Saturday, October 9, 2021
Thursday, May 27, 2021
It was after 9:00 at night and nobody really wanted to be down at the Blues Armory on Marshall Street. Members of the National Guard’s 176th Regimental Infantry Combat Team were drilling that October evening, and no doubt most of them wondered what the new year would bring. The Korean War was going badly that winter and many of these reserve soldiers may have expected to be called up in 1951. The two regular Army instructors overseeing the drill were probably delighted to be conducting training as far away from Korea as they could get.
The two instructors were brought in to conduct the weekly drills on the M20 recoilless rifle, a weapon designed to attack tanks and fortifications and that was widely used in the Korean war. Although termed a “rifle,” this weapon was more of a launcher, which fired a high-explosive shell more than two miles on the point of a rocket. When it went off, there was the fierce backblast characteristic of all rocket projectiles and the Guardsmen were warned there was a 75-foot danger zone behind the M20 inside of which personnel could be easily injured or killed, so always keep that area clear.
Museum display of a M20 75mm recoilless rifle.
This weapon was generally served by a seven-man crew, three of which were designated as ammunition carriers. All seven were assigned a task in the deployment and use of the M20, and the National Guardsmen switched these roles over and over, simulating loading, unloading, sighting and firing the M20 with inert practice shells in a room on the second floor of the Blues Armory. “We aimed it first, towards the room where some of the officers were meeting,” recalled one Guardsman later, “But someone laughed and said it wasn’t polite to aim at the staff, even if the shell was a dummy.”
The Technical Manual for the M20 describes the sequence of the firing of the weapon, using the numbers assigned each member of the gun crew according to his task. Repetition meant efficiency and routine ensured the soldiers would perform the necessary operations even under the stress of combat. The National Guardsmen had been over this and over this sequence under the eyes of the Army instructors until they could practically chant the procedure as they went through the drill:
No. 4 draws the type of ammunition designated from its container and passes it to No. 2. No 2 inserts it in the chamber and seats the round firmly. He then closes the breech and taps the gunner’s hand to indicate that the gun is ready to fire. No. 1 lays the gun on the designated target, takes the correct sight picture, and waits for the tap from No. 2 indicating the gun is ready to fire. On receipt of the tap he rotates the safety and depresses the trigger…
There was a terrific explosion in the room with the recoilless rifle, and for a split second, the whole place was illuminated in the white flash of the rocket round going off. The room was instantly engulfed in the smoke from the exhaust flame from the back of the gun. The gun crew still in the room with the M20 had a momentary glimpse of their fellow soldiers shouting soundlessly and clutching their hands over their now-ringing ears before the plaster ceiling came down and covered them all in thick white dust.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 31, 1950
In the armory there were more than a hundred panes of glass broken in an instant, sending a cascade of glass, plaster and Venetian blinds out into Marshall Street. The Guardsmen and their Army instructors stumbled from the room, coughing in the thick smoke and dust and crunching around in the broken glass and plaster bits. Remarkably, only two people were hurt by the explosion: one cut by flying glass and another hospitalized because of the ringing in his ears.
The east side of Richmond’s Blues Armory. The shell fired inadvertently on the second floor went through the upper part of the middle window in this picture.
Richmond telephone switchboards lit up with calls for help, and authorities sent twenty-five policemen, five fire trucks and an ambulance toward the Blues Armory, where plaster dust and smoke continued to waft out of the smashed windows. While the Guardsmen and their instructors were sorted out and dusted off everybody was asking the same question – what happened? Firemen examining the room where the M20 went off found a neat, 75mm hole cut through the four-inch solid wall and following its path, saw the rocket projectile had gone through the armory and out into the dark through one of the east-facing windows, and toward the heart of downtown Richmond.
The shell left the Blues Armory traveling down Marshall Street at a height of about thirty feet and a speed of roughly 1,000 feet per second. In a flash it had reached Ninth and Marshall, where a late meeting of the Richmond School Board was first interrupted and abruptly ended by an inexplicable and frightening sound outside the window. The rocket continued east past the Medical College of Virginia hospital. One soldier later mused that had the M20 been turned just an inch or two to the right, the projectile might have hit the building. The rocket left downtown and flew over the crusty old Richmond jail, over the Jefferson School and down the length of the now-demolished Marshall StreetViaduct, across Shockoe Valley, and into Church Hill.
Downtown Richmond as seen from the 2200 block of East Marshall Street.
The projectile came down 1.3 miles away from the Blues Armory in the north side of the 2200 block of East Marshall. It hit the house at 2214, cutting first a foot-long gash in the roof and emerged through a porch support.
2214 East Marshall Street, the first house hit by the shell from the Blues Armory.
Next door at 2216, the home of Mrs. K. M. Ford, the shell went through a glider cushion and into the front porch floor. Mrs. Ford said, “It shook the house. At first I thought some automobiles had crashed in the street.” Nine-month-old Brenda Lee King slept through the entire episode in a first-floor bedroom, oblivious to the sound of the shell that sliced cleanly through her grandmother’s house several feet from her crib.
