Tuesday, March 14, 2023


July 22, 1962, was promising to be a pleasant day in Richmond with the temperature only rising into the 80s. Behind the worn frame houses and bungalows of Lakeview Avenue, the morning sun began to illuminate the alleys that ran east and west in the Randolph neighborhood. The shadows fell away, revealing the garages and chicken houses, the trash cans and junk cars, and the body of Andrew Mills. Mills was a 42-year-old Black man who lived at 1729 Jacquelin Street, but this morning lay face down in an alley a couple blocks away in the 1700 block of Lakeview Avenue. He had been shot three times in the back of the head and once in the heart. Around his body were scattered four empty 9mm pistol shells.

In the segregated city of Richmond, Mills’ body was taken to the “colored” hospital, St. Phillips, on East Marshall Street, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Also at St. Phillips that morning but not in the morgue were James Elam and James Towles, recovering from gunshot wounds they received the night before. They were ambushed by someone wielding a 9mm pistol behind the 1600 block of Lakeview Avenue, a block away from where Mills’ body was found. Elam had been grazed in the head and Towles was shot in the back, but they were expected to live.


Front page headline in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 13, 1963.


The firemen on duty at Fire Station 12 at Addison and Cary streets were startled to hear gunshots nearby on the morning of September 4. Rolling up a bay door, they found a man covered with blood on the sidewalk in front of their station. John Anderson, a 32-year-old laborer, and Korean War veteran, was badly wounded but still conscious enough to tell the police that he had been approached by a Black man on South Addison Street who shot him three times in the back. Anderson, who lived at 1919 Grayland Avenue, died of his wounds the next day. His death certificate, in the space for “Describe How Injury Occurred,” specified “Shot in back by unknown colored male assailant.” 

The former Richmond fire station at Cary and Addison streets where two wounded Sniper victims sought help in September 1962.


Later in the month on September 29, a Black World War II veteran named Joseph Ford was chatting at a kitchen table with friends, including his cousin Linwood Massie, at 2124 Cary Street. Abruptly, the open kitchen window was illuminated by the flash of gunfire. Ford went to the floor with three bullets in his chest and Massie was hit in the arm by one of the shots. Bleeding, Massie ran to get help a block away at the same fire station where Anderson had collapsed just a few weeks before. Rushing to the house on Cary Street, all the police found was Ford’s dead body and several 9mm pistol cartridges scattered on the ground outside.


Richmond police detectives were mystified by the series of killings. All of the victims were Black. So apparently was the shooter, who moved without notice or detection through the streets of the predominantly Black Randolph neighborhood. The cold-blooded malice and utter absence of a motive in the series of shootings was chillingly inexplicable, and the mystery made the killing spree even more frightening. “Veteran homicide detectives say frankly they are perplexed by the Sniper case, one of the most baffling in Richmond crime annals,” said the Times-Dispatch, the comments only adding to the fear of twilight in the Randolph neighborhood. 

2124 Cary Street, where Joseph Ford was shot and killed by the Richmond Sniper.


Joseph Ford seemed central to the story, but investigators could not determine how. His shooting was especially mysterious to investigators since Ford had been shot and wounded by someone a few months before on May 12 but refused to tell the police what happened or who he thought shot him. Elam and Towles, the two young men who were wounded in July, heard the shooter’s voice seconds before they were shot. “Do you know where Joe Ford lives?” asked the unseen gunman from the shadows. In addition, police discovered Ford, Mills, and Anderson all were acquainted and were sometimes seen together. The cops couldn’t make any sense out of the shooter’s pattern or motives, let alone his connection with his victims. The only common denominator was the 9mm pistol.


Joseph Ford also knew another Sniper victim, Floyd Morton, a 14-year-old kid who lived with his parents at 1810 Parkwood Avenue, across the street from Ford’s house. Like Andrew Mills, Morton was found in an alley, this time behind the 2200 block of Idlewood Avenue. A policeman heading to his shift stumbled over the body on the morning of December 1, 1962. Morton had been shot at close range behind the left ear with a 9mm pistol. His grieving family buried him in East End Cemetery two days later.


Somewhere in this alley behind the 2200 block of Idlewood Avenue the body of Floyd Morton was found on December 1, 1962.


The killer became known as “The Sniper” in the press, due to his chilling exactitude and technique of shooting from ambush. The Richmond News Leader confirmed, “The phantom killer is being called “The Sniper” by residents of the area northeast of Byrd Park…” The once-quiet Randolph neighborhood was becoming famous for random murder. A Georgia newspaper ran an article from the United Press about the string of murders in Richmond, where frightened residents of Randolph were quoted as saying they were scared to walk the sidewalks at night. “You don’t know who might be next.” The randomness of the shootings terrified many in Richmond.

The use of a 9mm weapon was unusual enough for news articles to describe victims shot with a “high-power pistol,” because of the caliber. At the time, 9mm firearms were not used by the American military but had been popular in Europe since World War I. Today its use is a sadly common occurrence, but the appearance of spent 9mm pistol cartridges on the streets of Richmond in 1963 was quite uncommon. It indicates the murder weapon was probably one of the thousands of guns of this caliber brought home from Europe by returning GIs after World War II. 

A map helpfully provided by the Richmond Times-Dispatch plots the location of the Sniper shootings as the count of dead and wounded stood in January 1963.


