The Nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: The Rappahannock Review published another work that you did, in our first edition, 1.1, back in 2013. Your piece, “Death Row Report” was largely about the criminal punishment system as well. What drives you to creatively write about our justice system, and the individuals on the receiving end?
Dale Brumfield: Prison inmates largely become forgotten in our society, especially those condemned to life or to death. In Virginia there is a law that states that no (potentially) exonerating evidence can be introduced after a condemned prisoner is put to death – thus taken in the larger historical context, we have no way of ascertaining absolutely if the executed prisoners from the past were truly guilty or innocent. My goal over the past few years, and especially in my upcoming history of the Virginia State Penitentiary, which will be published in September, 2017, is to present the narratives of the arrest, convictions and executions of those mostly young black men dating back to 1908 to try to ascertain the most likely stories behind their crime, arrest, conviction and execution. In my research I found massive discrepancies, including coerced confessions, misidentifications, trials with no legal counsel and other inequities that in some instances still occur today, albeit in more insidious, covert manners.
Unlike straight journalistic reporting, the creative nonfiction genre affords me leeway to “fill in the gaps” of these forgotten stories – not to make up facts at all, but to read between the lines (“sideshadow”) the texts, distilling multiple and sometimes conflicting accounts and then piece together the most likely progression and outcome. It is a process I call “digital archaeology,” or the practice of excavating and documenting stories and accounts that has been overlooked, neglected or lost to close holes in historical records, using more unconventional research methods in a creative nonfiction manner. Again, it is usually not the actual story – which may be lost forever – but the most likely story.
For example, from 1900 to as late as the 1950s I found many instances where a black man was caught, tried and executed for rape or attempted rape of a white woman. In almost every one, the media reported that the prisoner “first maintained his innocence, then made a complete confession.” I started asking myself why they made those “complete confessions.” In all likelihood, the offender was given a choice of confessing and taking his chances in the courtroom, or being sent out to face a lynch mob, which was certain death. In some terrible cases, especially where the police had no other suspects, the accused was allegedly lied to about the presence of a lynch mob just outside the police station to extract that confession. Of course this dilemma was not accurately reported, but may be assumed knowing the police’s rush to make an arrest at the time and the proclivities of mob justice. Again, I never make up facts, but use known societal prejudices and judicial practices gleaned from numerous sources of the time to arrive at the most likely conclusion.
RR: You had several different previous career paths; how did you catapult yourself into the world of creative historical writing?
DB: Creative writing, publishing and journalism were always in my background, going back to my VCU days in the late 1970s, when I worked for the university student paper, the Commonwealth Times. In 1981 some friends and I started ThroTTle Magazine, a monthly news, arts and culture tabloid. I stayed with ThroTTle about seven years as production manager, editor and writer. In the nineties I was a theme park documentalist and training manual writer. In the mid-2000s I decided to return to my writing and publishing roots, and began writing memoirs about my childhood in a small rural Virginia town. This collection became my first published book, “Three Buck Naked Commodes: Or 18 Tales from a Small Town,” which was published in March 2009. This convinced me I may have a future as a writer, then I discovered I had a knack for searching out and finding the unusual and forgotten, leading me to call myself a digital archaeologist. This in turn led to my first cover story with Style Weekly magazine in 2010, about a “lost” 1982 movie made in Richmond. Since then, my abilities to “sniff out” strange and unusual stories has landed me a position as a weekly history columnist for the Staunton News Leader newspaper. I am a frequent contributor to numerous other publications as well, including USA Today, which in early March published my story “Before Loving, there was Kinney,” about Virginia’s former miscegenation law.
RR: There are portions of “Carnival of Death” that are very graphic. How did you find the balance between provocative/sensitive facts and their importance?
DB: The graphic nature of the individual stories underscores the inequities in the criminal justice system, and serve to punctuate the narratives with real-life examples that a 21st century reader can attempt to identify. For example, I was rather astonished to discover through research that 18th century citizens who witnessed criminal justice sentencing were more horrified by watching a (usually white) robber have his hands burned than by watching a 12-year-old black child hang by his neck. Today we cannot possibly put ourselves in that mid-1700s mindset, just as if we pulled someone from that period and placed them in 2017, they would feel they were on another planet. Both generations would be horrified by incidents neither had witnessed in their own time. Everything was profoundly different, including the reactions to legalized violence. I find that generational discrepancy at once fascinating and terrifying.
RR: Do you see a correlation in “Carnival of Death” and in 2017, our current criminal justice system?
DB: There are many. One that concerns me the most is Virginia’s increasing secrecy behind the execution process. The General Assembly attempted to change hangings from public to private in 1879 to stop the party atmospheres surrounding the hanging of (mostly) young black men. People gathered at hangings not to condemn, but to chant, pray and celebrate the condemned’s entry into the “Promised Land.” When that law did not work, the Assembly switched executions to the basement of the penitentiary in 1908, and changed the mode from hanging to the electric chair. Now those black men would be executed not before praying and singing groups of their peers but before a small group of somber white witnesses in a grim basement, away from black tradition and the “hurrah and holiday air” attending their executions.
In 2016 the General Assembly and the Governor have further shrouded the execution process in more secrecy by shielding the execution procedure, the names of the pharmacy providing the lethal injection drugs and even the drugs themselves. It is the continuation of a legacy of institutional racism, masked in even heavier secrecy.
RR: In “Carnival of Death,” criticism for historically institutionalized racism was a clear and present theme. In your research, did you come across any other conditions within the system that you didn’t have the chance to address in this piece?
DB: Virginia history is riddled with grotesque inequities in the criminal justice system. Possibly one of the worst was the post-civil war “black codes” and the accompanying penitentiary convict leasing program. General Alfred Terry on January 24, 1866 suspended vagrancy laws by making unemployment a crime, and recently-freed, unemployed blacks could be arrested merely on the suspicion they were about to do something illegal. They could be charged with larceny, for example, if caught empty-handed on someone else’s property, or for such nonsensical “crimes” as “showing an air of satisfaction” about the end of the civil war.
It was an artificially-created crime wave resulting in the mass arrests of young black men across Virginia. If found guilty, the criminal could be forced into unregulated employment for up to three months on railroads, highways or other public works projects. The other alternative was to go to the penitentiary and risk being leased out to more unscrupulous railroad barons to work on the West Virginia railroads. It was back-breaking work under squalid conditions, and if the convicts were not crushed to death or maimed by accidents, they contracted silicosis from the sandstone dust in the tunnels and slowly suffocated to death. Hundreds of black convicts died on these railroad tunnels, leading to the creation of the legend of John Henry, the “Steel Drivin’ Man.”
It is a mistake to assume I am soft on crime and criminals or neglect the victims as a result of my research and writing. I believe punishment should be just, based on ethics, evidence and logic, not on vengeance, which is too often driven purely by emotion. Accordingly, I believe creative writers should take a stand and write within and about their communities, not just for academics or other similarly-educated writers. My wish through my creative writing is to lend a voice to those who have none, to find hope, love and understanding in the worst imaginable places for those society condemns. I especially want to shine a spotlight on the irrational role of emotion in the criminal justice system and bring closure to past inequities within that system.
Dale Brumfield’s work in Issue 4.2: