseree Franklin of New York took the graveside podium and thundered against subversive elements within the theater and movie industry.  These forces were arrayed against organizations like the U.D.C. because “they hate the South because we are such real Americans.”  Worked up to a proper pitch by their speakers with this combination of romantic sentiment and militancy, the group moved east, to the Medical College and the Davis Chapel.

The chapel on top of the hospital cost the U.D.C. $30,000 in 1960, and in 1962 the Daughters passed their flowered hats once again to furnish the room with a small Baldwin organ, which still sits forlornly behind the door.  Since then there does not seem to have been a lot of maintenance money available for the chapel.  The windowless, low-ceilinged space is counter to what you would expect on such a lofty site, seventeen floors above Broad Street and looking out far above Shockoe Valley.  The ceiling is tired and stained, and the acoustic tiles it is made of are warped and sagging.  Nine pews face a communion rail separating the altar from the rest of the small space, while above the altar, a popular image of “Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane” hangs on the wall under a spotlight. 

A photo of the current painting of “Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane” hanging in the Chapel.  Compare with the original painting pictured in the 1960 postcard.

The bronze plaque on the wall of the Jefferson Davis chapel testifies to the sanctimonious nature of the former Confederate president and presents him as such a stainless, pure figure as to ensure sainthood.  The oblique mention of “persons low rank and high” hints at the role of slaves and how they appeared in an imagined antebellum society.  This was an invented culture that universally loved Jefferson Davis and where low rank recognized high. 
The plaque on the Chapel wall, commemorating Davis’ “veneration” by bishops of the Episcopal church, signals the former Confederate president’s elevation into the ranks of the Southern Saints, to join the shades of Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart and the sainted Robert E. Lee.  The long, bloody war that cost more than half a million American lives is dismissed by the euphemism, “the struggle between the states.”


The condition of the little chapel may underscore the attitude of V.C.U. regarding this potentially embarrassing part of their facility and their history.  Lights in the chapel are burned out, the carpet is threadbare, and some of the tiles in the oddly low ceiling are stained and warped.  There was a wedding in the Jefferson Davis Memorial Chapel as late as 1976, but today the whole space looks depressing and hardly the place to celebrate a marriage.  The copy of the popular painting of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane that hangs in the chapel in 1960 has been replaced with a cartoon-like replica of the same scene, painted by some unskilled hand and hoping, perhaps, that nobody would notice the substitution.  A torn and battered Bible rests on the altar below the painting.

Current societal conditions have called for a reassessment of the manifestations of Confederate culture in Virginia.  With removal of icons and statues, the renaming of streets and parks, the fate of the Jefferson Davis Memorial Chapel is in doubt.  The fact it is located in a State-owned building only ensures that its presence there will be examined closely.  In fact, MoveOn.Org has an online petition to rename the space:

Before the space is renamed or obliterated entirely, a trip to the 17th floor of the hospital may be in order soon to experience this run-down tribute to a romanticized and saintly version of the Confederate president.  Until popular demand makes it go away, the Jefferson Davis Memorial Chapel remains one of Richmond’s saddest and lesser-known mementos of The Lost Cause.

- Selden

Friday, June 5, 2020

John Mitchell, Jr. and the Richmond Planet - What did they say when the Lee Monument was unveiled 130 years ago?

[This is a re-posting of blog entry from August of 2017. I made a few changes - Ray]

The Robert E. Lee Monument on Richmond's Monument Avenue was unveiled on May 29, 1890. The Richmond Planet, the city's leading African American newspaper of the time, published at least items during the month of May of 1890 concerning the monument. It clearly made its view of the monument known. The articles we must assume were written by its editor, John Mitchell. These two brief articles are worth reading today as we debate what to do about the monuments and statutes built to honor the memory of the Confederate States of America - the "nation" that was created to preserve slavery and that fought the United States of America and lost. Can you just imagine what Richmond's African Americans had to think - many of them born into slavery - as the monuments to the "Lost Cause" were slowly erected in the city?

The article above, taken from Chronicling America, was published on May 10, 1890.

And from the day after the unveiling:  

The article above, taken from Chronicling America, was published on May 31, 1890.
"The South may revere the memory of its chieftains. It takes the wrong steps in doing so, and proceeds too far in every similar celebration. 

It serves to retard its progress in the country and forges heavier chains with which to be bound. All is over." - Richmond Planet, May 31, 1890.
Read more about the Richmond Planet HERE.

UPDATE - just saw this - excellent coverage of the Richmond Planet and other Richmond newspapers and their coverage of the Lee Monument  entitled "Complicated History: The Memorial to Robert E. Lee in Richmond,"by Claire Johnson, Virginia Newspaper Project Intern.  Great job by Ms. Johnson. This was posted on the Library of Virginia's Fit To Print blog on the library's Virginia Newspaper Project. 

The "Complicated History" by Claire Johnson includes a great quote from John Mitchell, Jr., the editor of the Richmond Planet, dated June 7, 1890 soon after the statue was unveiled. He wrote of black men: “He put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, he’ll be there to take it down.”

Looks like John Mitchell might be right - 130 years later! 

June 7, 1890 is the date of the issue of the Richmond Planet that had that quote - look at the bottom of the second column: or just look at this image:


What should we do with the statutes and monuments of Monument Ave.?  I suggest putting them in a park outside the city. Soon. - Ray.  

[Originally posted in August. of 2017 - I made a few changes - Ray.]

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Hickory Nut Hunters - A Brutal Murder Beside the Maymont Fence Remains Unsolved After a Hundred Years

Major Dooley's estate beside the
grid of the streets of Randolph and Riverview.

On a Thursday afternoon, October 21, 1915, a group of vultures lazily floated in the air above the Kanawha Canal where it passes below Maymont, the estate of Major Dooley and his wife. From their vantage point the birds could see the rocks that broke up the river flow, the quiet canal paralleling the railroad tracks stretching into the distance, and below them, Major Dooley’s new Japanese Gardens. The skyline was broken only by the conical roofs of Maymont itself to the north. The vultures’ attention, whoever, was focused on something far smaller: a spot of color glimpsed in the woods below, the pervasive odor of decay, and the promise of carrion.

Three young men from the nearby Randolph neighborhood watched the vultures circling nearer and nearer the ground in the distance and decided to find what attracted the birds.  John Rowe, Thomas Sanders, and George Martin were in the area ostensibly hunting hickory nuts in the largely undeveloped area at the end of Meadow Street, next to the river. It was Fall and with cooling weather a good time to gather and roast the nuts.

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 21, 1915.

What they found was the body of fifty-one-year-old painter from Knoxville named William Hamilton las he lay in shade below the towering hickories, his body practically touching the board fence that ran down this edge of the Maymont grounds.  He had been beaten to the point his brains were scattered around his shattered head, wounds so awful an arc of blood was found thrown onto the nearby plank fence.  In addition, Hamilton had been stabbed several times in the neck with a large pocketknife which was later found in the bushes nearby.  Despite his head and chest being a broken, bloody mess, some determined individual had bent over him, pried William Hamilton’s jaw open, and shoved a handkerchief so far down his throat it couldn’t be seen in his mouth. 

In chilling contrast to the fury that had been unleashed on Hamilton, his body was carefully arranged, legs straightened out, clothes put in order and arms arranged neatly folded across the dead man’s chest.  The tidiness of the body’s staging and the dreadful rage on the part of the killer was a paradox that hinted at best some relationship with the killer or killers, and at worst, the work of a homicidal maniac on the streets of Richmond.

The three men were aghast at the discovery of the bloated and bloody mess they discovered and ran off down Meadow Street until they reached the house of A. L. Ford, who had a telephone in his home and so summoned the police. 

Hamilton’s battered body was removed and examined by City Coroner William Taylor, who noted on the death certificate that Hamilton died of “homicidal blows on his head and other homicidal injuries.” In addition to the crushed skull and neck wounds, Hamilton was found to have a shattered left wrist, perhaps a defensive wound to ward off the blows that killed him.  So firmly jammed in the victim, the cloth or handkerchief that was in Hamilton’s throat had to be removed by the Coroner with a pair of pliers. The body was eventually removed to Oakwood Cemetery where it was buried in an unmarked grave in a section for the indigent. 

One of the theories put forward by the authorities to explain the extreme violence of William Hamilton’s murder.  From the Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 26, 1915.

