Sunday, January 17, 2021
Wednesday, November 18, 2020
The former home of Maggie Walker is now a National Park Service National Historic Site and appears much as it was left by Mrs. Walker when she died in 1934. Hanging on the wall of the library are the portraits of a veritable who’s who of African American notables such as Webster Davis, W.E.B. Dubois, and Frederick Douglass who still occupy a position of honor along these walls, together with portraits of Richmond’s Black leaders. Among these, is this photo of John Mitchell, Jr., Walker’s contemporary, rival, and friend, and whose memorial photograph has hung in this spot since his death in 1929.
John Mitchell, Jr. is an important figure in the history of Richmond’s black community, whose influence was spread through the pages of his newspaper, The Richmond Planet. He was outspoken in his opposition to the lynchings so prevalent across the American South during his lifetime, spoke out against the grinding Jim Crow laws of his day and was a Richmond city councilman. He was also a banker and entrepreneur. The bank building he struggled to build in Jackson Ward, the Mechanics’ Savings Bank, although largely unacknowledged, represents a high-water mark of African American enterprise in this remarkable old Richmond neighborhood. The banker and his building are both worthy of a closer look.
John Mitchell, Jr. (1863-1929)
This is the building where John Mitchell, Jr. began his banking enterprise in Jackson Ward, at 411 North Fourth Street. Like so many black businesses in this era, it was established in a former house. The eruption of black business out of houses like this and into office buildings offered opportunities for African American architects, builders, and contractors during the late 1800s and early twentieth century.
Offices of The Richmond Planet
The demands of an emerging black elite caused a wave of construction in Richmond’s segregated neighborhoods to house this demographic. In contrast to his banking venture, Mitchell chose to remain in this location for his newspaper and from here on North Fourth Street he monitored the lives of Richmond’s African American society and took a hand in events affecting his race across Virginia.
The grave of Mitchell’s mother, Rebecca, in Evergreen Cemetery.
Mitchell was always known as the “fighting editor” of The Richmond Planet, and perhaps the best insight into his combative and uncompromising character can still be found literally engraved in stone. This is the remarkable testimony he added to the inscription on his mother’s grave in Evergreen Cemetery. “SHE HATED DECEIT AND DESPISED HYPOCRISY. HER CHRISTIAN TRAINING AND UPRIGHT CONDUCT MADE ME ALL THAT I AM, ALL THAT I HOPED TO BE.” It is unusual that the values of such a vivid personality be displayed in such a public manner, but these simple lines are truly the essence of John Mitchell, Jr.
Mitchell campaign button, The Library of Virginia
Like Maggie Walker, Mitchell’s base of influence was a fraternal organization, in his case the Knights of Pythias, which he headed as Grand Chancellor. The direct descendants of the secret meetings and burial clubs created by enslaved blacks before the Civil War, these self-help and beneficial societies became ritualized into fraternal groups for men and women alike.
The need for insurance and savings for Richmond’s increasingly sophisticated African American society led to the creation of fraternal organizations of banks and insurance companies to provide services otherwise unavailable. Mitchell’s Mechanics’ Savings Bank was established in 1902, in a time when the term “mechanic” had a more general meaning and referred to any tradesman. Like the Richmond Planet, this bank was established in a former Jackson Ward home. This was typical of the architecture of necessity under the compression that was segregated Richmond, where African Americans were increasingly constrained by the infamous Jim Crow Laws.
View of Main Street in Richmond
The center of white business in Richmond was on Main Street, lined with stately and classical bank and mercantile houses, and Mitchell realized that his bank would have to grow and find more appropriate quarters than the basement of a former townhouse. Mitchell needed a building that was solid, substantial, and secure and would signal the same quality as a Main Street bank. He, like Maggie Walker, always urged Richmond blacks to shop, save, and invest in their own communities, and Jackson Ward was the logical location for his new headquarters. Mitchell needed a building with the same style as what was on display in granite and marble on Main Street in Jackson Ward in order for his bank to grow and succeed.
In 1909 the Richmond Planet proudly ran this elevation of the proposed bank building to be constructed at Third and Clay streets. The architect was Carl Ruehrmund, who was one of a wave of architects who left Germany and established practice in Richmond in the late 1800s. Beginning in the 1890s Ruehrmund’s career included the design of numerous high-style houses, commercial buildings, hotels, and churches all over Richmond.
Ruehrmund’s Henrico County Courthouse, constructed in 1896.
Carl Ruehrmund’s most visible commission in Richmond was the Henrico County Courthouse, which still stands at 2117 East Main Street. This two-towered courthouse has been termed Richardsonian Romanesque done on the cheap, since the Henrico commissioners were terrified by the cost overruns that plagued the exuberant Richmond City Hall which was completed three years before. Nevertheless, Ruehrmund’s ability to move in ten years’ time from this heavy and dark style of architecture to the building for Mitchell, with its variety of window framings and light, cream-colored brick is noteworthy.
Ruehrmund’s perspective drawing of the Mechanic’s Savings Bank.
This perspective drawing, signed by Ruehrmund, appeared in The Richmond Planet. The choice of Ruehrmund, as a white architect, may seem counter to Mitchell’s ethic of self-help within the African American community. The logical choice would have been John Lankford, a Washington-based Black architect who had designed several commercial and residential buildings for Richmond’s African American high society. Lankford was linked in the press with the failure of the United Order of True Reformers bank, and this was not an association that Mitchell needed in starting his own enterprise. Charles Russell, Richmond’s first native professional in the field, had yet to design his first commission for Maggie Walker and was yet unproven, while Ruehrmund’s craft was on display all over the city.