Restaurants were empty at night and church attendance began to fall because of the shootings. The pastors of eight local African American churches known as the West End Ministers Fellowship Association recognized the rising fear in their congregations and banded together to collect reward money for information about the murderer operating in their neighborhood. Dr. R. S. Anderson, pastor of Fifth Baptist Church on Parkwood Avenue, said local churches had raised $1000. He stated, “Rarely have people in the area – spreading from Main Street to the river area, between Lombardy Street and Davis Avenue – co-operated closer with police.’ Dr. Anderson cautioned Richmonders that, “This Sniper – we feel like he could cross the line and kill anybody; this isn’t a race problem.”


As community apprehension skyrocketed, police patrols were increased in Randolph, especially those of Richmond’s so-called “Phantom Squad” of undercover policemen. One cop noted, “Look at all those window shades pulled shut in this block….I can remember when a lot of these houses didn’t even have shades on the windows.” One family described covering the windows tightly and watching TV while sitting on the floor. Despite Dr. Anderson’s faith in community cooperation, “A lot of them are afraid to talk to us,” one cop said. “They’re afraid the Sniper will see them with us and come back later and shoot them.”


The last of the shootings blamed on Richmond’s Sniper took place outside the usual setting in Randolph. On March 23, 1963, James Howard entered the back room of a house at 7 West Marshall Street he shared with Virginia Mills and turned on a light. Immediately four shots were fired into the room through the window, three of which ripped through Howard’s chest, killing him instantly. Shocked, all Mills could say about the shooting was, “It looked like someone just crouched out there waiting for him to come home.” The distinctive calling card of the Sniper was found on the ground outside the window: four 9mm shells.


By the end of 1963, Richmond’s Sniper shooter had killed five and wounded seven people. The police knew the robbery was not a motive for the killings but weren’t sure what motivated the random murderers. “Did the man who did the shootings, known as the Sniper, chart a course to mow down a choice few, and has he completed the job? Or did he aim his gun at random?” speculated the Times-Dispatch in an end-of-year summary of crime in Richmond. “Some policemen believe the Sniper may already be in police custody, arrested on some other far-removed charge, and that his role in the shootings has gone undetected…”


While Richmond cops worked these and other unsolved murders, the trail went cold. The unknown shooter was either dead, locked up or simply moved on to some other city with his secrets safe. If he was still here in Richmond, his dark agenda was fulfilled, and he ceased his patrol of Richmond at night. In January 1965, Richmond Bureau Inspector Frank Duling and Sergeant Joseph Brooks were assigned to compile and revisit Richmond’s cold cases, one of which dated back to 1940 (see the Shockoe Examiner’s exploration of that unsolved murder of a Richmond cop here.)The police said there was always a possibility of developing new information, but nothing more was heard of the Sniper.


With time, residents of Randolph emerged from their homes and once again socialized in the evenings, feeling like there was less chance the killer was still among them. While the shadowed alleys and vacant lots of Richmond were still dangerous, the thought of this determined and implacable killer who had gripped the city in fear faded. Years, and decades passed, and the mysterious man who once moved through alleys and quietly watched illuminated rooms was largely forgotten. The Sniper now lived only in newspaper clippings, police files, and the memories of those who were inexplicably wounded or had lost a family member.


That man who once held that pistol would be eighty years old by now, and if he’s still alive, somewhere in his mind he has compartmentalized some terrible memories. Likewise, buried in the woods, or deep in the James River, or in somebody’s sock drawer is a 9mm semi-automatic pistol with a dark history. With the ever-increasing distance that separates us from sniper shootings, the chance of ever solving these slayings is impossible. The rage or insanity or whatever it was that drove the man known as the Sniper to stalk Richmonders in the early 1960s has been forever lost to time.





Thursday, December 15, 2022

Richmond’s Lost Auditorium

There is an empty space in Richmond, a mammoth room big enough to have a battalion of soldiers marching through it. It once rang with dance music, shouted sergeant’s commands, and the roar of basketball crowds. Its main window, large enough to be in a cathedral, has been hidden behind sheets of plywood for decades. Hardly anyone knows this vast room in Downtown exists or what it was, although it is hidden in plain sight. Let’s take a look at Richmond’s once-popular Blues Armory drill hall, high above Marshall Street.

An architectural drawing of the Marshall Street side of Richmond’s 1910 Light Infantry Blues Armory. The building was planned as a combination of military headquarters, city market, and entertainment venue. Library of Virginia


For decades before the establishment of the modern National Guard, individual cities sponsored their own military units. Social events consumed a lot of the attention of these men’s organizations, but members were still soldiers, subject to activation by the Governor, and still had to practice, march, and learn to use various weapons. Drill competitions became quite competitive, and militias like the Richmond Light Infantry Blues had to practice formations. The marching band needed space to rehearse their performances. Indoor practice space, or drill halls, that could accommodate hundreds of marching men and yet had no internal roof supports to break up the formations were rare.


Because of this, the planners who were designing the new armory for the Richmond Blues incorporated a drill hall in the top of the building under the building’s massive metal roof. The Blues organization had been drilling in the streets until 1907 when a fire consumed their meeting hall and all of their records and equipment. A modern, concrete, fireproof armory with an indoor drill hall were among the first requirements for the new building. The new facility, designed by Washington, D.C. architects Averill & Hall, opened in 1910. Under the arching roof supported by metal beams, the drill hall was a breathtakingly large space, lit by skylights and a huge, south-facing window.