The police were frustrated by bewildering clues as to who murdered William Hamilton and first spoke with Bertha Nemee, who was not only the dead man’s landlady but also claimed to be his half-niece. She said Hamilton had been staying at her house on Taylor Street for several months since she was notified that her husband, a German soldier, had been killed in the war in Europe. Nemee said she had not seen Hamilton since the previous Sunday, when he was asked to go downtown to pick up a prescription for paregoric, a small vial of which was one of the few things left in Hamilton’s rifled pants pockets. She said he was in the habit of carrying a large amount of money around and Hamilton also owned a pocket watch, all of which was gone from the crime scene. 

Coroner Taylor was of the opinion that Hamilton’s death was not a case of simple robbery and murder, but rather a case of jealous rage – only rage could explain the viciousness of  Hamilton’s many and varied wounds, and the handkerchief jammed down his throat was proof positive of the mindset of the killer. The Coroner believed only this degree of berserk jealousy would yield such horrific wounds on the victim.  Richmond police, on the other hand, theorized that a gang of “hoodlums” had followed Hamilton into the woods and killed him for the money he was known to carry, maybe in the course of a craps game. Part of this reasoning was the fact Hamilton was a large, muscular man who would have taken more than one assailant to overcome. This still did not explain the unnecessary violence on the body, as the Coroner found either the head or neck wounds would have killed Hamilton and he was already dead when the cloth was forced down his throat.

By October 26, little progress had been made.  The police issued a statement that the instrument used to bash in Hamilton’s head was actually a piece of the Maymont fence, found broken and covered with blood.  Police described the splash of blood on the fence itself, maybe from the knife wounds to the neck.  Another report was circulating that Hamilton had been shooting craps with other individuals, and in that context had been assaulted and robbed of the $65 he was known to have on him when he left the house on Sunday.  The investigators had to concede that “the fact that considerable brutality was shown in murdering Hamilton is regarded by the police as the only weak part in the robbery theory.”

From Richmond-Times Dispatch, October 28, 1915.

Two days later an article ran in the Times-Dispatch: “Was Hamilton’s Death Caused by Insane Man?” The motive of jealously was by then ruled out, replaced by the theory that only someone criminally insane would kill with such fury and yet take the time to arrange Hamilton’s body neatly before they left. This paradox was first thought to represent the presence of more than one killer – one who actually murdered Hamilton and another person who performed the tidying up of the scene. “However, it is pointed out, that such actions are entirely possible in the case of a maniac…” The police remained without much more to go on, other than pure speculation as to Hamilton’s killer or killers who were either homicidal maniacs or robbers who left no witnesses.

…. And then the story ended. The years closed around the death of William Hamilton and his blue-collar Randolph neighborhood where he once lived moved on. No suspect was brought forward and all possible leads settled into silence and William Hamilton was quickly forgotten. Hickory trees along the bank of the James produced their annual crops, but few those who gathered them in this quiet and largely undeveloped part of Richmond may have recalled the shocking murder. 

While Randolph itself and further south the neighborhoods of Harvietown and Riverview were largely blue-collar workers like Hamilton, the painter, there was an undercurrent of low-grade crime that continually furnished items for the local newspaper, some of which were the same group that discovered Hamilton’s body. In July 1915, George Martin, one of the “hickory nut gatherers” was back in the news as one of the occupants of a stolen car that wrecked at a gate of a Richmond cemetery. The following July, Martin faced two charges for selling cigars in the street. In 1917 Martin was arrested for stealing bottles of milk, and when examined by the police was found to have bootleg whiskey in his pockets. 

One of George Martin’s contemporaries was Carlisle Noel, who was born in Richmond in 1894. Carlisle and his brother Leon were among the rough-and-tumble residents of Randolph with various brushes with the law.  Married in 1916, by 1920, Carlisle was listed as a bricklayer who lived in his parent’s house on Taylor street. He first appears in court in Richmond in January 1916, when Carlisle and Frick Alfren were charged with robbing a house on Cary Street.  His older brother Leon also got in trouble, jailed for several instances of burglary and assault before finally going in the army.  In 1918 the flu epidemic arrived, killing more than a thousand Richmonders. The epidemic and the European war overwhelmed the memory of the unsolved murder in 1915 and the dead man in an unmarked grave in Oakwood Cemetery. By 1930, the national census finds Noel Carlisle a prisoner in the City Jail in Shockoe Valley for an unspecified crime.