2216 East Marshall Street
The shell ricocheted under the porch of Mrs. E. B. White’s house at 2218 East Marshall, tearing out wooden supports and emerged again with an upward trajectory, cutting down a porch swing at W. H. Cash’s house at 2220 and splintering a post. Mrs. Cash later said, “I went to the front door and looked out but didn’t see anything but a lot of smoke so I came back in.” Spent, the missile rolled down East Marshall Street and came to a stop under a Chevrolet sedan parked at the curb.
2218 East Marshall Street
Once the situation was explained, residents of Church Hill who gathered to see what was going on in East Marshall understandably gave both the shell and the Chevrolet a wide berth, not knowing when both might explode. The police finally appeared and guarded the scene until the arrival of members of the National Guard, who sheepishly retrieved the shell from under the car and drove it back to the armory from whence it came.
2220 East Marshall Street
There followed a flurry of finger-pointing and an exchange of blame between the Army and the National Guard as to who was responsible. There were three types of ammunition for the M20: high explosive, “inert” rounds which went off but held no explosive in the projectile, and “dummy” rounds, which were solely for training. The soldiers at the Blues thought they had dummy rounds. Vague labeling on the cases and the rounds themselves led to confusion about what they were issued for training, resulting in loading a live shell with an inert warhead. Eventually Governor John S. Battle came to the defense of the Virginia National Guard, saying they had been issued mislabeled ammunition by the Army. The two Army instructors who were conducting the training were given letters of reprimand.
Two months later the Richmond Times-Dispatch put the matter to rest with an editorial helpfully titled, “Mark Those Shells Clearly.” The editorial claimed the issue was a valuable lesson for the Army and should be used to revise ammunition labeling before some more serious accident happened.
The ironic phrasing of the label on that ammunition at the Blues Armory seemed to tell the entire story of what will hopefully be the last artillery bombardment of Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood: “Cartridge, TP, M-309 (T38) w/fuse, dummy.”
[Click HERE to see a demonstration of the power of the M20 recoilless rifle.]
Thursday, March 11, 2021
It all began as a rumor, a tip, a story somebody told somebody. One of the rarest architectural drawings in Richmond had been spotted in an office at City Hall, maybe a year before, in 1995. I was the archivist for architectural records at the Library of Virginia, so on a cold and rainy Friday afternoon, I went to see if I could find it.
“Well, well….” I stammered, looking at the drawing in my hands, and half kidding said, “Ah, I guess I’ll just go on back to the Library with this…” and the guy gathered up his stuff and said, “Yeah, you better. No telling what will happen to it here,” and walked out the door and left me standing there. I carefully put the drawing in my copy of Weddell’s book, put the book under my jacket, and ran back to the LVA before anybody could stop me. The following year the same drawing was published in The Common Wealth – Treasures from the Collection of the Library of Virginia.
As a document of national importance from the hand of one of America’s premier early architects, at first glance the little plan of a building is not too impressive. The little sheet is about the size of a legal pad: only 10 x 14 inches. Nevertheless, it testifies to a variety of important elements in the history of Richmond, about one of our first and finest architects, is an amazing example of the draftsman’s craft and is a unique record of a building that was destroyed 149 years ago. All architectural drawings hold within their sheets the secrets of their birth: the building’s decoration, its underpinnings, and the illustrated engineering that moves it from paper to brick and stone. Incredibly, this sheet in the collection of the Library of Virginia also testifies to the structural changes that literally killed it and led to the demolition of this once-admired building.
The plan of the building came from the hand of Robert Mills, one of America’s first professional architects. Mills’ most famous commission was the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., whose construction was begun in 1848, but he had a long list of buildings he designed up and down the East Coast in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Architect Robert Mills, (1781-1855). (Library of Congress)
Mills had perfected his craft under the apprenticeship under some early American architects including B. Henry Latrobe and Thomas Jefferson, sometimes serving as Jefferson’s draftsman. Ironically, much of the astonishing skill and ability of Mills at the drafting table was never meant to be seen, and instead make up an entirely separate vocabulary of information hidden in plain sight.
When Mills noted in his pocket diary that on March 18, 1816, he met with Richmond commissioners who had approved his plan for the “Court House,” this plan of the building must have been among those drawings he displayed for them. As Mills spread out the sheets, City officials probably never noticed the tiny details in the drawings in front of them. Solid masonry walls and columns at first glance appear to be simply a watercolor wash indicating their material, but a close look with backlighting shows these areas are actually shaded with Mills’ precise lines, one after another, drawn by hand with machine-like precision. Perhaps even more astonishing are the galaxy of tiny holes, known as “pricking,” created by a needle-like drafting tool called a “protracting pen,” these holes allowed the architect to layout or copy a drawing by making these holes at every junction of every line. There are almost a thousand of them in this sheet of paper, so small they are only visible by backlighting the drawing under magnification. How Mills was able to accomplish this amazing display of draftsmanship with the lighting available in his day defies comprehension.
A magnified and back-lit view of Mills’ plan for the City Hall. Notice the precise diagonal lines on this drawing indicating masonry, and the tiny holes at the juncture of each line made by the architect’s needle-like protracting pen.
