The story had all the makings of a dramatic picture show, but not the kind you would see down on Broad Street at the Bijou. A dead blonde on her back in the front yard of a house on Grove Avenue. A smooth-talking son of some Richmond FFVs on trial for his life. Another dead woman, this time on a bed in the back of a building on West Grace, where the flies were starting to tap against the inside of the windows. And all tied together by the thread that was the life of Herbert E. Richardson, Jr., luckless son of middle-class Richmond, veteran, and a man eventually driven to and over the brink.
In 1922, the apartment on the second floor of 2518 Grove Avenue was the home of Thomas Pollard, age 33, a successful real estate agent. Pollard was also the son of a former Richmond City Attorney and cousin of John Garland Pollard, who at the time was the Dean of the William and Mary law school and would go on to serve as Governor of Virginia. Thomas Pollard lived on Grove Avenue as a bachelor as he was separated from his wife, Helen, who moved out and returned to her parent’s house with their one daughter.
Thomas Pollard, 1888-1936
Today, the front yard of 2518 Grove has been given over to various plants and flowers, but in 1922, the yard was grass. On the afternoon of December 11, 1922, Pollard was having a heated discussion in the front yard with his former employee, Thelma Ham Richardson, who he recently fired from her job at his business where she had been his stenographer.
The discussion between Thomas and Thelma in the front yard became more agitated and turned into what witnesses later called a struggle and then a “scuffle.” It ended with a gunshot, and the 24 year-old Thelma, described as “a blonde and very pretty,” fell dead with a bullet through her heart. Her body lay across the narrow concrete sidewalk that still defines the side of the front yard of the home.
Lt. R. L. Bryant and Detective W. E. Waymack arrived and arrested Pollard and charged him with the murder of Thelma Richardson. Her protesting friend, Mosby West was hauled in, too, as an accessory. West had lunch with Thelma earlier that day and gave her a ride to Pollard’s house and was still waiting in his car for her when the argument broke out in Pollard’s yard. The charges against West were later dismissed, but his role in the shooting and his relationship with Pollard and Richardson was never completely explained. The police officers also recovered a revolver from the front yard where Thelma fell. Pollard was held in the old Richmond jail in Shockoe Bottom on $10,000 bond and West’s was set at $500.
Pollard’s home at 2518 Grove Avenue today.
Thelma Richardson was dead when her body
landed across the narrow concrete sidewalk on the right.
Thelma and her ex-husband, Herbert E. Richardson, Jr., were married in 1918. Herbert enlisted in the Army the same year, returning home from France in early 1919 after the end of the war. When he came back to Richmond, he found Thelma working in Pollard’s office. Their marriage became a deteriorating and humiliating mess for Richardson, as his wife and Pollard were often seen around town together and in restaurants. The last straw for Richardson was when his wife arrived home in a stranger’s car early one morning. The couple separated and were later divorced in September 1921.
The biggest headline on the Richmond Times-Dispatch front page on December 23, 1922 was, “WILL HEAR POLLARD CASE IN POLICE COURT TODAY; BOTH SIDES ARE PREPARED.” Crowds of Richmonders flocked to City Hall to try and get a glimpse of these preliminary proceedings, and Justice John Ingram made it known that crowds milling around outside his courtroom would be ejected if things got out of hand. The Commonwealth’s Attorney stated he intended to demonstrate that Thomas Pollard killed Thelma Richardson in cold blood, while Pollard’s defense attorney mildly stated that the shooting was accidental and that Pollard would be quickly freed of any blame for the killing.
Among the important witnesses who would testify were City Coroner James M. Whitfield, who examined Thelma Richardson’s corpse, and Jerry Jones, who lived next door on Grove Avenue and said that Pollard told him immediately after the shooting, “I’ve shot somebody!” The lurid case, with its scandalous nature and Pollard’s old Virginia family connections threatened to eclipse even Christmas preparations in the attention of people all over Richmond.
A reporter observed a tearful Herbert Richardson with his dead wife’s brother at the train station making arrangements to send her body to Atlanta, where she was buried in a family plot under her maiden name. Richardson and Thelma’s brothers also hired noted attorney Richard Evelyn Byrd to assist with the prosecution of Thomas Pollard for murder. Richardson’s obvious distress about his former wife’s death and his close relations with her family gave rise to rumors that the couple planned to reconcile, but Richardson made no comment.
Gravestone of Thelma Ham Richardson in
Atlanta, Georgia, Courtesy of Find a Grave
By mid-February 1923, a jury was empaneled and the actual trial of Thomas Pollard for the murder of Thelma Richardson began. Over the course of nine days, a variety of often-conflicting testimony was heard from witnesses such as Mosby West, Thelma’s driver. There were several different accounts of who was actually in the front yard at 2518 Grove Avenue, where Pollard and Richardson stood, and what exactly was said. An architect named Paul Lublenski who lived a few blocks away on Grove Avenue was walking by, noticed the people in the front yard of Pollard’s house, and described the scene just seconds before Thelma was shot.