The prosperity of the 1920s gave way to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and 1933 was near the depth of the economic despair in Richmond. That summer the memory of readers of the Richmond newspapers was tested by the announcement that an arrest had been made in a murder they probably hardly recalled. George Martin, one of the “hickory nut hunters” who had been with his friends who found the body and who had now acquired the nickname, “Crusty,” was charged in the murder of William Hamilton.  Martin was picked up by the police July 18, 1933. 

Standing in front of Judge Haddon’s bench in Richmond Hustings Court, from left to right:
Richmond Detective-Sergeant Fred Bosquett, Carlisle Noel, George “Crusty” Martin, and Martin’s attorney, L. Gleason Gianniny. July 19, 1933.

A newspaper photograph taken at the arraignment of George “Crusty” Martin the next day find Noel and Martin both standing in front of the judge’s desk in the Hustings Court room on the second floor of what we now call Old City Hall.  The two men stand between a Richmond policeman and Martin’s lawyer in short sleeves and open shirts, indicative of the heat of July in Richmond. The caption reads, “Martin, who is 50 years old, was arrested after information had been given to the police by a friend of Carlisle Noel (second from the left), to whom the latter is alleged to have said that he witnessed the killing.” Perhaps because of his own shady record, Carlisle Noel was also put in jail as material witness.

The authorities held the pair for ten days in the City Jail, trying to figure out what had really happened. Martin vigorously denied that he was responsible for the murder, and Noel stated he wasn’t responsible for what he said when he was drunk at a party. Justice Haddon was unable to hold them any longer and officially left the case “continued,” effectively dismissing the charges against “Crusty” Martin.  The two men, the accused and the man who was supposed to be the star witness against him, were released from jail.  The murder of William Hamilton in 1915, admitted the Richmond newspaper, “remains a mystery.”

…And it still is.  Nobody else was ever arrested, let alone tried for the murder of William Hamilton. Carlisle Noel must have had some other motivation to accuse Martin of killing Hamilton and there had to have been some kernel of truth in the story. The authorities must have found something compelling about the story told by Noel to arrest the two men.  Why among the “nut hunters” was Martin singled out as the murderer?  Was the spot where Hamilton was killed a regular meeting place for the idle and unemployed among Randolph’s scruffier residents?  Who had such a deep, mortal hatred of Hamilton to kill him so savagely? 

The fate of George “Crusty” Martin is unknown, but his accuser Carlisle Noel seems a central figure in this tale of the shadier side of Randolph. As time goes by, Noel is found in the 1940 census still living with his wife and six children in the neighborhood, employed as a bricklayer. Noel states he is unemployed on his 1942 draft card. He worked as a bricklayer though the 1950s and died in 1979 at the age of 84, taking whatever knowledge of what really happened to William Hamilton with him. Noel is buried in an unmarked grave in Riverview Cemetery, not far from his former home in Randolph and not far from the scene of Hamilton’s murder. 

This level area beside the fence of Maymont Park may have been the site of the murder of William Hamilton in 1915.  The modern Maymont fence is to the right.

Was the murder of William Hamilton an unusually violent robbery, a dice game gone badly, or did the particularly viscous wounds indicate something deeply personal and the work of an enraged maniac? Our City’s history is long and complex, the lies and the years cloud and erase the truth, and not all our secrets are knowable. Richmonders were, and are, regularly killed playing dice, and the woods beside the Maymont fence was a good one to have a discrete game, or to meet to drink and party. 

Particularly likely is an area of level ground just below the crest of the hill near the intersection of what is now Hampton Street and Kansas Avenue. Hickory trees still abound on this hill overlooking Dooley’s Japanese Garden, and they shade this flat spot surrounded by rocks just beside the Maymont fence.  With a little imagination, the visitor to the location can visualize the dead body of a man in the dappled shade, neatly arranged but head and chest covered with a shocking, gory sheen. Looking up, in the mind’s eye, the hickory leaves are turning the red and yellow colors of an autumn a hundred and five seasons ago, and far above the trees, the black birds tirelessly circle, and watch, and wait.

- Selden.