Mitchell was on the verge of realizing his banking dream with this building. There were offices on the upper floors of the bank for African American doctors, lawyers, and business leaders, potentially making Third and Clay streets a new crossroads of Black commerce in the city.
In anticipation of beginning construction, Mitchell sent his contractor, Daniel J. Farrar (1862-1923), to City Hall to file the necessary drawings and applications for a building permit. Farrar was one of the premier African American builders and contractors in Richmond and constructed many of the buildings and homes for Jackson Ward’s leading businessmen and companies. Farrar was well acquainted with the procedures involved in obtaining permits for construction, and with a roll of Carl Ruehrmund’s blueprints under his arm went to City Hall to start the process of building John Mitchell’s Mechanics’ Savings Bank.
And that is when he and John Mitchell ran into Henry P. Beck.
Henry P. Beck (1868-1962)
The city operated for more than thirty years under the imperial reign of Wilfred Cutshaw, City Engineer, until Cutshaw’s death in 1907. Richmond’s builders and contractors, architects and designers must have felt they finally had a respite from a heavy-handed City official and probably all breathed a sigh of relief. That is, until Henry Beck was made Richmond’s first Building Inspector later the very same year.
Beck held the post of Building Inspector until 1940 and cut a wide swath in the city, denying permits, demolishing buildings, condemning existing structures and halting construction for materials he felt were substandard. It is because of Henry Beck that Richmond lost most of the towering steeples that marked our older churches, and many altered church buildings with abbreviated steeples stand today as mute testimony to the tenure of Building Inspector Beck. Beck is responsible for the condemnation of such Richmond landmarks as Ford’s Hotel, the city’s Seabrook Warehouse, and the First Regimental Armory. Hundreds of old structures disappeared under the wheels of the Building Inspector’s office.
Henry Beck was a power in the land.
Beck was combative and not afraid to wade in and personally halt a building project or have a business forcibly evacuated and boarded up at midday. Because of his brash nature, he was on more than one occasion attacked in the street by City employees. Beck fired his underlings without compunction when they failed to meet the Building Inspector’s expectations.
Beck’s delaying tactic appears to have been a response to the white property owners on Clay Street. They were gradually being forced from Jackson Ward by the growing tide of black enterprise centered along Second Street and they protested vehemently against the construction of Mitchell’s bank.
After Farrar submitted the necessary architectural drawings and forms, Mitchell telephoned down to City Hall to discover the delay on his building permit. Mr. Beck said he was occupied. Mr. Beck was out that day. Mr. Beck remarked that the demands of his post (no doubt busy condemning buildings right and left) made it impossible to review Mitchell’s plans.
“We are doing our best to get on with some of these white folks down here” Mitchell moaned in the pages of The Richmond Planet, where he reported his experience with Beck, “…but some of them make us mighty tired.”
Beck’s office delayed the building permit until finally Mitchell forced his hand, threatening to construct his bank across the street from a White church on Cary Street. At the same time Mitchell discovered there was nothing to prevent the construction of a facility for Tuberculosis patients on the site at Third and Clay and filed a building permit for a “Negro Sanitarium” adding a new thrill of horror for White homeowners on Clay Street.
In the end, and faced with Mitchell’s counterattack, even Building Inspector Beck relented and suddenly found time to review the banker’s application and issue the building permit for the Mechanics Savings Bank. No one in Richmond, Black or White, reading the account of this story at the time had any doubts about what was going on between Mitchell and City Hall. These maneuverings were typical of the difficult steps necessary to circumvent the segregated reality of the city.
The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, promoting Mitchell’s new bank building, January 1917.
The opening of the bank on July 2, 1910, was a glittering affair, with the banking room decorated with palms and flowers and the public touring the bank from basement to roof until after midnight. “One should think that Fifth Avenue, New York, had been removed to Richmond,” gushed the Richmond Planet. Mayor D. C. Richardson came to see the new building, as did the Board of Aldermen and the Common Council. “The inside of the vault,” sighed The Planet, “is a dream.”
John Mitchell, Jr. and the vault at the Mechanic’s Savings Bank
Mitchell was justifiably proud of his bank vault and often had himself photographed in front of it, the epitome of the progressive banker and the latest high-tech security device, both signaling “your money is safe here.” In the decades before the introduction of F.D.I.C. deposit insurance, the very fabric of a bank building had to impart this sensation of a rock-solid, safe, and secure repository for money.
The style, design, security and gravitas that a bank building imparted was as important to the large Main Street banks as it was in Jackson Ward. Like courthouses and churches, banks as a building type had to create resonance to reinforce the purpose of the building and give it weight and solemnity. Few other types of building so depended on their appearance and material, their design and their gravity, to build confidence and respect at a glance.
The miserable architecture of one Richmond bank on Patterson Avenue.
Since deposits are insured by the federal government today, the concept of dignity and stature of bank buildings has been largely lost in bank designs such as this specimen on Patterson Avenue. Most of today’s banks, in contrast to the columned and granite halls of yesterday, impart little architectural promise other than your hard-won wages might not get wet when it rains. The stately bank building, which once bespoke such gravity and such strength, is fading from our landscape.
Unfortunately, Mitchell’s Mechanic’s Savings Bank failed financially in 1922, leaving the banker and editor penniless in his declining years until his death seven years later. His last days were spent in litigation, trying to save his bank and in the end, attempting to keep the Richmond Planet from being sold to pay his debt associated with the bank. Mitchell lost his personal assets and was hounded by creditors and courts until his death.
Mitchell’s Mechanics’ Savings Bank, once the glittering height of the banking industry for blacks in Jackson Ward, still stands today at Third and Clay streets looking on the exterior much as Carl Ruehrmund designed it one hundred and ten years ago. With its light brick it now serves as a shining gateway into Jackson Ward for visitors to our city.