A vintage view of the drill hall here set up for a basketball game. Note the skylights and the illumination afforded by a series of small windows, and the huge window on Marshall Street. Richmond Times-Dispatch


Generations of Richmonders were well acquainted with this auditorium.  Dances, balls, band recitals, drill exhibitions, and banquets were scheduled at the Blues Armory almost every week throughout the 1920s and 1930s. High School basketball teams found a home at the Blues, and the drill hall served as a central venue for teams from all over the region. There was a Banker’s Basketball League, where women’s teams from area banks played against each other, like the First National Bank’s squad taking on the ladies of the Federal Reserve. Great rivalries, like the University of Richmond and the University of Virginia, met on the court at the Blues Armory and fought for championships.  


In 1924, the drill hall was made available for indoor tennis, and two doubles courts and two singles courts were laid off on the wooden floor. A traveling tennis exhibition came to Richmond and more seating had to be brought in to supplement the 3,500 seats usually available. A Richmond sportswriter noted approvingly at the time, “The huge gym floor not only provides an excellent court, but the movements of the players can be seen from almost any angle.”


 The afternoon sun on the Marshall Street side of the Blues Armory.


War intruded on the social and sporting whirl of the facility both in World War II, and again in 1950 as America embarked on the Korean War. With each conflict, the drill hall was closed to the public and used for strictly military purposes.


(See the Shockoe Examiner’s account of an Army training accident at the Blues Armory here)


As late as 1961 their marching drills were still being performed in the hall, but the arched roof no longer rang with music or the applause of approving audiences, cheering on their favorite basketball teams or tennis players. Gone were the exhibits and presentations, the banquets, and the ceremonies. In 1968 there were fundamental changes in the National Guard, local militias like the Richmond Blues were disbanded, and the armory was closed. Perhaps it was at this point the giant drill hall window was boarded up, the skylights eliminated, the thousands of feet of wooden floor removed, and for decades, darkness and silence dominated the enormous drill hall.



The former drill hall as it appeared in 2015. The vast wooden floor has been removed, exposing the reenforced concrete under it. In the distance are the boarded south window and some faded murals on the walls.


Remarkably, the same architects that designed the 1985 Sixth Street Marketplace did not include the former drill hall in their plans, even though it could have easily been accessed from the “Chrystal Palace” that filled Sixth Street. Hopefully, the last remains of that sad exercise in urban planning will be removed soon and Sixth Street will open as a pedestrian space, once again allowing inspection of the west side of the armory and an appreciation of its unique style.

The Blues Armory when Sixth Street really was a marketplace and vegetable and flower stalls filled the arcades. On the right is the municipal Meat Market with its distinctive bulls’ heads along the parapet. In the background note the huge armory window. Library of Virginia


A photograph of the Marshall Street side of the armory. The line of small arched windows and everything above them is the drill hall space. Richmond Times-Dispatch


Various fuzzy proposals have been created that will result in the demolition of the Richmond Coliseum and redevelopment of a twenty-block area around it, as outlined in the document with the stunningly bland name, “City Center Plan.” Happily, the destruction of the Blues Armory does not seem to be included in these visions the future of a large part of Downtown Richmond.


Today’s architects would do well to rediscover the drill hall and its potential as a more intimate and interesting venue, especially in contrast to the utterly soulless glass and chrome Richmond Convention Center. Refloored and painted, with skylights and windows restored, the space could be a showplace and its arching steel roof beams become a signature motif. The roar of happy crowds would echo up and down Marshall Street again, and at night that brilliantly lit south window a signal that the Blues Armory and its once-hidden auditorium was again filled with life and contributing to culture in Richmond.



Saturday, December 3, 2022

A Study in Demolition by Neglect: Virginia Union University’s Richmond Community Hospital Building – 1209 Overbrook Road

Demolition by neglect is defined as a technique where an inconveniently historic or culturally valuable structure is deliberately ignored and, with time, reduced to ruin. This allows the indifferent entity that owns it to then proceed with demolition, and, ironically, public safety is often cited as the justification. Demolition by neglect is in action today as the City of Richmond oversees the terminal deterioration of its Westham Train Station. This is the same technique that left the City’s Leigh Street Armory (now the Black History Museum) a roofless ruin in the middle of Jackson Ward for a generation. Apathetic functionaries and unimaginative leadership use this cheap tool to create vacant lots where important buildings, homes, and sometimes, entire neighborhoods once stood.


The building in 2003, freshly boarded up and in relatively good condition, with a sign in the front yard promising its reuse. Now abandoned for twenty years, the building has declined during the “stewardship” of its negligent owner, Virginia Union University, and may be in danger of being demolished.

The former Richmond Community Hospital building at 1209 Overbrook Road is one of these endangered sites, a building rich with history and emblematic of the perseverance of the African American community in Richmond. Properly interpreted, the renovated building could be a valuable addition to a neglected part of the VUU campus. Instead, it has been allowed to rot for decades, slowly decaying and now not even the boarded windows are secure. The former hospital is facing a new threat in the careless hands of Virginia Union University.


The former Richmond Community Hospital building as it appears today.