Other clues emerged in the course of the trial. A local doctor who treated Thelma during an office visit testified he noticed she carried a pistol in her purse. Richmond police discovered yet another woman in Thomas Pollard’s life and said they were researching “the extent of Pollard’s relations with the ‘other woman.’” There were rumors that Mrs. Richardson had threatened Pollard’s life on two occasions and a letter found in Thelma’s purse by the police from a friend of hers said, “Hmmm. I swear I wouldn’t take him back if he got down on his knees and begged me to. I don’t believe any man could make me miserable and get away with it.”
The final day of the trial saw huge crowds outside the courtroom, filling the hallways of City Hall and even lining up outside. The arguments became more heated, with Herbert Richardson coming in for some scathing remarks concerning his love for his ex-wife. “If this brave soldier had an ounce of red blood in him,” thundered Hiram Smith, one of Pollard’s attorneys, “…he would have taken one of the guns he brought from France and blown Tom Pollard’s brains out.” In contrast, the closing remarks for the prosecution seemed rather bland even if conducted by the famous Richard Evelyn Byrd. “Herbert Richardson is, perhaps, the most pathetic figure in this case” said Byrd. “…he gave his service to his country, and when he returned home, he found Tom Pollard’s picture in his wife’s vanity case – and Herbert Richardson was persona non grata in his own home.”
Herbert E. Richardson, Jr.
Poor Herbert Richardson was at least recognized as a veteran of a war that was still much in the minds of Richmonders. In the words of Mr. Byrd: “I don’t say he is very smart…but facts speak louder than words. The facts are that Herbert Richardson enlisted….and Thomas Pollard stayed here.” Pollard, for his part, was attacked for leaving Thelma dead on his front yard. Instead of summoning help or taking her to Retreat Hospital (only a block away), Pollard instead called for somebody to contact his brother, a lawyer. And yet, Byrd could not make a persuasive argument for a guilty verdict. So lackluster and rambling were the prosecution’s closing arguments that it seemed an acquittal was imminent.
Two hours to the minute after Byrd’s address stumbled to a close and the jury retired, a verdict of innocent was read by the foreman. Pollard, elated, exchanged hugs with his famous family, and with his face flushed, burst into tears. Louise Beck, mentioned in testimony as the “other woman” in the story, stood smiling and then quietly left City Hall without commenting. The distraught Herbert Richardson moved into his father’s house at 1807 Grove Avenue.
Pollard returned to his real estate business in Manchester. He later married Louise Beck, the “other” woman cited at his trial, and they moved to West 27th Street in South Richmond. Louise died in 1935 at age 37 of a brain tumor. Pollard himself died the following year of emphysema. The Pollard family still deals in real estate today and a member of the Pollard family is one of the principals of the modern Richmond firm, Pollard & Bagby.
The hapless Herbert Richardson went on with his life after the Pollard trial, working as a salesman at various businesses such as the Sun News Company. Less than three years after the death of Thelma Richardson, her former husband was once again front-page fodder for the Richmond newspapers. Herbert Richardson had been found in a car parked at Laburnum Avenue and Brook Road at 6:30 am on the morning of Monday, September 21, 1925. He had shot himself, the bullet tearing through his stomach and liver. Although in considerable pain, Richardson gave police detectives the keys to his apartment at 1125 West Grace Street, instructing them to go to there and, when they came back, “he would tell them everything.” “The front door is bolted,” he gasped, “so you will have to go in the back way.”
Herbert and Billy Richardson lived in this apartment
building at 1125 West Grace Street in 1925.
The maiden name of Richardson’s second wife was Della Clark, although she went by “Billy.” She was a manicurist in local barber shops, which is where she met Richardson. They lived in an apartment in the rear of 1125 West Grace Street. As directed, Richmond Detectives Cousins and Dufy clattered up the alley stairs to the top floor and entered the Richardson apartment through the kitchen door. There they found Billy Richardson dead, her naked body discolored and decomposing on a bed in the heat of a 90-degree late September afternoon.
Della “Billy” Clark Richardson
This is where Richardson told them he came home Saturday night to find his naked wife with an unidentified man. According to Richardson, there had then been a fight in the apartment during the course of which Richardson wounded the man with a knife and his wife had been knocked down on the floor. He described how he went to a dresser where he kept a revolver to shoot the man, but said he’d found the gun empty. The unidentified man fled through the front door with Richardson following, yet the front door was still securely bolted from within when Richmond detectives arrived, just as Richardson had described it. A complete inspection of the apartment by the police turned up a fully-loaded Colt revolver in a drawer, but everything was in order and no trace of a fight or struggle or blood could be found. Richardson, in pain and clearly out of his head with shock and grief, babbled to the police that his wife had killed herself during the fight in the apartment, and then asked if she was really dead, even after having put her body on the bed himself.