In fact, an unusual tribute was paid to the German architect and his enthusiastic African American patron. Because his bank building was so admired…
…that there are now two of them. In 1931 a Richmond architect named Edward Sinnottt took Ruehrmund’s original plans and simply reproduced them again beside the existing bank, joining the two with a shallow hyphen. This was probably an economic solution to increasing the size of the building for its then-owner, the Southern Aid Insurance Company, at a time in the depths of the Great Depression.
The date of the new construction was helpfully added to a plaque on the façade between the now twinned buildings, although this erases the date of the original half of the building. It also ignores the bank’s early history and, as is so often the case, the role of John Mitchell, Jr. is overlooked. As is also common, the importance of the building’s early story is lost to scholars of African American history by the placement of the 1931 date.
A Southern Aid Insurance Company promotional pamphlet.
The bank building served as the headquarters for the Southern Aid Insurance Company, the nation’s oldest African American insurance company, for many years before that firm was bought out by Atlanta Life. Staff from the Library of Virginia rescued the papers of Southern Aid in the middle of the night from a dumpster parked in front of this building years ago, affording a invaluable insight into the workings of the once-extensive insurance company that operated within these walls.
The lobby of the Mechanic’s Savings Bank while under renovation.
Today the building has been renovated after sitting unused for many years. The lobby of the former Mechanic’s Savings Bank is, however, a stripped-down shadow of its former glory, and above the dropped acoustic tile the ceiling that was described in that account of the inauguration of the bank as “beaming with magnificent radiance” is long gone. The elaborate plasterwork which Mitchell was careful to note was done by “the colored plasterers, Messers Winston and Freeman” has also disappeared.
John Mitchell, Jr.’s pride and joy, his ten thousand dollar thirty-five-ton vault door is, alas, today nowhere to be found.
Second Street today.
If Mitchell were to stroll the halls of his bank building today would be shocked not only by its Siamese twin next door, but also by the view across the rooftops of Jackson Ward. To the west, the Taylor house with its distinctive dome on Second Street, which was once described as the “largest and most costly Negro mansion in the United States,” is still there and recently restored, as has the Hippodrome Theater next door. Sharon Baptist Church can still be seen from the former bank, although Mitchell would find the square tower of Leigh Street school now oddly truncated and missing the tall Mansard roof that he knew.
The Richmond Convention Center, as seen from the former Mechanic’s Savings Bank.
To the east, the monstrous Richmond convention center seems to loom over Mitchell’s bank and peer in the windows, a frightening postmodern presence that consumed much of his old neighborhood and the site of his office and home. Where Jackson Ward once extended east toward downtown from Third Street, now the sterile plate glass and chrome expanse of the convention center occupies a part of the city once filled with shaded streets and Italianate Victorian townhouses.
Mitchell’s former home displays classic Richmond iron decoration.
Mitchell’s home at 515 North Third Street was rescued from this wave of destruction caused by the convention center. The editor and banker called this building home for his entire adult life and lived here with his mother until her death and later with other family members. Mitchell himself died here in 1929.
Mitchell’s home in its new location.
The Mitchell house was moved to this location at Third and Leigh in 2000. Unfortunately, no signage indicates that the house was moved, why, or who once lived there. It now stands on the edge of the VCU Biotechnology Complex behind it, an inexplicable survivor of its now-destroyed neighborhood, stark and shorn of context.
John Mitchell, Jr. died on December 3, 1929 after a long career as a pioneer of what would later become universally termed the struggle for civil rights. The Richmond Planet ran a huge headline the day after Mitchell died, exclaiming “Race Chieftain Sheds Armor.” That week the newspaper printed and distributed that commemorative photograph of Mitchell, one of which still hangs in Maggie Walker’s library.
An enormous procession of mourners accompanied Mitchell’s coffin from Fifth Street Baptist Church out to Evergreen Cemetery on the far eastern edge of the city, where he was buried beside his mother and the elaborate monument he had erected in 1913 to mark her grave. Mitchell’s biographer noted that he himself was buried under a “cheap, flat stone.”
For decades, no trace of the grave of this remarkable Richmonder remained as his tombstone had been destroyed or stolen. Indeed, all of Evergreen Cemetery, planned with such style and promise as the African American answer to Hollywood Cemetery, was today completely overgrown, vandalized, and desolate. Trees, weeds, and trash covered the last resting place of Mitchell’s contemporaries and friends and thousands of graves were lost in the woods. See the Shockoe Examiner article about the replacement of John Mitchell, Jr.’s grave marker.
You might very well ask where, in the City of Monuments, is our monument to John Mitchell, Jr., crusader for blacks when they most needed one, editor, banker, and tireless promoter of the rights of African Americans in this city. His banking business is long gone, his unidentified house moved from its foundations, his newspaper extinct and his very grave obliterated and covered with weeds for decades.
Unbelievably, for generations, the only monument that stood to this remarkable man was this small bent metal sign, nailed to a telephone pole beside his Mechanic’s Saving Bank Building, which he struggled for so long and so hard to build for the betterment of his race. This was our tawdry and pathetic memorial to John Mitchell, Jr.
It was only fairly recently that this has begun to change. A Virginia Highway Historical Marker was erected to Mitchell and stands today on Third Street, not far from his bank building.
It is all but impossible to condense the career and mindset of a man like John Mitchell, Jr. in a few lines in granite, but, with the cooperation of the Mitchell family, who managed to condense his life using biographical information, a quote from a contemporary African American newspaper, and a Bible verse. You can’t but help think Richmond’s Fighting Editor would be happy with the result.
