Carnival of Death
“Public opinion was slow to protest against the imbruting effect of public executions.”
–Richmond: Her Past and Present, by W. Asbury Christian, 1912.
A year before Virginia’s State Penitentiary in Richmond, known as “the wall,” closed December 14, 1990, all the convicts transferred to other facilities across the state. One group of transplanted old-timers bragged to a now-retired Department of Corrections consultant that a handful of their brethren were sent inside the creaky old Richmond fortress between 1940 and 1990 then vanished. Admitted, but never released, transferred, executed, pardoned or paroled. They disappeared as effortlessly as discharge dates slip off an official prison ledger.
Executions in the early days of Virginia were known as Carnivals of Death. The carnival rode into town in 1608, and criminals from across Virginia were sometimes transported to Richmond to be “hanged from the neck until dead, dead, dead.” Huge crowds flocked to the gallows to witness these public performances. In 1787, a slave named Clem was hanged. He had been convicted of two murders. Clem was twelve years old.
Those convicted of grand larceny, however, were not killed; they were released after having their hands horribly burned, which upset the crowds more than watching a twelve-year-old hang. They successfully petitioned the courts for solitary confinement for these convictions instead of “torture” by burning.
The theory of a penitentiary was suggested by Thomas Jefferson in 1795 and the Virginia facility was designed by Benjamin Latrobe, who was also the architect of the United States Capitol Building. Construction on a hill overlooking the James River on the far western outskirts of town began in 1797. When the first twenty-one prisoners were admitted in 1800, it became apparent Latrobe made mistakes. The four-person cells had no windows, not even in the solid oak doors, so guards had to open them to check the inmates. Young children were kept in the same cells with the adults. There was no heat, no sewage system, and no circulation. It was hell on earth.
Former Vice President Aaron Burr was held in the penitentiary in 1807, as he awaited trial for treason. It was an improvement from his previous incarceration in a downtown, vermin-infested ten-foot square debtor’s prison room that he had to share with another couple.
In 1820, horse stealing warranted a life sentence. Stealing a Negro, three years.
On August 17, 1827, Virginia performed a remarkable Carnival of Death. Three Spaniards named Pepe, Couro, and Felix were tried and convicted in Richmond’s Federal Court for piracy and murder committed on a Cuban-bound ship. Clothed in purple gowns with hoods over their heads and ropes around their necks, they were taken to the gallows on a wagon, seated on their own coffins.
A massive crowd watched the prisoners ascend the platform. A Priest and a Minister prayed with them through an interpreter. The three requested in Spanish that their bodies be burned.
Felix was killed instantly, but the ropes holding Pepe and Couro broke. A chill ran through the crowd, and many gasped in horror. The officers picked up the two stunned men, adjusted the ropes, and again dropped the platform. This time they quickly died.
The three bodies hung on display for a full hour before they were taken down, and contrary to their request, buried in a nearby single grave. After several hours they were disinterred by a military doctor and taken to the Richmond Armory, where they were jolted with “galvanism,” or battery current, in the belief they could be shocked back to life. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus” was published only nine years earlier. Perhaps that is where they got the idea.
The effort failed. The three Cubans were reinterred in a single grave. The military doctor thought Frankenstein was a load of crap.
In 1875, a prisoner named Tom Nowlin, who was serving four years for arson, fell in a tub of boiling coffee in the kitchen. He died of his burns five days later.
Tom Nowlin was ten years old.
In 1989, the penitentiary warden told the consultant that anything that could have happened inside a prison happened in the Virginia Penitentiary, with the exception of a death row escape. That honor went to Mecklenburg County Correctional in 1984, when six death row prisoners— including two bloodthirsty Richmond brothers named Briley—broke out.
That Richmond warden also hinted that a few prisoners who pissed off someone, or who had gambling debts, or ratted out the wrong cellmate may well have exited the institution through the incinerator, or in pieces in multiple trash bags.
The consultant said the warden just confirmed what the convicts told him, and that he had no reason to doubt any of them. Neither had any motivation to lie about something like that.
Hanging became an ineffectual way to kill someone. In 1902 and 1905, hanging failed to break the prisoners’ necks, and instead they strangled to death. One prisoner took fourteen minutes to die. In 1908, the penitentiary inmates built an electric chair and placed it in the basement of Building “A.”
Since galvanism, or electric current, would not create life, it was going to be used to end it.
The youngest victim of the electric chair was Percy Ellis, who was executed in 1916 at age sixteen. Front page coverage of his execution focused more on the reasons he died on a Wednesday rather than the traditional Friday.
“Prison Book No. 9 includes prisoners admitted from 24 October 1972 to 29 April 1976 (inmate number 100000 to 107999). The book includes number, name of prisoner, race, jail time, sentence, date received, date released, charge, place of conviction, sent to, out date, returned date, discharged or pardoned and remarks. Volume is not indexed. [Misc. Reel 6001, frame 0257-0459].”
As confident as this Library of Virginia description is, Virginia Penitentiary prisoner record ledgers are maddeningly sloppy and incomplete. From 1972 to 1976 there are only admittance dates. There are almost no discharge dates, a scarce few sentences, and no personal information. If one of those prisoners disappeared, it is impossible to tell which one.
Goochland twin brothers Grafton and Conway Leake were both convicted of grand larceny and went to the pen together June 28, 1938. Their hands were not burned, thanks to the intervention of those early residents. They instead were sentenced to ten years. They were both discharged in April 1945.
Those Leake boys—what will they do next?
In summer, 1968, fourteen prisoners protesting unsanitary living conditions, low daily wages, corporal punishment, and their denial of legal rights staged a sit-down strike in the penitentiary yard. Despite local media, prison officials and the governor waving off the strike as insignificant, by August over 800 inmates joined in. The institution was locked down, and the ringleaders were stripped naked and placed in solitary confinement in 110-degree cells for up to ninety days. Some had no mattress; others had both hands and their necks temporarily duct-taped to the bars.
As state police mustered nearby with live ammunition in preparation to storm the pen, Richmond residents, Quakers, and civil rights workers held a continuous vigil around the prison in support of the striking inmates. They reported hearing the banging of tear gas grenades inside the facility. Gift boxes of food left unopened at the gate by worried convict mothers spoiled in the summer humidity.
The state police stood down. The vigil stopped a Carnival of Death.
During the strike those in solitary confinement communicated with each other through a makeshift intercom system made by dipping the water out of the toilets and talking through the pipes. Punishment for “talking through the commodes” included being shot with tear gas and having the mattress taken away.
In the 1970s, several court cases emerged from that strike that revolutionized prison living conditions nationwide.
Prisoner #79798, Donald Byrd Fitchett, seemed to be a likely candidate as one of the vanishing inmates. He received three life sentences in Norfolk for three rapes. He was admitted at the penitentiary June 7, 1961, and that is the end of his record. There is no discharge date, no parole, no pardon, and no note that he escaped or died in prison. As far as his record is concerned he went out through the incinerator.
But Donald Byrd Fitchett did not go out through the incinerator. He left the penitentiary sometime in one of the more traditional ways and died a free man September 11, 2002, at age seventy-six in Henrico County, Virginia. He was buried in Norfolk.
His headstone reads “I did it my way.”
The Carnival of Death held a command performance February 2, 1951 when four members of a group of Black men known as the “Martinsville Seven,” plus a fifth man were executed for raping a White woman. Three days later the remaining members were also killed. In those days Black men were always executed for raping White women. In fact, seventeen-year-old Winston Green was executed in 1908 for touching a White woman.
From 1800 to 1962 not one White man in Virginia was executed for raping a Black woman.
In 1985, those six death row escapees from Mecklenburg were caught and sent to the penitentiary, where they were executed one by one over a period of twelve years. James Briley’s execution on April 18, 1985, sparked a riot, injuring nine guards.
A member of the press who witnessed Briley’s execution was given the opportunity to touch his arm fifteen minutes after the electrocution. He said his skin was hot to touch. Briley was baked.
One of Briley’s accomplices, Willie Lloyd Turner, was executed in 1991. After his death, his lawyer found a loaded pistol in his cell hidden inside a typewriter. There is speculation the lawyer put it there.
It is illegal to photograph or film executions, so for the final four executions in “A” basement, an anonymous corrections employee narrated real-time audiocassette recordings of the proceedings. These recordings are privacy protected until 2037, so we cannot judge his vocal performance until then.
“I’ve witnessed four executions. For the most part they are pretty uneventful.”
-Retired Department of Corrections employee, October 2015.
During the death row escape in Mecklenburg, prisoner #124549, Wilbert Lee Evans, stopped the Briley brothers from raping a nurse. For that, many believed he should not have been killed. The Commonwealth of Virginia believed otherwise.
Evans’ October 16, 1990, execution was not uneventful. When hit with the first fifty-second jolt, Evans lurched against the restraints, and under the leather mask his high blood pressure made his face explode. A chill ran through the crowd, and many gasped in horror. It was the three Cubans all over again. The Carnival was getting sloppy. After a second jolt Evans was declared dead by a prison doctor named Fry.
A guard claimed that Evans got a nosebleed because he ate too much pork. In 2037, we can listen in real time to how Wilbert Lee Evans died.
In Virginia, it is illegal to introduce exonerating evidence after an execution. It is completely legal to execute an Alzheimer’s patient.
“I reviewed records I have, and spoke to several old timers and I can’t find any evidence that would support your claim that prisoners vanished inside the penitentiary.”
– Absconsion Unit Director, Virginia Department of Corrections, January 2015.
In 1986, the Virginia General Assembly voted to shut down the “the wall,” and by the end of 1990, every prisoner had been transferred.
The final four – Bobbie Rogers, Paul Stotts, Albert Vanderstuyf, and Dean Ratliff – locked the doors and turned off the lights on their way out the morning after the electric chair performed an encore in “A” basement, with a man named Bobby Justus.
At the closing ceremonies, the warden asked the superintendent for the penitentiary’s official prisoner count. Major Turner stepped forward, opened a book, and announced in a loud, clear voice that the prisoner count was officially zero. Many in the crowd laughed. The warden stared ahead and did not laugh. Perhaps he knew there were souls still inside.
One year later, Thomas Jefferson’s penitentiary was physically erased from history. Just before it was demolished, a consultant took my father on a private tour. He took a picture of my dad sitting in the electric chair. Then my dad did something Percy Ellis, the Martinsville Seven, Wilbert Lee Evans, the Brileys, Bobby Justus and dozens of others never did—he simply got up and walked away.
The Carnival had moved on.
Dale Brumfield is an Adjunct English Professor and the author of seven books. His last two, “Richmond Independent Press” (2013) and “Independent Press in D.C and Virginia: An Underground History” (2015) were both nominated for Library of Virginia Literary Awards in nonfiction.
Dale is a weekly history columnist for the Staunton News Leader, and is a frequent contributor to Richmond Magazine, Style Weekly, and North of the James magazines. His work has also appeared in the Richmond Free Press, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and USA Today. His next book, a history of the Virginia Penitentiary, will be published fall, 2017.