The efforts to create the Richmond Community Hospital began in 1927, with a bold proposal to raise $100,000 from the Black community and $100,000 from Richmond Whites. This appeal across racial lines was unusual in segregated Richmond. A full-page advertisement in a 1927 newspaper made it clear that the hospital project hinged on the White community stepping up and it made “an appeal to the conscience and to the humanity of the White Citizens of this Community.”


The Richmond Community Hospital at 1209 Overbrook Road, pictured when it opened in 1934.


Donations and letters of endorsement came in from all quarters, starting with Virginia Governor Harry F. Byrd. With his history as a staunch segregationist, it is probably not surprising that he would encourage a “colored” hospital separate from the extensive facilities available to Whites. The Governor and his motives aside, a heartfelt effort was made across Richmond for the new hospital, with pledges coming in from both the poorest Black neighborhoods and from the grandees of Cary Street Road, from Jackson Ward to Monument Avenue.


The cornerstone marks the building date in 1932 and that of the predecessor hospital in 1902.


Unfortunately, the Great Depression intervened. Pledges boldly made in the late 1920s withered in the uncertainty of a declining economy as massive unemployment swept through Richmond and the rest of the country. By 1930, only $26,000 was in the fund for the new hospital. The work continued, though, and in November 1932 the cornerstone was laid with Masonic ritual and ceremony. One side of the stone records the construction of the hospital and on the other side an earlier date records the establishment in 1902 of the Sarah G. Jones Memorial Hospital, the predecessor of Richmond Community Hospital.


One official overseeing the hospital project glumly admitted, “This movement was going over satisfactorily until the closing of our banks in March 1933, which paralyzed our efforts to collect on subscriptions.” The Richmond public rose to the occasion, and there were many fund drives and public events to raise money and draw attention to the mission and the plight of the Community Hospital. To prevent the building from being auctioned in early 1934, the African American Southern Aid Society Insurance Company raised money by sponsoring a show on a vacant lot at Ninth and Broad that including Phantom, the Trick Horse and the Hamm Brothers musical comedy act. The National Association of Letter Carriers held a benefit dance at the Roseland Ballroom.


The crumbling and boarded entrance of the former hospital building.


Benefit exhibitions and dances were held in Jackson Ward, and Church Hill, and in South Richmond. A woman’s boxing show was staged in 1934 at the “Colored Recreation Center Building” at St. Paul and Charity Streets featuring a match between a Miss Maitland and a Miss Wheeldin with “boxing and acrobatic dancing.” White people, too, would be accommodated, so they need not stay at home. Whites were also encouraged to attend “Richmond After Dark,” a musical revue to raise money for medical equipment, featuring Virginia Leech, “World’s Greatest Female Tap dancer,” and Richmond’s own tapdancing star, Snowball Crump.

During one of the fundraisers, a newspaper published an exquisitely Richmond statement that called for donations while still managing to thread the complexities of this segregated city: “This progressive, enlightened, and cultural community cannot go backward or do less than other communities for its Negroes. The solution to the problem is a Negro hospital where White and Negro physicians and surgeons may treat Negro patients. There is no other hospital in Richmond, where such an arrangement can be perfected.”


An advertisement for a musical revue in 1935 benefiting the hospital X-ray department.


The Richmond Community hospital opened on June 4, 1934. It immediately began to serve the people it was constructed by, and for, and is among the buildings in Richmond truly “built by Blacks.” By the end of 1948, the hospital reported during the year it had 24 beds and served 1300 patients, including 538 surgeries, 438 obstetrics cases, and 317 births. The facility was well managed, with almost all of the costs being paid for by patient fees and a $5,000 grant from the City of Richmond covering the remaining operational expenses.



The Richmond Community Hospital building in 2007 when it appeared in “Built by Blacks: African American Architecture and Neighborhoods in Richmond.”


Richmond Community Hospital moved to a new location in Church Hill in March 1980. Faced with a housing shortage, Virginia Union converted the former hospital building on Overbrook Road into dorm rooms to accommodate thirty women. After that temporary use, it was boarded up and has sat abandoned by its irresponsible owner for decades. It was examined in 2007 for the book, “Built by Blacks,” and appeared to be in the same condition then as now: completely neglected and deteriorating.


The rear of the deteriorating Community Hospital building.



Two open windows in the basement rear of the former hospital, making it easy to enter the unsecured building.


As part of its mission statement on its website, Virginia Union makes the firm statement: “Virginia Union University is nourished by its African American heritage…” It is a pity this is not true concerning buildings the school owns, buildings rich with African American heritage on campus that are being allowed to decay and disappear through the inaction of Union itself.


Richmond Community Hospital was once the symbol of hope and progress for so many African Americans. The idea that this structure, a birthplace, a refuge, and a source of pride is being treated in this fashion by a historically Black university is cruelly ironic. Nevertheless, if we act, Richmonders need no longer watch as our historic resources are ignored, squandered, and destroyed, and if we object, our institutions will no longer be complicit in the erasure of Richmond’s sometimes complicated, often painful, but always interesting past.


The President of Virginia Union University is Dr. Hakim J. Lucas, and his email address is HJLucas@VUU.EDU. Email Dr. Lucas’ and ask him why this important building is being destroyed by demolition by neglect and urge him to secure the former Richmond Community Hospital building from trespassers.