The rise and decline of the entrepreneurial spirit that made Jackson Ward the unique neighborhood that it is can be traced in the architectural record, like drought and plenty in tree rings. John Mitchell, Jr.’s Mechanics’ Savings Bank is a largely forgotten achievement in Jackson Ward in the early 1900s.
Mitchell’s biographer, Ann Field Alexander, noted that “Mitchell was an avid reader of history, and he was keenly aware of the importance of monuments and what historians today call ‘memory.’” The memory of Richmond’s “Fighting Editor,” John Mitchell, Jr. and his times will continue to be an important component of the interest in African American history in Richmond. It seems that both John Mitchell, Jr. and his times will at last receive their due in the memory of our city.
- Selden Richardson.
Sunday, October 25, 2020
I play poker on Friday nights at a house near the James, and among the players is a retired Richmond policeman. I happened to ask him one evening if he was familiar with the murder of a patrolman down on Broad Street in the 1940s. “Sure. Tibbs. Everybody has heard of that.” He looked out the window briefly at the river and turned back to me with a small, rueful smile. “Everybody always said it was another cop that shot him.”
This October marks the 80th anniversary of the murder of Richmond Police Patrolman John A. Tibbs, shot dead in a store on Broad Street on October 20, 1940. Ostensibly, the facts are as stark as the black and white flash photos a police photographer took of the scene: Tibbs lay inside the back door of a vacant store at 721 West Broad Street, his skull fractured from a blow to the back of his head. In the center of his forehead between his eyes was a neat bullet hole surrounded by powder burns. He lay stretched out on his back, his unfired service revolver near one hand and his flashlight beside the other. A loose pile of bricks in the scene seemed to tell a story of burglars, interrupted while trying to dig through the wall into an adjoining store, who were surprised at their work and ambushed the veteran cop.
Patrolman John A. Tibbs, 1903-1940. This portrait hangs with those of other Richmond officers who died in the line of duty at the Richmond Police Academy.
Tibbs’ assignment was, as his title states, to patrol a section of Richmond on foot. In his case, it was an area bordered by Broad Street and Main Street on the north and south, and from Harrison Street on the west to Adams Street on the east – an area largely occupied by the buildings of VCU today. This was not a beat without violence. Only three years before, another patrolman named William Snead was killed with a hammer on the sidewalk in front of 120 East Broad when he interrupted the robbery of a jewelry store. Less than two years after Tibbs’ murder, another patrolman, Marvin Farmer, was stabbed to death on Broad Street.
Second Police Station at 601 West Marshall Street, where Tibbs’ last patrol began on the afternoon of October 20, 1940, Richmond Times-Dispatch.
It was a cool and cloudy October afternoon and nearing twilight when Tibbs left the Second Police Station on Marshall Street and strode down Grace Street. The last person to see the passing patrolman was the cashier of the Lee Theater (today’s VCU Grace Street Theater) at 934 West Grace Street around 4:45 PM. Part of Tibbs’ routine was to check in at various call boxes at designated times, signaling to his precinct station that all was well. Tibbs didn’t call in as he should have at 5:00, then did not call at 7:00, either. That is when the Captain in charge of Second Station sent out Lieutenant Gray Miller and Sergeant Paul in search of Tibbs. By midnight, thirty policemen and seventy civilians were combing the area, checking backyards, alleys, and doorways for the missing policeman. It wasn’t until after midnight that Tibbs’ fellow patrolmen Hanes and Gorman noticed a door to the alley behind a Broad Street store was ajar. Pushing it open, they found Tibbs’ body. Detective Lieutenant Dan Duling arrived on the scene and carefully picked up Tibbs’ revolver – it was unfired.
721 West Broad Street today.
Tibbs’s story, cut short at age 37, was one of a hard working cop trying to support a wife and four children in their little home on 1813 North 22rd Street. Known as a “steady man,” Tibbs had an excellent reputation as a policeman, but his salary was only a paltry $150 per month. A great family man, his daughter Jenny Van Volkum recalled 72 years later: “…his idea of a good day off was to pile as many kids as you can in the car and go to the spring and get water or go to a park or something.” Van Volkum also sadly recalled the effect of her father’s murder on his family, saying, “The way it was left with us – I was nine years old, and mother was never able to talk about it and until the day she died – she was 94 and a half when she died in 1998 – she hoped it never opened up again because she could just not deal with it.”
The following day Richmond Police Chief Organ praised his dead officer, calling Tibbs, “…absolutely fearless. In his 14 years of service, he was always on the alert, always on the go,” but had to admit, “Thus far, it is anybody’s guess as to the exact details of just what happened when Tibbs surprised those burglars in that vacant store…”
A crowd of 600 attended the funeral service for Patrolman Tibbs at Woody’s Funeral Home on October 22, 1940, and a group of non-ranking Richmond officers – that is, Tibbs’ fellow patrolmen and colleagues – served as pallbearers when he was buried that afternoon at Oakwood Cemetery. His family returned home to an uncertain future, and their plight was soon recognized by the Richmond public. This family of five were entitled to a pension of only $70.00 per month from the Police Benevolent Association, which was good for only one year, plus $750 in cash, raised by a $3.00 contribution by individual police officers. Readers of the Richmond newspapers, following the story of the destitute family of the slain patrolman, were embarrassed and ashamed of how little compensation and recognition their protectors received. Within days of the shooting, Mrs. Hutson Organ, the Chief of Police’s wife, organized a benefit for the Tibbs family, and contributions from Richmonders were collected at Police Headquarters and turned over to Mrs. Tibbs.
The graves of John Tibbs and his wife at Oakwood Cemetery.