The City Hall was constructed as designed, and Richmond’s City Council and courts began using the building in December 1818. Mills’ most famous Richmond commission, Monumental Church at 1224 East Broad Street, was completed four years before. It is interesting to imagine the scene on Richmond’s grand boulevard with these two domed temples within sight of each other, one to secular law and governance, and one as a memorial to the dead, but these two buildings livened the Richmond skyline for decades.
Robert Mills’ Monumental Church (1812-1814) on Broad Street.
Visitors to Monumental Church today can admire the interior features: the wooden dome above their heads, the light coming down from far above from the lantern in the dome, and the gallery held up by thin columns and know that the main courtroom in Mills’ City Hall must have looked very similar. Information about the interior of City Hall is scant, with vague references to the flags that hung inside as compared to the austere interior of Monumental Church. Nevertheless, the light filtering down from the large lantern at the top of the dome must have been much the same.
Interior of Monumental Church, showing the lantern, or skylight, in the top of the dome.
The French hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, visited Richmond as part of his triumphant tour of the United States in 1824. His reception at City Hall that October was one of the events from Richmond’s history recorded in a series of dioramas created for the Valentine Museum for the bicentennial celebrations in 1937. In this diorama scene, Lafayette emerges from his carriage in Capitol Street and is applauded by excited Richmonders who line the street and crowd the windows of City Hall.
The Marquis de Lafayette arriving at Richmond City Hall in October 1824. (The Valentine Museum)
For decades, the credit for the design of Richmond’s 1818 City Hall has been muddied by statements by French architect Maximilian Godefroy. Godefroy was a self-promotor whose work in Richmond survives only as a partly-executed plan for the landscaping of Capitol Square. The straight lane that runs from the Washington Monument to the Governor’s Mansion is the last trace of Godefroy in Richmond. In an 1816 letter describing the bitter falling out that he had with fellow architect B. Henry Latrobe involving a commission in Baltimore, Godefroy also lashes out at his rival, Mills. Godefroy claimed to have been given the ”painful” task of transforming Mills’ Richmond City Hall into a “regular edifice.”
This is typical of Godefroy’s self-promotion and, although this claim is often repeated by historians as late as a major biography of Mills in 2001, it is completely untrue. Tellingly, even the French architect’s biographer, John Bryan, had to admit that Godefroy’s “constant exaggerations -- these are all verbal constructions, some of which Godefroy himself came to believe…” A thorough search of City of Richmond records show Godefroy was never hired or paid for any work and indeed his name does not appear in the City government records at all.
Comparison of Mills’ drawing and photographs of the City Hall confirm Mills as the architect of City Hall, despite the complicity of major historians in the myth that Godefroy was in any way an influence, let alone the designer of the building. As befitting someone who played so lightly with the truth, Godefroy’s eventual fate is unknown other than he returned to France and died there.
Maximilian Godefroy (1765-1838?) From The Architecture of Maximilian Godefroy, 1974.
The first threat to the structural integrity of City Hall occurred when a committee appointed by the Hustings Court recommended in 1850 that another large room be created on the north side of the City Hall for additional courtroom space: “the present Sergeant’s office, the room on the same side of the building formerly used occasionally as a Courtroom and the open space between the two be thrown into one for the use of the Hustings Court.” This change eliminated two load-bearing walls in the upper story of the building, walls that served as buttresses for the central drum of the City Hall.
In 1858, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper ran an illustration which showed an interior on the second floor on July 3, 1858 being used as a space where citizens could pay their respects to the remains of President Monroe before his Richmond reburial. In the picture, Richmonders are shown filing in the room to look down on Monroe’s coffin, draped with a flag and seemingly held up on one end by a broken chair. The scene is lit by the three large, south-facing windows shown in Mills’ plan. The newspaper illustration is interesting in that it shows the interior as not only a civic space, but a richly decorated and detailed ceremonial one as well, heavily draped and lined with portraits.
Richmonders pay their respects at the coffin of James Monroe at the Richmond City Hall. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 17, 1858.
Richmond Dispatch, June 20, 1854.
Visitors to Monumental Church are often impressed with the odd acoustics of the space, and apparently, the courtroom in City Hall suffered from the same effect, with the lawyer’s dogged prosecutions, petitions, and fervent defenses rapidly dissipating into the thin air of Mills’ domed courtroom. In October, 1853, members of the Richmond Bar submitted a petition to the Court, asking for changes to make the round room a more orator-friendly space. “President Myers stated that the City Engineer had under a consideration a plan for the room….”
Richmond’s City Engineer was Washington Gill (1819-1902), formerly an employee of a local canal company, who had apparently come up with a fix for the central domed courtroom on the cheap. “The Committee have also had an estimate carefully prepared by Mr. Gill…” recorded the Committee secretary, “…and are agreeably disappointed in the aggregate amount, which they certainly apprehended would have been much greater.” By the following June, workmen were making their ill-advised, low-cost modifications to the City Hall.
Faint pencil lines (here outlined in orange) on the original Mills plan of City Hall show the modifications that were made in 1854 that resulted in the eventual deterioration of the building.