 - Selden

Sunday, October 23, 2022


     For many new Richmonders and visitors to our city, the idea that there was once an enormous walled prison in the middle of downtown is unbelievable. The fact that the sprawling assembly of buildings was utterly erased and replaced by nothing more threatening than a grass meadow makes it especially hard to visualize that vast warehouse of criminals and misery. From 1804 to 1990, the Virginia State Penitentiary saw thousands of inmates come and go, and many never left the grim old facility alive, dying of old age, murder, or execution by the Commonwealth. The vast majority served their time and were released. There was a third, even more desperate option other than legal release or death, and that was escape. 

The Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond as it appeared in 1982. Belvedere St. is at the top of the photograph and the Downtown Expressway ran parallel to the northern wall of the facility.

             Ralph Scott “Stony” Stonebreaker (whose very name conjures up visions of chain gangs) was born in a tiny crossroads town in north-east West Virginia in 1910, one of twelve siblings. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, and the 1930 Census found him serving at Fort Eustis in Newport News. Army life apparently held no more attraction for Stonebreaker than farming in rural West Virginia, and he and another soldier, Charles Panella, embarked on a crime spree in late 1931. Stonebreaker and Panella committed a series of four robberies on the Peninsula and two gas station holdups in Richmond. The authorities in Warwick County commented at the time that they would be glad when the pair were taken to the State Penitentiary because they were among a group of twelve inmates who almost escaped from the County jail.


Ralph Scott “Stony” Stonebreaker. Stony finally managed to escape prison, but not in the way he expected.

       Stonebreaker’s accomplice, Charles Panella, age 23, was an Italian immigrant with a definite distaste for detention but faced a combined fifty-eight-year term for his role in the heists with Stonebreaker. Just two months into his sentence on January 25, 1932, Panella was out on the prison yard and spotted a half-inch electrical conduit running up one of the Penitentiary’s tall brick walls. A former boxer, the agile Panella deftly climbed up and over the wall using the conduit while a hundred cheering inmates watched him, then scrambled down a barred window on the other side, scaled the outer wall, and fled under a fusillade of shots from the guard towers. He was last seen running down an alley near Fourth and Canal Streets but disappeared from Richmond entirely despite a massive search across the city. It would be three months before Panella was caught by a cop in Hampton, having robbed a business and then hijacked a getaway car at gunpoint. He was returned to the Penitentiary.


Charles Panella, Stonebreaker’s partner in a crime spree.

Two months later and perhaps impressed by Panella’s ability to literally run away from the Penitentiary and get away with it, Panella’s pal “Stony” Stonebreaker decided it was his turn to take a chance at freedom. Robert McDonald was convicted of murder and arson after killing a man in Louisa County then burning his house down around the body. On June 22, 1932, he and Stonebreaker were returning from the mess hall when they spotted a prison truck parked inside the walls, partially loaded with sheet steel to be made into license plates. Jumping in the truck, they started it and barreled across the prison grounds toward the massive wooden gate. When they hit it burst open with the weight of the heavy truck and the two convicts plowed through the gate and down Spring Street, onto Belvedere, and turned south. Abandoning the truck, the pair ran through the Oregon Hill neighborhood until they got to the Hollywood Cemetery fence along South Cherry Street.

Robert McDonald, who with Stonebreaker rammed their way out of the Pen.

There was a Confederate reunion going on in Richmond that week, and the two escapees were spotted in the distance trotting through the tombstones and trees by visitors touring the Hollywood Cemetery Confederate section. Dozens of armed Penitentiary guards and personnel flooded the cemetery looking for the pair. By 2:00 PM they still had not been located, and Prison Superintendent Major Rice Youell sent word to the prison in Goochland County to send bloodhounds to Richmond to find Stonebreaker and McDonald. The dogs arrived at 3:50 and were immediately released and led authorities out of Hollywood and into adjacent Mount Cavalry Cemetery. Stonebreaker and McDonald lay under a cover of vines and bushes in the northeast corner of the cemetery listening to the commotion and baying of the bloodhounds until flushed out by police with drawn guns and returned to prison after several hours of freedom.


“Big Dutch” Arthur Misunas of the infamous “Tri-State Gang,” outside a Richmond courtroom in 1934. Misunas had no illusions about his status as a rat and was prepared for the “Tri-State Avengers.”

Two of Stonebreaker’s prison pals became even more notorious three years later when McDonald, Panella, and another man, Bill Lynn (termed “two tough holdup men and a moron murderer” in the Times-Dispatch), attacked Arthur Misunas in the mess hall. Misunas was one of the few survivors of the infamous Tri-State Gang which engineered a series of truck hijackings, robberies, kidnappings, and murders up and down the East Coast in the early 1930s. The other two principals of the gang, Walter Legenza and Robert Mais, had been put to death in Virginia’s electric chair on February 2, 1935, largely because of Misunas’ testimony. In the Virginia Pen, “Big Dutch” Misunas was considered the biggest and most despised rat of them all. Four days after the executions, the trio attempted to kill Misunas, who, defending himself with a homemade knife made from half a pair of scissors, instead stabbed Panella in the stomach and then calmly “retired to his cell.” Following closely on accounts of the electrocution of Mais and Legenza, the story of the failed “Tri-State Avengers” made national news on the wire services.