Richmond newspapers were full of breathless accounts of the war in Europe, the bombing of London, and the announcement of lottery numbers for a national draft. Every day brought frightening accounts of German armies sweeping west across the continent. These headlines quickly drove any news of Tibbs’ killing from the front pages, but the story lived on in small articles which told repeatedly of no real progress. Lieutenant Duling said a picked squad of detectives “delved deeply into the mystery surrounding the murder of their brother officer….” but reported scant progress. There were vague descriptions of a car with Maryland plates parked in the alley behind the store where Tibbs was found, but no further leads. The State and the City government each put up $250 as reward for the people responsible for the murder, but no information as to the culprits was forthcoming. In 1941 in Kansas City, police arrested two men who tunneled through a brick wall to rob a store, and this thin thread was reported as perhaps pertaining to Tibbs’ murder. The same year, Richmond police went to Pittsburgh to retrieve bullets taken from the guns found on a pair of burglars, but nothing more was heard about the results.
And that is the way it has been for 80 years. A world war erupted and changed everything in America the year after Tibbs was killed, and then came another war, and another, and his name was rarely remembered. Only the memorial notices remained, placed in a Richmond newspaper in October for years afterward: “TIBBS – In memory of my husband and our daddy, John A. Tibbs, who was taken from us ...”
In addition to their inability to find Tibbs’ murderer, odd events swirled around the Richmond Police Department at the time. The same day the Times-Dispatch announced Tibbs’ death, directly below that headline was another detailing how three high-level officers (including Captain Percy Tiller, who was commander of Tibbs’ precinct) were being dismissed with no given reason than “for the good of the service.” The bloody murder of one of their own combined with the sudden loss of two precinct Captains and a Lieutenant further roiled a Police Department whose morale, according to Mayor Ambler, was at a “very low ebb.”
But one thing I remember. When he was home one day – I guess in the morning – a car pulled out in front of the house. He looked out and he told Momma they’re coming here and I am going in the bedroom and you tell them I’m not here. Well, two or three men got out and I don’t remember exactly but they had on hats and overcoats, dressed nice, and they came to the door and asked for Daddy and she told them he wasn’t there and they asked when would he be back and she said she didn’t know that he had to go to work or whatever. And after they left Daddy came out of the bedroom and she said, “What was that all about?” And he said, “don’t worry about it. They just want me to do something that I’m not going to do.” Well, that was all I remember about that. See, like I said, I was 9 years old so there could have been a lot going on that I didn’t know.
She also remembered her father’s book, a small memo book he kept with him while on patrol.
He had this little book, a little pocket book, that he kept in his pocket with notes and he always told Momma that if anything ever happened that he wanted the Chief to get that book. To make sure he got that book. And I don’t know how long it was but a few days after things settled down this man I was telling you about [a supposed friend of Tibbs] told Momma that the Chief had sent him to get the book and she gave it to him. The next day, somebody else came from the Chief’s office to get the book. Now that is as much as I heard about that. So I don’t know what ever happened about that or what ever happened to that book.
Perhaps most intriguing is the rumor, passed down from generation to generation of Richmond cops, that Tibbs had been killed by another policeman. Years have passed and hundreds of men and women have graduated from the Police Academy, but Tibbs remains like a ghost story told at night around the squad room to rookies, a frightening story that has persisted for 80 years. An intriguing detail from the police photo of Tibbs’ body hints at this kind of treachery, a killing far beyond that of a simple ambush at 721 West Broad Street. This was an era when standard police equipment included a duty belt with cartridge loops where cops carried spare ammunition for their revolvers. A Richmond detective who was studying one of the crime scene photographs taken in 1940 pointed and asked, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Looking closely, it is obvious that Tibbs is missing a bullet from one loop on his belt.
The rear of 721 West Broad Street today. Tibbs’ body was discovered inside this doorway.
This begs the question, who, that October night, needed a spare bullet and would stoop down and slide a cartridge from Tibbs’ belt? It is doubtful that a conscientious, veteran officer like Tibbs would not be wearing a full cartridge belt for inspection at his station before leaving for his shift. Who would need to not come back missing a bullet from his service weapon? The coroner said one of the causes of Tibbs’ death was a fractured skull; he was apparently struck on the head and knocked down. Why was it necessary that the unconscious patrolman be so brutally executed? Had the killer been recognized by Tibbs? What was said and what happened in that time between Tibbs being knocked to the ground and the deafening roar of that pistol in that a small space? Whose hand held that gun, a hand so determined and careful, so precise and cool as to hold a revolver almost touching the fallen officer and shoot him precisely and surgically between the eyes?
Tibbs, described by his Chief as “always on the alert,” was an experienced officer, cautiously approaching a darkened alleyway corner by himself, gun and flashlight in hand. Perhaps he found a welcoming and familiar voice inside, relaxing after the tension of entering a dangerous space and letting down his guard until stunned by a blow to back of his head. Questions abound and the Richmond Police Department is still not telling what they know. In 2012, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an article about a service for fallen Richmond officers, an article that described the extensive case file on the Tibbs murder with its forensic evidence - a file signed off on by the F.B.I.’s J. Edgar Hoover himself. In the article, Richmond police Detective Amira Sleem stated, "It has always been believed that patrolman Tibbs was killed by his own firearm, and the evidence at the scene supports that." This is in direct contrast to the examination of the revolver in 1940 by Detective Duling who specified the gun was “unfired.” Detective Sleem was instructed to reorganize that forensic file so it could be “better used to train homicide detectives.” Tibbs, his life, and his sad death have been reduced to a teaching aid for the Richmond Police Department.
The Police Department notice of a reward for information in the Tibbs case, October 1940, City of Richmond Police Department.