These modifications and their consequences were ruefully recalled twenty years later in the Richmond Dispatch: “The building, however, has been altered, and in making the change which was ordered it very probably received its mortal wound. The old court-room was circular, the walls of solid brick, and supported a dome of great weight. Now, it was said that the circular shape of the room made speech inaudible, and the lawyers and orators making a dead set at the circle, they succeeded in squaring it. This, it is now believed, broke the back, so to speak, of the edifice. Its chief props are gone, and time discloses a weakness that has caused the present alarm.”
Always second fiddle: Richmond’s City Hall on the left peeps out from under the frame of this 1860 painting of the Virginia State Capitol attributed to Howard Montague. (LVA)
The consequences of having a round dome supported by a square building was soon evident to Mayor Joseph Mayo, who irritably presided over City government in a building that would not keep the rain out. “A leak in the roof of the City Hall is seriously injuring the plastering and floors, and needs prompt attention,” recalled one history of Richmond during the Civil War: “Yesterday morning the water was dripping through the ceiling into the Mayor's courtroom, very much to the annoyance of the members of the bar and others having business with His Honor.” Despite its tattered condition, the City Hall was still an important and symbolic objective for Federal troops when they entered Richmond on April 5, 1865.
A Civil War-era City of Richmond fifty-cent bill, showing the Richmond City Hall.
In the years that followed the Civil War, the venerable City Hall continued to decline from the modifications made in the 1850s. The whole issue of Richmond’s older buildings came to the fore in a tragic manner when a courtroom in the nearby Capitol collapsed on April 20, 1870, killing more than 60 people and injuring dozens more. Grieving Richmonders had to only look across Capitol Street to the now leaking and tilting City Hall to be reminded of the dangers of their historic if deteriorating civic buildings.
Richmond City Hall, 1865. In the background is the steeple of First Presbyterian Church. (Library of Congress)
A growing number of complaints addressed to the City Council began in the years following the Capitol disaster. “I feel it again to be my duty to present the matter before you for your action,” insisted Richmond judge Abe Guigon, “…that you may take such action about it as will prevent another catastrophe as filled our city and State with mourning not long ago.” Judge Guigon refused to hold court in the building, pointing out that the western wall of the building was held in place only by rods and the whole structure could collapse. He also made the point that the City Hall was the repository of Richmond’s titles and deeds and the destruction of the building would be not only an economic but a legal disaster. He demanded the convening of a Grand Jury of Richmond architects and engineers to determine what should be done.
Richmond Dispatch, February 2, 1874.
The Grand Jury, composed of local experts such as architect Albert Lybrock, City Engineer Wilfred Cutshaw, and several Richmond engineers and builders was formally canvassed after a complete inspection of the City Hall from top to bottom. The result was a grim litany of condemnation: “1st Question: Do you consider the building in its present condition unsafe for the purposes for which it is used? Answer: Aye. 2nd Question: Do you think the present building should be repaired? Answer: No.”
On February 7, 1874, Richmond architect Albert West commented on the City Hall and recalled meeting Robert Mills, who, “… told me he was the architect of the building… I therefore determined to examine the record, and from it have made the following extract.” Reading the Journal of the Common Hall (the predecessor to today’s City Council), West found the entry where Mills was hired on June 6, 1814. West also correctly concluded:
The building is a beautiful specimen of Roman Doric order of architecture, and as originally built was of ample strength; but the alterations made in it some fifteen to eighteen years ago materially damaged its strength and durability, which added to the ordinary decay of time, has brought it to its present condition.
On the same day, Albert West paid tribute to the skill of Robert Mills, the Richmond Dispatch brought the news to its readers: “The City Hall is at last ordered to execution. The testimony is all against it, and is damming. No man - architect, councilman, judge, policeman, officer…dares to say a word in its defense, and down the old building must come.” On the afternoon of June 16, 1874, the last City functionary moved their office and the doors were closed, ending more than a half-century of service to the people of Richmond.
Demolition of the City Hall began almost immediately, but the Panic of 1873 had created a national financial depression, and in cash-strapped Richmond, building a replacement was nothing more than wishful thinking. A cheap, low office building was constructed in the next block which would serve Richmond as its City Hall for another 20 years. The site of City Hall was a vacant lot that became a public gathering place and the scene of concerts and hot air balloon ascensions.
F. W. Beers Illustrated Map of the City of Richmond (1876) from the Library of Congress, showing the vacant site of Mills’ City Hall (“Old City Hall Lot”) and the temporary City offices in the next block to the west.
Concerning the demolition of the City Hall, Richmond architectural historian, Mary Wingfield Scott, noted “the wreckers found it so solidly constructed that they had difficulty in tearing it down.” How does one reconcile this statement with the report of the Grand Jury? It may actually describe the solid condition of the eastern (unaltered) side of the City Hall in contrast to the heavily modified rotunda and western wall of the building. Because it retained the fabric and sinews that Mills intended, the east portion of the City Hall withstood the wrecker’s tools. On the other hand, those walls that were the victims of less-skilled hands in the 1850s practically fell of their own weight.