The rear of 1125 West Grace in 1922. The window of the Richardson apartment has been marked with a star in this photo that appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The rear of 1125 West Grace Street today.
After returning to the apartment and, in a daze, placing the blackening corpse of his wife on the bed, Richardson fled the building and wandered aimlessly around Richmond all day Sunday, trying to summon up enough courage to shoot himself. In his pocket was a letter directing his funeral arrangements and where money was available to pay for the services. Later, and his misery now compounded by the pain of his gunshot wound, Richardson was taken to Retreat Hospital, the same place his first wife’s body had been taken just two years before.
The wretched Richardson, recovering from surgery to his intestines and liver, was arrested in his hospital bed and a guard put on his door. He must have been appalled at the coverage of this case and the details of the sordid story as reported by Richmond newspapers. National news services began to cover the story, and it appeared across the country. Not only was Richardson described as a liar and a fool on the front page, but worse, a murderer. The Richmond Times-Dispatch trumpeted the headline, “POLICE DOUBT STORY – Say They Do Not Believe Man’s Tale of Strange Man in Bedroom.” Of course, most of the news articles of the day recalled the fate of the first Mrs. Richardson, gunned down in Tom Pollard’s front yard two years before, bringing that painful memory to the fore once again. Everyone in Richmond, including poor Herbert Richardson, must have marveled at the miserable downward path his life took as soon as he returned from duty overseas.
“Billy” Richardson and Herbert Richardson
Partially because of the deteriorated condition of her body, the City Coroner could not determine the cause of death of Billy Richardson. There were no signs of trauma nor was poison found in her system. The same announcement by that Coroner Whitfield that Mrs. Richardson was definitely not poisoned noted the woman had an existing heart condition. The Times-Dispatch opined that “Young Richardson, his mind at the breaking point because of his sorrows of the past few years…” had found a man in his house with his naked wife. Billy Richardson, being caught red-handed, apparently went into shock and dropped dead, killed by a fatally weak heart. The newspaper writer speculated Richardson paid little attention to his wife on the way out of their apartment and manufactured the story of a struggle taking place with the man in his home. The sorrowful Richardson then went on a depressed drinking bender with two friends, a story which the young men confirmed. Returning home Saturday afternoon and expecting to find his wife either penitent or combative, Richardson may have had a mental breakdown when he discovered her nude body, dead and deteriorating on the floor. In a dazed reaction he moved her onto the bed and left, driving around Richmond, chain smoking cigars. Early Monday morning, trying to seek relief from his overwhelming mental and emotional distress, he finally pulled over beside Brook Road and shot himself.
Public opinion about the accused was obviously changing, and “General sentiment…is in support of the statement of Richardson…” noted a newspaper, and predicted “The charge against the young man, it is believed, will be quashed when he is arraigned in Police Court for a hearing.” Indeed, on November 12, 1925, Justice Ingram dismissed the charges against Richardson on the testimony by the City Coroner that, despite considerable investigation of Billy Richardson’s body, he could only conclude she died of a heart attack. Herbert Richardson, described as pale and still crippled from his suicide attempt, thanked the court following his dismissal and hobbled weakly out into the sunshine of Broad Street.
The grave of Herbert Richardson
in Richmond’s Riverview Cemetery
Understandably, at this point Herbert Richardson had all he could stand of Richmond, Virginia, and left the city, moving to Indianapolis. There Richardson married yet another woman named Thelma and had a son, and later he became a grandfather. Herbert Richardson died in 1948 at age 54 and his body was shipped back to the place that had managed to generate so much abject misery for him: Richmond. He is buried among his relatives in Riverview Cemetery. After learning about his life, the inscription on his grave, “At Rest” seems to almost carry with it the sound of a grateful sigh.
The Pollard family plot in Hollywood Cemetery.
Somewhere in this plot are the unmarked
graves of Louise and Thomas Pollard.
The records of Hollywood Cemetery show that Thomas Pollard and his wife are both buried in the Pollard family plot, but there is no marker there for either of them. It is curious that Thomas would not provide one for Louise before he died, and that there was later no effort to mark either grave by his family. Other Pollards buried there, like Virginia Governor John Garland Pollard and Richmond City Attorney Henry Robinson Pollard have imposing gravestones, but only grass marks the burying places of Tom and Louise Pollard. Perhaps the fact their graves were left unmarked by their family is a last, tiny, invisible ripple generated that dreadful afternoon in the Fan when Thelma Richardson put a revolver in her purse and went over to Tom Pollard’s house to get things straight.