A request to see the Tibbs file held by the Richmond Police Department was filed earlier this year under the Freedom of Information Act. All that was forthcoming were illegible photocopies of three newspaper articles from 1940 and a copy of the reward notice. All notes, interviews, photographs, and that extensive forensic report were not made available, the Police Department stating that “all other records will not be released because they are part of the criminal investigative file.” In other words, the City of Richmond considers this an “open” investigation, even after 80 years.
The withholding of the Tibbs file seems an intractable situation, with the information as to what happened to this policeman closely held by the Richmond Police Department, but this may change. Virginia State Delegate Chris Hurst recently told the Virginia Freedom of Information Council that the current laws on the books not only stifle news coverage, but also leave victims of crime in the unsettling dark of not knowing what really happened to their loved ones – victims like the surviving members of the Tibbs family. A recent bill to reform policy around police records failed in the recent special legislative session, but sponsors hope to return with another, modified version to present to the legislators which will open police files. “This is really about trying to achieve justice,” noted Delegate Hurst.
There will be no justice and no peace for John Tibbs’s family as the facts about his death remain unknown. As Tibbs’ daughter glumly said of the secrecy that surrounds the truth about her father’s death, “I can’t see the point. If these guys were still on the street killing people it would be different. But they’re all gone. They’re all dead.”
The peculiar happenings around the Tibbs murder, the patrolman’s missing memo book, the apparent threats to the officer, and the unsolved crime all demand if not resolution than at least the certainty that this was a vicious criminal ambush and nothing more. In the meantime, our city’s police personnel believe that another cop, a hard-working family man just as many are themselves, was once assassinated by a fellow officer. The story persists down through the decades, and with it, a cry still heard across 80 years of Richmond history for justice for Patrolman John A. Tibbs.
Sunday, October 18, 2020
The Library of Congress has added several Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of Richmond to its online holdings. Including the years for 1886, 1895, 1905, 1908, 1919, 1925, 1950, and 1952. These are excellent sources of information to document Richmond history. They are often used to illustrate the many posts on Richmond buildings and their history by Steve Smith and his Rocket Werks site. Check that site out!
Here's the link to the Library of Congress Sanborn Maps of Richmond:
Important information about their collection of Sanborn Maps and a Key to what you'll find on the maps is here:
This is how an article at Wikipedia describes the maps:
"The Sanborn Map Company was a publisher of detailed maps of U.S. cities and towns in the 19th and 20th centuries. The maps were originally created to allow fire insurance companies to assess their total liability in urbanized areas of the United States. Since they contain detailed information about properties and individual buildings in approximately 12,000 U.S. cities and towns, Sanborn maps are invaluable for documenting changes in the built environment of American cities over many decades.
Sanborn held a monopoly over fire insurance maps for the majority of the 20th century, but the business declined as US insurance companies stopped using maps for underwriting in the 1960s. The last Sanborn fire maps were published on microfilm in 1977, but old Sanborn maps remain useful for historical research into urban geography. The Sanborn Map Company continues on as a geospatial solutions company."
Thursday, September 24, 2020
A young doctor attempts to rectify his life by prescribing cyanide for his new wife.
Alice stares out at us from the darkness of a damaged newspaper photograph, but even with such a dim likeness, we can guess the character of the person in the photo. Her hair is curly and dark and her face full and round. Her smile is lopsided and bucktoothed and she has a gap in her upper teeth. Alice’s father was English, and perhaps that is where she got her round face and crooked smile that seem to signal a good sense of humor and a hearty, sincere laugh. She looks like the kind of girl who might prefer a glass of beer than a little sip of sherry. It is her eyes, however, that still shine through that dim pane of time: perhaps blue, light-colored, alert and cheerful eyes. She smiles into the camera, a new bride with her entire life suddenly broadening out and unfolding, full of promise and affection. Instead, Alice’s life hardly began when it was over, murdered by the man who was supposed to love and protect her: her new husband. According to her death certificate, Alice’s life lasted exactly nineteen years, six months, and seven days.
Alice Knight Johnson (1898-1917)
The photograph of Alice’s new husband, Lemuel Johnson is very different. Taken from the 1917 Medical College of Virginia student yearbook - the year of his graduation from the school. Lemuel hardly looks celebratory. Behind his spectacles his eyes look pained, and his downturned mouth is hardly the confident look of a young man ready to make his way in the world. Lemuel had good reason to look unhappy, even though he passed the North Carolina Dental Board exams and was ready to return to his native state and establish his practice.
The United States entered World War I in April 1917, just as Lemuel was finishing school, and he was one of the thousands of men called up for enlistment as the country prepared to go to war. The inevitability of being drafted into the Army and sent to France worried Lemuel as it would spoil his plans - never mind the threat of being killed or wounded in action. In addition, both his parents were unwell, and trying to provide for them would be impossible if the Army had him in its grasp. There was also a slight problem with his marriage.
Lemuel met Alice Knight in Richmond at the School of Dentistry, where she was a stenographer. They soon fell in love, and were secretly married September 18, 1917. Lemuel had broached the subject of marriage with Alice’s mother weeks before, jokingly asking her “Do you mind my making a Tarheel out of Alice?” but the girl’s parents had no idea of the event until they were shown the marriage license. Lemuel told Alice that he wanted to keep their marriage secret: “He said that the reason was that his father wanted him to marry an old maid schoolteacher in North Carolina,” and he needed some time to break the news to his parents. The real problem was that Lemuel was infatuated with a woman back in his hometown. What was even worse, Miss Ollie White proudly wore the engagement ring Lemuel Johnson had given her two years before. A month before Alice’s death, he wrote to Ollie, “Sweetheart, please do not speak of leaving Christmas; it causes my heart to ache,” and concluded, “Always yours, or no one’s one, Ollie.” He wrote a love letter to Ollie the morning of the day of his wedding to Alice. The two sides of his life, once so carefully bulkheaded, were converging and collapsing and Lemuel Johnson began to plan how to reduce his troubles by half.