For Richmonders living in Oregon Hill, just to the west of the Penitentiary, the howl of the prison siren must have been a rare and exciting sound. Rarely did the hulking collection of buildings on the other side of Belvedere emit anything other than routine vehicle traffic in and out of the gate, with supplies arriving by truck and the prison bus transporting inmates to court or a local hospital. Imagine the excitement on June 16, 1936, when the siren began, followed by the heavy thud of a shotgun echoing around the walls of the prison, and then immediately after that, the unmistakable rattle of a machine gun. Stony Stonebreaker was making his play for freedom again, only this time he had a lot more help.

Excited Oregon Hill residents gather in the 500 block of Spring Street at the sound of machine gun fire coming from the nearby State Pen. On the other side of the wall, Stony and his pals were making their play.

Robert Reams, prison guard, had no hint that things were about to go so very badly that afternoon. It was a clear and warm, a pleasant day for baseball, and about 150 inmates were out on the yard either playing or watching the game. Abruptly, Reams had a knife put to his throat and heard somebody behind him say, “git in the truck.” His hands bound, Reams was unceremoniously thrown in the back of a prison van and found another guard, Powhatan Bass, and a prison trusty named Oscar Fields already tied up on the floor. Eight inmates piled in the truck with them, someone started it, and the tall, black truck roared out of the automotive shop and toward the prison gate – the same gate that Stony and his pal McDonald had driven through four years before, only now reinforced with a heavy steel beam.


Prison guard O.C. Smith, didn’t hesitate in unleashing a torrent of gunfire into the escapee’s truck, killing and wounding prisoners and hostages alike.

Patrolling on top of the wall was guard O.C. Smith, a no-nonsense veteran officer hardened by years of working at the Penitentiary. Looking down from his vantage point, it was obvious that the person behind the wheel was not supposed to be there and this was an escape attempt. Smith knew what to do. Drawing his service revolver, he quickly emptied it into the truck below him, and then grabbed a shotgun from the guard post. Pumping it rapidly, he shot the truck six times with buckshot (each round carrying nine pellets the size of a pistol bullet). The truck was still moving, so Smith dropped the shotgun and picked up a Thompson sub-machine gun, hauled back on the cocking handle, and fired a long burst of .45 caliber bullets into the now slowing truck as it finally bumped harmlessly into the gate and stopped.


Prison guards examine the truck that was riddled with bullets by O.C. Smith.

As Smith’s Thompson roared, inside the truck dots of daylight appeared all over the walls as bullets zipped through it and bloody pandemonium broke out. An inmate named Debie Coleman slumped unconscious, a bullet through his head. Coleman would die of his wounds two weeks later. Bill Lynn, a Texas bank robber and one of Misunas’ assailants, was shot in the back and leg and George Ferguson, a convicted murderer, was badly wounded in both legs. The hapless trustee Fields who had no part in the attempted escape was shot in the stomach. Bank robber Talmadge Feazell had flesh wounds, but the guard, Robert Reams, was hit in the mouth by a slug and had a bullet wound in his hip. His fellow guard, Powhatan Bass, lay dead beside him on the floor of the truck, shot several times in the head and body. The truck sat in front of the gate and was instantly surrounded by guards with shotguns and the doors flung open. A murderer named Burley Wright, bank robbers Ed Veal and John Price, and Ralph “Stony” Stonebreaker emerged from the carnage in the blood-spattered, bullet-riddled truck, unscathed and with hands held high.

The gravestone of prison guard and hostage Powhatan Bass in Maury Cemetery, killed in the volley of machine gun fire that ended the escape attempt. (Photo from Find a Grave)

The City of Richmond tried to convict the attempted escapees with murder in the death of Powhatan Bass, with District Attorney Gray Haddon announcing he would seek the death penalty for Stonebreaker and the other three who were not wounded in the attempt. The question of where Bass was in the truck and when exactly he was killed in the fusillade of bullets clouded the prosecution, and murder charges were eventually dropped against the convicts. Guard O.C. Smith was roundly praised for following regulations and his part in thwarting the escape, even if it cost Powhatan Bass his life.

Stonebreaker attempted, again and again, to get out of prison throughout the 1940s by using legal means, claiming that he was denied due process when first convicted of his crime spree back in 1932. He staged a five-year court battle (financed by an inheritance he received while he was in prison) that became known in the press as “the famous Ralph Stonebreaker case.” Eventually the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the charges be dismissed. This left the uncomfortable fact that, by 1947 Stonebreaker served nine years too many. In June, 1948, at age 37, Ralph Stonebreaker was released from prison.

Stony Stonebreaker was just as hard-looking as an older man as he was in his prison mug shot. (Photo from Find a Grave)


According to his entry on the “Find a Grave” website, Ralph remarried (his first wife had divorced him in 1934) and had two children. In 1950, he was living in Cumberland, Maryland, and worked at Memorial Hospital. Ralph “Stony” Stonebreaker died in 1992 at the age of 81. The hardboiled old ex-con is buried in the cemetery of a small rural church in western Maryland in an unmarked grave.


 - Selden


See also the Shockoe Examiner’s tour of the inside of the Penitentiary before it was demolished in 1991.