Demolition of Richmond City Hall, 1874. (Library of Congress)
City Engineer Wilfred Cutshaw, always short of appropriations to fund his office, reused the steps from the City Hall and ordered them placed as part of the foundation for the new reservoir being built in what we today call Byrd Park. The bricks shown being carefully cleaned and stacked in the photograph above were sold by the City. One building known to have used them is 3 South Twelfth Street, which still stands. You can go there today, 200 years after they were first laid, and run your hands over the last surviving material of Robert Mills’ once-grand building.
The side wall of 3 South 12th Street in Richmond, built in 1874 with bricks salvaged from the demolition of the 1818 City Hall.
An even more remarkable case of survival is that of Robert Mills’ original plan for the City Hall. The little sheet tells the story of the building from the very first day that Mills chose a sheet of paper, positioned it to the light, and began to draw. Not only is the pre-natal structure documented, but there is evidence, like that left at a murder, on the sheet as well. The light penciled lines by other hands in the 1850s reveal the slow structural poison that doomed Richmond’s 1818 City Hall.
- Selden Richardson
Tuesday, January 26, 2021
Richmond in 1927 was a place that proclaimed itself as “the city of prosperity and opportunity, the gateway to Dixieland.” New buildings were being designed and constructed all over town, like the big hotel on Fifth Street, later named after Richmond’s own John Marshall, or the wonderfully elaborate auditorium the Shriners were building on Monroe Park called “The Mosque.” Talking motion pictures were just appearing in Richmond theaters. Richmond planners began to take an interest in the most modern mode of transportation and plan for an airfield east of town.
In October 1927, thousands of Richmonders rushed out to that airfield to see Charles Lindbergh fly into town in his famous airplane, “Spirit of St. Louis,” and take part in the dedication of Richard Evelyn Byrd Flying Field. Later, five hundred people crowded into the ballroom of the Jefferson Hotel to hear Lindbergh speak. A Richmond politician who was swept up with the high-minded ideals of the occasion gushed, “As long as there are Lindberghs and Byrds, we of the nation need never worry that we will sink into the mire of materialism.”
John Wesley Faison (1896-1972)
The same kind of confident boosterism was reflected in the membership of Richmond’s Hermitage Country Club. Founded in 1900, by 1925 the Club was looking for a new Secretary to manage the facility. They wanted a rock-solid man with the right grit who could discretely maintain the quiet aquifer of money and privilege just below the immaculate grounds of the club. They found just such a man in John Wesley Faison, upright citizen, father of five, Sunday school superintendent, and faithful husband. Faison was a former handwriting instructor at Richmond’s John Marshall High School, indicative of his disciplined and methodical nature. Married at nineteen and a deacon in the Baptist church, Faison lived a quiet life with his family on Cliff Avenue in Richmond’s North Side until the age of thirty-one.
And then in 1927, all hell broke loose.
Hell came to John Faison’s life in July 1927 in the form of Elsie Snipes, a Richmond music teacher who lived in an apartment on the second floor of 3131 Hanover Avenue. To say Faison’s life was derailed by his meeting Snipes is an understatement. Faison completely threw over everything he once held dear, beginning with his marriage to his wife, Martha. He told her he was in love with the most amazing woman – and it wasn’t Martha. Faison’s five children, ages from one to twelve, must have looked on with heartrending anguish as Faison shoved out the door of the family home. Their father left for Elsie Snipes’ apartment and sometimes didn’t come home for days, going on what Faison called “honeymoons” with Snipes to Roanoke and Petersburg.
Probably a profoundly unhappy woman and an alcoholic, Snipes was slightly older than Faison and was perfect for the characterization as a femme fatale. But unlike Faison, Snipes’ life was unfettered by family or commitment, as (for reasons never stated) her former husband was raising their two children in North Carolina. Faison later described his time with Snipes as an “ultra-Bohemian life,” keeping Snipes in whisky while still financially supporting his stunned family.
The former Richmond home of John and Martha Faison, 3211 Cliff Avenue.
One of the more remarkable elements of the story of Faison was that his obsession with Snipes occurred with the full knowledge of his long-suffering wife. The Richmond Times-Dispatch termed Martha Faison a “plain and sad-faced woman” and quoted her stating with resignation, “Yes, I know Mrs. Snipes and I knew what was going on, but I just kept hoping and praying he would return to the call of his family and return to the same good father and husband he was before meeting Mrs. Snipes.”
That memory of who her husband had been and her Catholic faith apparently sustained Martha Faison through the emotional hurricane that had been her marriage. The Times-Dispatch attempted to explain the unusual situation for its readers: “Mrs. Faison took the attitude that the alleged intimacy between her husband and Mrs. Snipes might soon come to an end and in consequence be forgotten. Therefore, for the sake of appearances, cordiality between the two women appeared to exist.” In the end, Martha Faison proved a far better player of what proved to be a volatile contest between the women.
Martha Branch Faison (1892-1984)
That volatility is evident in the letters Faison sent Snipes, filled with sentimentality in some letters but ferocious jealousy in others. “My dear little wife, I am a slave to your beautiful self,” he wrote on one occasion to Snipes. But when Faison learned there may be another man in her life, he was brimming with rage. “I am so jealous that somehow I think my mind will crack,” Faison wrote to Snipes in a letter found by police. “Here I am in hell when I thought I was in heaven. I know it is another man. Damn his soul, I would tear him limb by limb. It is all for me or not at all. If this occurs again, I will not be responsible for what happens.”