Alice and Lemuel Johnson
Saturday night, December 15, 1917, was cold and cheerless in Richmond, with the thermometer recording a high of 26 degrees. “The sudden drop in the mercury last night served to keep the streets covered with a sheet of ice and made walking difficult,” reported the Times-Dispatch. Nevertheless, Alice Knight Johnson managed to make her way the twelve blocks from her house at 1513 North 22nd Street to the home of her friend, Mrs. B. F. Stutz at 522 North 27th Street on Church Hill. Mrs. Stutz was an old friend and confidant from Alice’s job at the Medical College. Later, she recalled a conversation with Alice, who told her five weeks before her death that she was taking medicine that her husband was giving her. Mrs. Stutz cautioned her about ruining her health by taking medicine unnecessarily, but Alice replied that she was not afraid, “because the young doctor had mixed it himself.”
522 North 22nd Street, where Alice Johnson visited her friend, Mrs. B. F. Stutz, on December 15, 1917. Alice never left alive.
Also visiting Mrs. Stutz that evening was a third friend, Mildred Taylor. The three ladies ate a late supper, after which Alice showed off some of the medicine prepared by her husband. One pill in the box seemed huge in comparison to the rest. “How can you swallow such a large one?” asked Miss Taylor, and Alice cheerfully replied, “Oh! This will knock ‘L’ out of me,” and laughingly swallowed the pill. Within minutes she excused herself and staggered off to the bathroom for water. When she emerged, Alice gasped, “Oh, I am so sick.” The girl collapsed and her friends rushed over to her. They heard the growing hysteria in Alice’s voice when she kept crying she was experiencing a smothering sensation. As the two horrified women looked on helplessly, within minutes Alice Johnson was dead.
The death of the young woman was a mystery, and the lack of proper resolution to what happened to her hung over Alice’s funeral on December 17th. After an examination of Alice’s body, the Richmond City Coroner James Whitfield listed her cause of death as “accidental poisoning by medicine.” Apparently, her pills had somehow been mixed up with those containing cyanide. Alice’s funeral service was conducted at her parent’s home at 1513 North 22nd Street, where her grieving husband accepted the condolences of shocked family and friends. Lemuel and the mourners followed the hearse carrying Alice to Oakwood Cemetery, where she was buried in a plot purchased by her parents. Afterward, Lemuel packed his bags and boarded the train for his hometown in North Carolina, while back in Richmond Alice’s grieving parents faced their first Christmas without their young daughter.
Alice’s parent’s home at 1513 North 22nd. Street, where she lived even after she married Lemuel Johnson. Alice’s body was taken from here to Oakwood Cemetery.
On December 27, Richmond Detectives Sergeants Wily and Smith had a long interview with Alice’s parents at their Church Hill home. Up until that point Mr. and Mrs. Knight resisted the idea that Lemuel may have had a hand in their daughter’s death, but that was slowly changing. “…Even the mother of the dead girl,” reported the Times-Dispatch, “who hitherto has maintained an unbounded confidence in the husband of her daughter, has turned against him.” The evidence was quickly mounting against Lemuel and all signs pointed to him as Alice’s murderer.
The story unfolded quickly during the holiday season. On December 20, Lemuel was found in a hotel room in Wilson, North Carolina on the railroad line to Richmond and twenty miles from his parent’s home in Middlesex. He had apparently taken poison and was rushed to the hospital in Wilson. Richmond Detective Sergeant L. J. Johnson arrived, armed with a warrant for Lemuel’s arrest, charging that he “unlawfully, feloniously, and of his own malice did murder one Alice Johnson,” and arrested Lemuel in his hospital bed.
The lurid story of the murdered girl, apparently cruelly deceived by her malicious new husband who was engaged to marry another, and now attempted to kill himself, had all the ingredients of a sensational thriller. It certainly captured the imagination of the press and the story spread nationwide. A Richmond newspaper opined that the affair was attracting as much attention as the hugely notorious case of Thomas Cluverius, who murdered his (pregnant) female cousin in 1885, or the shotgun murder on Midlothian Turnpike of Louise Beattie by her husband in 1911, a crime covered by Style Weeky Magazine in 2019.
An example of the sensationalism surrounding the arrest and trial of Lemuel Johnson.
Among the many Richmonders who were following the expanding story of Lemuel and Alice must have been Amos Hadley, another local physician who, like Lemuel Johnson, was balancing two different relationships. Like Lemuel, Hadley chose one woman over another, and consequently went to the electric chair for the murder of his wife. That same December central Virginia was already transfixed by the trial of Asa Chamberlin, a Goochland doctor who killed his brother (a county judge), dismembered his body, and buried the pieces behind his house in his farmyard.
When Richmond detectives returned to Richmond with Lemuel, they brought with them packets of correspondence between the young dentist and Miss Ollie White, who his neighbors in Middlesex had been assured was his fiancée. They painted a damning picture of a young man caught in the inexorable grip of his own making. One letter to Ollie White was written the morning of his marriage to Alice. “All I can do just now is love you with all my heart,” Lemuel wrote. “Some day we will be as happy as we can be. Dear, just have a long dream about me to-night and tell me all about it when I get home…” They also searched Lemuel’s hotel room in Wilson and found odd mementos: the silver plate pried off the lid of Alice’s coffin (engraved, “At Rest”), and a faded floral arrangement from Alice’s funeral on which was a card inscribed, “My Wife.” They also confiscated the series of letters Lemuel wrote and signed the night he took poison – an attempt to kill himself Lemuel said he did not remember.