Sunday, October 9, 2022

Richmond’s Own: Oscar “Reddy” Foster

  The evening of March 14, 1908 was not a quiet one, and under overcast skies many families who lived in the now vanished Richmond neighborhood of Fulton were spending an uneasy night on their porches and patrolling their alleys. On Louisiana Street, between Sixth and Seventh, residents were particularly tense with the sound of voices and people walking up and down the cobblestones. The Richmond Police had been put on alert, extra patrolmen were assigned to Fulton, and everyone was wide awake late into the night and talking about the man who threatened to burn down the whole of Louisiana Street, starting with his wife’s home. In the close-set frame houses of Fulton, the danger of fire was not something to be taken lightly and they all knew the source of the threat, too, making the image of blazes sweeping across Fulton valley even more believable. “The neighbors stood guard for some time, ready to move their chattels at a moment’s notice and to vent their anger,” reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch in an article headlined, “Neighborhood in Uproar..”


A view of the town of Fulton asReddy Foster knew it, ca. 1910.


  The residents, the police, and his family were all looking for Oscar “Reddy” Foster: baseball player, Richmond native, would-be arsonist, wife beater, and notorious mean drunk. Foster didn’t add to his fame and carry out his threat against Fulton, although he was spotted sulking through the streets of the neighborhood. “Foster was seen to pass the place several times,” reported the Times Dispatch, “but no match was struck, and he was allowed to depart in peace.” Hardly an admirable figure, Foster was nevertheless one of the few Richmonders who made it, albeit for only one shining afternoon, to play in the big leagues in the rough and rawboned world of late-nineteenth century American baseball.

  That March night Foster was enraged that his former wife had claimed all the pay from their son’s job at the nearby Richmond Cedar Works, leaving the aging ballplayer nothing for the week. Foster’s oath to exact revenge on her and the entire neighborhood resulted in that nocturnal panic in Fulton. It was one more example of the drunken Foster being famous in Richmond, but not for his skill or achievements but rather his drinking and his temper. Even a history of baseball’s early players is quick to note Foster “was known as a hard-drinking, rough and ready ballplayer whose temper usually got the best of him.” In 1908 Foster appeared in Richmond Police Court to answer for beating up both his sister and her husband after they made disparaging remarks about Foster’s mother, and he was released after paying a $35 fine. The news was reported under the heading, “Old Player Fined,” further adding to the image of Reddy Foster as being a has-been and washed up at age 44 and no doubt adding to his rage and frustration.

  Foster also had a reputation of taking out his shortcomings on Mary, his long-suffering wife. “Reddy’s continued abuse after team losses became so commonplace that his wife came up with an ‘early warning system,’” wrote one historian of the era. When Foster’s team won, she would be home when he got there as he was then a “happy drunk.” When the team lost, she would arrange for someone to get word to her so she could flee before the drunk and belligerent Foster got home, and she would wait safely at a neighbor’s house for him to sober up.

Oscar “Reddy” Foster, pictured in the Richmond Dispatch in 1895.


  The baseball statistics website, “Baseball Reference” names a team in Lebanon, Pennsylvania as the first team Reddy played for in 1890. It goes on to list eighteen different teams he was on, teams with names that reflect the colorful and often hard-scrapple places they called home. The Richmond Bluebirds, the Allentown Peanuts, the Bristol Bell Makers, and the Waterbury Rough Riders were among the stops on a long journey of boarding houses, hotel rooms, train rides, beer joints and rural baseball diamonds attended by crowds just as drunk and rough-and-ready as the players. It was an alcohol-fueled sport filled with personal rivalries, where fistfights were common and sliding to a base often meant coming in with spikes up to do as much damage to the other player as possible. “Reddy Foster should be heavily fined when he gives such exhibitions of temper,” wrote one chronicler of a game played on the evening of September 15, 1894, where his petulant behavior helped cost the Richmond team the game. “A few fines and he might be able to control himself.”

  The same baseball history that termed Foster abusive noted that once upon a time, “Foster was a star catcher in the Virginia State League when he was discovered by a scout for the New York Giants.” Despite his famously bad temper, Foster was signed by New York and prepared for the move north, but before leaving Richmond, Fulton’s own Reddy Foster was honored by a baseball game in his honor on November 23, 1895. The Richmond team played a volunteer group, and the game itself was termed “passing dull.” Nevertheless, many turned out to watch Fulton’s most famous son’s last game before he headed off to the majors and what everyone hoped would be a long and promising profession. In a foreshadowing of Foster’s meteoric rise and fall, a New York coach O. P. Claytor commented that Reddy was not much to look at but “he has the appearance of a fighter, and, as a whole, Claytor thinks he will do.”

  Later in life, he must have looked back at that time with the Giants and that one summer afternoon on June 3, 1896, that Reddy Foster played in the major leagues as a lofty pinnacle that he’d never see again. Not that the game itself was a sterling example from which warm memories were made. The New York World said the Giants played poorly all around and their pitcher “fretted, fumed and fussed” because things were not going his way. The whole game was “one of the sort which leaves a bad taste.” New York lost 14-8. Foster’s presence was not mentioned in the newspapers, and he never played in the majors after that one game.

  Dismissed from the New York Giants, Foster eventually returned home once again to Fulton and apparently kept the peace. He was welcomed back to a local team, the Richmond Lawmakers, after turning down a coaching job in Connecticut. The local newspaper reported the offer and even they seemed surprised he would not take it: “Foster declined to accept the position, although it has a good salary attached to it.” In 1902, “Oscar (Reddy) Foster, a star of the old Virginia League. was spotted in Fulton, resting before headed to his new post as coaching in Wheeling, W. Va.” Reddy eventually signed with a Portsmouth team and later returned as a player to Richmond, but even his hometown had grown tired of his ill-mannered behavior. His cursing on the field and other vulgar behavior was soundly criticized in the press. “Reddy wants to wake up to the fact that Richmond people don’t tolerate such conduct,” sniffed the Times Dispatch..

  By the spring of 1906, Reddy Foster was on a downhill trajectory. When he came back to Richmond, unlike in the past when he might have first gone carousing, instead he went directly from the train station to his mother’s house in Fulton. “’It’s been five years since I saw her sweet face, and I wasn’t coming uptown to get mixed with a crowd before I had a good long talk with her,’ said the auburn-haired backstop, who is known to all of Richmond.” Reddy was in pretty good shape, commented one reporter. “He played excellent ball last year with the Greenville (Miss.) team, and was offered a larger salary there this year, but wanted to get back to Richmond.” Among the few constants in Reddy Foster’s life, aside from his famously bad attitude, was his mother and the Fulton neighborhood where he was born, and it was always a powerful draw.

   Two weeks after he returned home, the end came for Reddy Foster’s baseball career during a game between the Lawmakers and the opposing Lynchburg Hill Climbers. The Cooperstown Chronicles generously claims Foster “always demanded the best from his players and teammates on the field: incompetence was something that was totally unacceptable to him,” and that it was his sheer exasperation with the quality of play is what made him throw down his catcher’s gear and stalk off. Rather than a noble quest for excellence, it was more likely hard liquor and a famously bad attitude that caused Foster to curse, leave the field and the park entirely, never to return. “There are those who think that he will be given another show, but this is a mistaken conclusion, for the player who quits, sulks, or gets bad in any way, hasn’t got any sleeping apartment with the Lawmakers, it is said.”


The grave of Oscar “Reddy” Foster in Richmond’s Oakwood Cemetery.


  The next year found Foster still playing ball, but now back with the same amateur team he started with as a young man. The sporting public was informed that, “The old Fulton baseball club has reorganized with a strong list of players, and Mr. C. Linwood Wade has been elected captain, to whom challenges should be sent at No. 20 Orleans Street.” Far from the beautifully manicured field at the Polo Grounds in New York, Foster now loped around the bases in the valley he called home, his ill-fitting unform once again stained with the red clay of Fulton.

  Things began badly in 1908 after the arrest in February when Foster beat his sister and brother-in-law, followed by the incident where he threatened to burn down Fulton. It was said that Reddy returned to his neighborhood and continued to “dissipate.” On a Sunday late in December, when most Richmonders were thinking about the upcoming Christmas holiday, the ballplayer was on a bender. He was drinking with Lee Poklington, who lived in Fulton on Louisiana Street and was probably among those on alert at a window the year before, watching for his old buddy Reddy coming up Louisiana Street with a can of gas. In late afternoon on December 19 the two walked to the Fulton waterfront, both no doubt knowing every path and alley in the valley from a lifetime of making their way through Fulton to the river. They carried with them a bottle of whisky and, for some reason, a double-barreled shotgun.

  Foster and Poklington stood a while on the shore of what was known as the Fulton Flats and watched the James River roll by as they passed the bottle back and forth. It was growing dark, reported an account of Reddy’s afternoon, “at that hour between day and night when a man’s thoughts turn toward retrospect and when nature wears a melancholy attitude.” The lengthening shadows and growing gloom could have only added to the baseball player’s troubled mind, and he had a long pull off the whisky.  Handing the bottle back, he took the gun and said, “watch me.” Poklington turned away from the view of the river and toward his friend standing beside him just as there was a flash and a roar. Reddy had put the gun under his chin and both barrels of the shotgun fired, blowing most of his head off and all over the rocks on the Fulton shore.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 20, 1908.


  The sudden death of Fulton’s troubled favorite son was front-page news in Richmond. “Once Famous Ball Player Blows Top Of Head Off With Shot Gun” trumpeted one newspaper - a headline leaving little room for sentiment in its description of the grisly method of suicide. The accompanying article explained that long ago, the crowds roared in approval for Reddy who had “an arm of iron.” “His red head shone like a blaze behind the bat, and the people fondly gave him the name which afterward distinguished him more than his own.” His rise to the major leagues was recounted as the top of an arc that began and ended beside the river, in Fulton. “He was a great man with the bat, especially towards the umpire, and people resented his unruly wildness… At last, when he was down and out, when he had grown physically weak and his career was a wrecked, he saw one more finish, one more run – that one more home run he could make – and he committed suicide.”

  It seemed that over the years Foster had finally worn out his welcome in his native city, and his passing was not noted other than with the account of his sensational death.  There was no obituary for Oscar “Reddy” Foster, no call for grieving family and friends to meet at Oakwood Cemetery for his burial. Maybe Lee Poklington, termed Foster’s “last friend” in the newspaper, really was the only person he had left, and perhaps that was the reason Foster had Poklington accompany him that afternoon on his last stroll through his old neighborhood. The still-shaken Poklington may have been among the few mourners that went to Oakwood to see Reddy buried in what is today an isolated area of the cemetery, long forgotten and carpeted with crabgrass. Weeds grow up through the cracked vault lid covering the grave of one of Richmond’s most famous early ballplayers.

- Selden.