On the evening of November 15, 1927, Elsie Snipes was entertaining Mason Smith, Dr. Robert Bybee and Mrs. Minnie Wade in her apartment. Snipes told them Faison had telephoned her several times. Perhaps knowing better than to be there when the mercurial Faison arrived, they got their coats on to leave. Snipes begged to go with them. They later recalled she came down to the street to their parked car to plead for a ride, telling them fearfully, “Don’t leave me here - Faison is coming back.” Told there was no room in the automobile for an extra passenger, Snipes’ parting words to them were “You’ll be sorry you left me,” before her friends drove off down Hanover Avenue.
Faison appeared at 3131 Hanover soon after Snipes’ earlier guests departed. According to Faison, as he and Snipes talked, she left and went into the bedroom to make a telephone call. Faison’s description of his actions before the gunshot are like those of a blasé sophisticate in a silent movie: “She went into the bedroom and shut the door. I lit a cigarette…..I looked at the pictures on the walls; I played a tune with one finger on the piano; I looked at some photograph records and while I was looking at the records I heard the explosion. I did not know what it was. I called to Mrs. Snipes and she did not answer, I went into the bedroom then saw her in a chair with a hole in her forehead.”
Police display the .38 caliber revolver that killed Elsie Snipes, December 16, 1927, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Snipes sat slumped in a chair in the bedroom with a bullet hole through her right eyebrow, her eyeball had been forced from the socket by the pressure of the impact. The projectile had gone completely through her head at a downward angle, exiting the base of the brain, hitting the floor behind her, and ricocheting into the woodwork of a nearby bed. Bessie Wright, who occupied the apartment above that of Mrs. Snipes, later testified she heard a gunshot and then a man called out, “God! I have killed Elsie: I have killed poor Elsie. What am I going to do? May God have mercy on my soul!” Footsteps were heard going down the hall and outside, then back into the apartment again, and out into the street. Across Hanover Avenue, Charles Ford was awakened by a commotion. He looked out and saw a man come out of Snipes’ apartment building, pace around the corner into Cleveland Street, go back inside 3131 Hanover and then appear again carrying a woman in his arms.
The entrance of 3131 Hanover Avenue, where John Faison emerged carrying the body of Elsie Snipes.
The newspaper accounts the next day stated, “Faison, the 31-year-old manager of the Hermitage Golf Club, came into Stuart Circle Hospital at 1:15 A. M. November 16, with the body of a ninety-eight-pound woman over his shoulder.” Visibly distraught, Faison told Dr. E.N. Pleasants who was on staff that morning, “My God, doctor, she is the only woman I have ever loved.” Faison knelt beside the operating table whispering words of encouragement to the dying Snipes, who mumbled something incoherent in reply.
Martha Faison arrived at the hospital within minutes of Faison, having been telephoned, she said, from Snipes’ house by her husband after the shooting. Remarkably, Mrs. Faison told police (and later testified under oath) she’d been on the phone with Snipes just before she was shot. According to Martha Faison, Snipes told her she didn’t want to break up the Faison household and would “destroy herself” instead. Elsie Snipes died at eight o’clock on the morning of November 16, her death certificate noting the cause as “gunshot wound – whether suicidal or homicidal cannot be determined at this time.”
The grave marker of Elsie Snipes in Princeton, North Carolina. (courtesy of Find a Grave.com)
On the morning of November 21, Richmond police banged on the door of Faison’s father’s house on Seminary Avenue and arrested John Faison on a charge of murder. Readers of Richmond newspapers (and certainly members of the Hermitage Country Club) were astonished to hear that this pillar of society and a man known for his righteous and upright manner stood accused of such a scandalous crime. Richmond, with little taste for sensationalism, had a hugely scandalous murder two years before and just seven blocks away when real estate agent Thomas Pollard was tried (and acquitted) of the murder of his lover in the front yard of his apartment house on Grove Avenue.
Richmonders were rocked when they opened their newspapers the week after Faison’s arrest to read of another brutal murder. On November 25, a man named Bickers Bibb called the police to tell them he had just killed his wife in their home at 15 South Davis Avenue. A patrolman arrived to find Mrs. Bibb in her blood-spattered kitchen with her skull crushed by a heavy mantel clock and a rope around her neck. Bibb was later declared insane and committed to a mental hospital, but the whole episode constituted one more bloody spectacle with two lurid murders in the Richmond newspapers.
Martha Faison made an appeal to the membership of Hermitage Country Club and raised $1400 toward Faison’s $10,000 bond, the remainder of which was put up by unnamed wealthy friends. The story of Snipes’ murder began to get national attention from the news services. A newspaper in Burbank, California ran a photo of the murder scene, “Clubman” Faison, and “pretty divorcee” Snipes, while a prim headline in a Clinton, Illinois newspaper characterized the tortured relationship between Faison and Snipes as simply: “Man Held in Death of Sweetheart.” The Daily Worker, the American Communist Party newspaper, even picked up the story. It assured readers that Snipes’ diary held all manner of secrets and that many members of the Hermitage Country Club had “dealings” with Snipes. This was echoed by a front page article in a Richmond paper, which ominously reported, “Prominent Richmond businessmen whose characters are of the highest order are liable to be dragged into the murder trial by virtue of their names appearing in Mrs. Snipes’ ‘little book.’”
The arrangement of bail for Faison was a routine procedure, but the unconventional nature of the relationship between him, his wife, and Elsie Snipes remained almost more than the Richmond newspapers were able to explain. This perversion of marriage with five children, completely undone by a woman of poor reputation, a woman who might be described in the slang of the day as “fast,” was utterly reprehensible. The fact that she was killed in the course of such reprehensible behavior might have been seen by many in Richmond as poetic justice for North Carolina libertines. These things happen.
A newspaper clipping from the December 2, 1927 issue of the Burbank Daily Evening Review in California, showing Snipes, “Clubman” Faison, and the murder scene in her bedroom.
The fact that Richmond was still basically a prim, church-going Southern city is reflected in the language of the city’s newspapers as they attempt to navigate some of the grittier elements of the Faison trial. The rumor that Snipes may have been pregnant and that may have been the cause of Faison’s rage was treated gently by the Times-Dispatch, who obliquely described the autopsy findings this way: “No trace of the alleged delicate condition of Mrs. Snipes was found.” “Some portions of [Snipes’] 1927 diary,” tittered the Times-Dispatch, “…make spicy reading.”
A newspaper illustration neatly combining a picture of Faison’s murdered lover, Elsie Snipes, inset in a photo of his wife and children. March 28, 1928, Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Faison’s trial commenced on December 12, 1927. The prosecution maintained that Faison, driven with the same fervor that drove him to abandon his family, fell into an equivalent rage and shot Snipes through the head with a .38 caliber revolver which Faison brought with him the night of the murder. The coroner remarked that it was unusual for a suicide to shoot themselves in the face with a gun, holding it at arm’s length and pulling the trigger with a thumb. The lack of powder burns on Elsie Snipes’ forehead was also an important piece of evidence. Snipes was a small woman and even at arm’s length, the six-inch-barreled revolver would have put the muzzle that much closer to her head and subsequently left powder burns.
The path of the bullet that drove through Snipes’ head was a critical part of the prosecution’s argument. Harold Colley, a North Carolina lawyer hired by Snipes’ family to assist with the prosecution, emphasized this point in court, using the actual chair from Snipes' apartment in a demonstration. The wound was consistent with Snipes being shot by someone standing in front of her, Colley said, someone like Faison, angerly confronting her from the bedroom doorway with a revolver in hand:
Could she sit on this chair (bringing out the chair on which the woman is said to have been seated), hold the telephone, the receiver and this pistol all at the same time and then while in that position could she shoot herself? Look, look at the angle at which that bullet would have to go. She couldn’t hit her head, with the index figure on the trigger She would have to hold it way up like this (demonstrating his theory)…About the time Hermitage Club found out about his affair and he sees he’s about to lose his position. He found out she didn’t have the big music class he thought she had. He schemed how to get rid of her…
City Sergeant John Saunders carries the blood-spattered “death chair” Elsie Snipes was sitting in when she was shot. Both the chair and Snipes’ bed were brought to the Richmond Hustings Courtroom as evidence in the Faison trial. December 18, 1927, Richmond Times-Dispatch.
In contrast to a scene of murderous rage, his defense presented the picture of a completely rational Faison, who said that night he calmly informed Snipes that he was leaving her and going back to his family. He then described puttering about Snipes’ apartment while she made a call until he was startled by the sound of a shot. “I called Mrs. Faison as soon as I heard the shot in the bedroom,” is what Faison recalled at trial, “telling her that Elsie had shot herself.” It was only after that conversation with his wife that Faison loaded the wounded woman in his car and drove her to Stuart Circle Hospital. Martha Faison arrived minutes later. In court, the entirety of that conversation of that frantic phone call between Faison and his wife was not revealed, a phone call that took place as blood poured down Elsie Snipes’ face from the bullet hole through her skull.
W. R. Widenburg spoke for Faison’s defense, where he portrayed his client as having been led astray and deluded. At the same time, Elsie Snipes’ character flaws became an essential part of the defense:
I tell you gentlemen that when a woman indulges in immorality it is because the image of God has passed from her mind. When this woman realized disaster…What did she do? She roamed around and finally landed in Virginia. She wasn’t fit for motherhood. She landed at Mrs. Gilham’s boarding house and got thrown out of there. I won’t say how bad she was, but the poor fool [Faison] thought she was the finest woman in the world – and she was to him.
The first Faison trial ran for seven days, at the end of which the jury foreman reported, “We are hopelessly divided.” A mistrial was declared on December 21, and Faison left to spend Christmas with his family. “We are not going to stop fighting,” Martha Faison said with a rare smile as she and her husband left the courtroom. Faison’s fate was deferred until the 1928 docket of the Hustings Court.