The old Richmond jail in Shockoe Valley being demolished in 1958 for construction of Interstate 95. This is the building where Lemuel Johnson was held while on trial for murder.
After a brief hearing in the Police Court in the basement of City Hall before Justice John Crutchfield on January 12, Lemuel was indicted for his wife’s murder and returned to the Richmond City Jail to await trial. In the course of this preliminary hearing, Dr. A.F. Williams, who was called to the Briggs Hotel in Wilson, North Carolina, reported entering Lemuel’s room and noticing the smell of prussic acid, a derivative of the same cyanide of potassium found in Alice’s stomach. Mrs. Stutz, one of the horrified witnesses to Alice’s dying moments, recalled in an earlier conversation with Lemuel during which he had asked rhetorically, “Why should a murderer be held responsible if the Lord intended them to die by the hands of a murderer?” At one point, Justice Crutchfield cleared the courtroom so Mrs. Stutz could relate “confidences” told her by Alice, despite the objections of Lemuel’s defense attorneys from North Carolina, Harry Smith and John E. Woodward. Woodward was a particularly skillful defense lawyer and was successful in several murder cases. The prosecution was headed by Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney George E. Wise.
A blizzard of motions for delay were filed by the defense team, postponing the trial to March, to April, and then to late May, 1918, but throughout, Lemuel said nothing about his guilt or innocence. “Detectives Wiley and Smith…have been confident for the past few days that he would weaken and make a clean-cut statement of the details surrounding the death of his wife,” reported the Times-Dispatch, “but a conference with W. H. Smith, Jr., who may be retained as one of his counsel, is thought to have sealed the lips of the prisoner.”
Part of the case against Lemuel Johnson involved his access to the poison, potassium cyanide.
With the delays, the case against the young dentist appeared to be unraveling, and some important witnesses in North Carolina flatly refused to respond to the summons issued in Richmond. Two pharmacists in Wilson, North Carolina and employees of the hotel where Lemuel tried to kill himself refused to testify. Most damaging was the unwillingness of Ollie White, Lemuel’s supposed fiancé, to testify against him. There was an exciting turn in the case when an unsigned confession supposedly made by Lemuel in the Richmond jail to Lloyd Gill, a Washington newspaper reporter, was thrown out as inadmissible and the reporter banned from the courtroom. When Lemuel did take the stand, he related the perfect storm of “over-study in his dental course, his mother critically ill, about to be inducted into the National Army and nervousness as the result of the loss of sleep” that led him to take poison in his hotel room. He said yes, he wrote the letters discussing his impending suicide attempt, but had no memory of doing that or taking poison. “I had worried until I was absent-minded” Lemuel told the jury, as the explanation for his behavior.
At the end of the trial, Commonwealth’s Attorney Wise delivered what was termed “a scathing arraignment of the dentist,” that lasted two hours, but it was futile. After fourteen days of testimony, the jury only deliberated an hour and ten minutes in the case of The Commonwealth v. Lemuel Johnson, and declared him innocent and a free man. Judge David Richardson cautioned the court that he wanted no outbursts when the verdict was read, but the estimated hundred people in the room burst into cheers. “That looks good to me” Lemuel said to reporters with a big grin as his finger traced the word “innocent” in a newspaper headline that night.
Lemuel Johnson returned to North Carolina, but never married his other love, Ollie White. In 1922, she married Roscoe Pierce and moved to Franklin County, North Carolina. In 1924, Lemuel, who had established a practice in his hometown of Middlesex, married a woman named Lena Snells, but happiness did not follow for the young man despite the success of his business. Perhaps he did feel, as he mentioned to Mrs. Stutz, that his was only the hand of inevitable fate and that Alice was bound for Oakwood Cemetery at a young age no matter what course her life took. Or perhaps he was forever haunted by the face of his nineteen-year-old bride smiling up at him with trust and confidence, and Alice good-naturedly beaming at the thought of the possibilities of their new married life to come.
This weathered slab of concrete covers the grave of Lemuel Johnson in Nash County, North Carolina. Courtesy of Find A Grave and William Kemp.
The week before Thanksgiving, 1925, was cool and clear in Nash County, North Carolina. Lemuel Johnson, came out on the front porch of his father’s house and surveyed the yard and the sky. He then produced a revolver from his pocket, pressed the muzzle against his head, closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. Back in Richmond, a newspaper article hinted darkly at Lemuel’s role in the death of Alice: “No reason is known for the deed, but Dr. Johnson had seemed depressed for some time, and it is believed that some secret trouble was preying on his mind.” The same Nash County registrar who filled out his death certificate and bluntly stated Lemuel’s cause of death as “shot self in head” also calculated the dentist lived thirty-two years, eight months, and eleven days.
The grave of Alice Knight Johnson in Richmond’s Oakwood Cemetery.
Today, it isn’t easy to find the last resting place of Alice Knight and her parents. Their headstones are slowly sinking in the grass of Richmond’ Oakwood Cemetery and because of that, at first glance the Knight plot appears empty. Alice’s mother died at age 48 in early 1925, too soon to hear of the suicide of her former son-in-law, but George Knight lived until 1929 and would have had the satisfaction of hearing of Lemuel’s shooting himself when he read of the once-notorious dentist’s death in the Richmond newspapers. The three of them, mother, father, and young daughter have been there under their blanket of green for a hundred years. Still, the determined visitor can brush the grass away to reveal the marker the grieving parents chose for their once-cheerful child, the sad victim of a heartless young man who once swore to protect and love her:
Age 19 Yrs.
Blessed are the pure
of heart for they
shall see God.
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