March 18, 1928, Richmond Times-Dispatch
The following March found Faison back at Richmond City Hall in the Hustings courtroom, testifying on his own behalf in front of another jury. He endured a full hour of what was called “a burning, searching cross-examination from Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave E. Satterfield.” “Reciting his story in a voice pleasant and nicely modulated,” Faison steadfastly maintained the story as he explained it in his first trial.
No matter how earnest his explanations and how calm his demeanor, the jurors didn’t believe Faison and they didn’t believe Martha Faison’s story of her conversation on the phone with Snipes, either. On March 20, the jury debated only six hours before returning a verdict of guilty – but of manslaughter - not murder, and sentencing Faison to only a year in the Penitentiary. Faison’s reaction when the verdict was announced was described in this way: “…his expression contorted into what seemed remorse; his lips compressed; and then… a few minutes later, to the suggestion of a smile.”
Throughout both trials, Faison stoutly maintained that he would appeal his case if he was sentenced to “so much as a day in jail.” Despite that, he accepted his sentence for manslaughter, knowing that with time served, he would only be in prison for eight months. An appeal at this point had the possibility of resulting in a far more severe sentence. Faison decided not to press his luck and quietly accepted the verdict and light penalty. At the end of the trial, Judge Wells told Faison:
This jury has, in my opinion, been exceedingly lenient and I trust this will be appreciated by you when you complete your term in the penitentiary…. When you are permitted to take up your life again, to return to the exemplary conduct which characterized your early career; return to your life and family with a better outlook on life and, in consequence, make a man of yourself.
The sentence of a year in jail was unprecedented, but in the eyes of the Richmond jury, the truly guilty party had already been punished. Elsie Snipes, alcoholic, failed mother, homewrecker and seductress had already been brought to justice and she and her destructive behavior had been put to an end in the hands of a morally superior man who simply had a momentary and perhaps justifiable lapse of control. Considering he could have received decades in jail or even the death penalty, the slap on the wrist awarded Faison was a statement that loose women, leading good men astray, would not be tolerated in Richmond. Maybe the men of the jury saw in themselves the same vulnerability to seduction and derailment. Perhaps in each face around the jury table there was the same tiny flicker of weakness.
There were some in Richmond who were appalled at what they felt was the worst miscarriage of justice in Richmond city in decades. The lightness of his sentence of a year for the crime of manslaughter in the Faison trial was too outrageous for even the Times-Dispatch, where an editorial appeared on March 22 under the title, “Crime and Punishment:”
A man if found guilty of killing a woman and is sentenced to one year in the penitentiary. A Negro woman is given thirty years for forgeries amount in the aggregate to some $70. A Negro steals a ham and is put away for five years or ten. What is wrong with us?... If [Faison] was guilty – and the jury reported that he was guilty – sentencing him to serve until October 12 for his crime is the most astounding action ever taken by a Richmond jury.
John Mitchell, Jr., editor of Richmond’s African American newspaper, The Richmond Planet, impressed by this rare call for judicial parity, reprinted that editorial on the front page of The Planet the following week.
A Times-Dispatch reader named Arthur Weston agreed that the sentence given Faison was ridiculous and wrote to the Editor on April 2: “Elsie Snipes is dead. John Wesley Faison stands convicted of killing her. His punishment, considerably less than a year means a most stupendous liar and a murderer will soon gain his liberty to return to an exemplary life.” Faison himself, while still maintaining his innocence, confidently announced his intention to revert to “a higher life” just as Judge Wells instructed. Faison told the press, “My life before this unfortunate affair speaks for itself, and I am determined to again tread that straight and narrow path that leads along the road of upright living and good citizenship.”
Faison was released from prison in October 1928, and with his resolve to keep to the straight and narrow, he did just that. John Wesley Faison apparently thereafter led a remarkably conventional life, moving his family to Salisbury, Maryland, and converting to Catholicism. He retired after working 35 years for the Delmarva Power and Light Company, was active in his church, and joined the Knights of Columbus. When he died in 1972 after a long illness, his obituary in the Salisbury newspaper recounted Faison once taught at John Marshall High School in Richmond, but tellingly neglected to mention anything about being Secretary of the Hermitage Country Club.
The graves in Salisbury, Maryland, of John Faison, a convicted murderer, and his wife who lied to save him. (courtesy of Find A Grave.com)
His wife, Martha, who stayed the course so faithfully through her husband’s trial so many years before, died of a stroke in 1984 at the age of 92 and was survived by five children, 20 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren. How many of those grandchildren knew that their grandfather was a convicted murderer and that their grandmother was complicit in the murder as well? She lied under oath that Snipes had assured her of her intention to kill herself to save the Faison household, supposedly just seconds before the gunshot. Perhaps John and Martha Faison never again spoke of their lives back in Richmond, the city where the white-haired grandfather once abandoned his family, killed his lover in cold blood, and avoided the electric chair with the help of grandmother’s perjured testimony.
Perhaps the two children of Elsie Snipes never knew their mother was shot through the head and killed by a married man with whom she was having a torrid love affair, and in death had been judged debauched and an undesirable. Snipes had been examined through the ethical lens of the city of Richmond and was punished for her excesses; her murderer protected by the sanctimonious attitudes of a city secure in its moral superiority.