‘Legal lynching’: A VCU alumnus’ book tells the forgotten stories of the first 100 people sent to the electric chair in Virginia
“Railroaded,” a new book by Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus Dale Brumfield, tells the stories of the first 100 people to be executed in Virginia’s electric chair from 1908 to 1920.
Brumfield, who earned a bachelor’s in painting from the School of the Arts in 1981 and a master’s in creative writing from the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences in 2015, is field director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the author of 10 previous books. He recently discussed his latest book, which features a foreword by Bill Oglesby, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at VCU.
What inspired you to want to share the stories of the first 99 men and one woman to be executed in Virginia's electric chair?
The book was intended to be a sequel of sorts to my history of the Virginia State Penitentiary, which was released in 2017. That project allowed me to look into a few high-profile executions that took place in the penitentiary basement, where executions in the electric chair were centralized in 1908. There is possibly no class of Americans more maligned, marginalized and forgotten than executed prisoners, and in researching them I realized their entire lives were solely defined by a single criminal act (or alleged criminal act) and an execution. It is easy to forget they had lives beyond this one tragic event. They were fathers, sons, daughters, friends, neighbors and co-workers. The only attention they drew was when they testified in court, when they were executed, or worse, when a lynch mob was out for them. They deserved more.
My field work with Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty also proves that the racial, social and cultural disparities inherent with the 1908-1920 capital punishment system remain in the 21st century. Blacks are still seven times more likely to get a death sentence than whites for the same crimes. They are also at least three times more likely to get a death sentence if their victim is white, rather than Black.
My decision to research the first 100, rather than a sampling, was a deliberate decision to show that I was not “cherry-picking” certain executions out of bias or for political considerations. Also, I am clear that it is not my intention to declare these 99 men and one woman innocent or to elicit more sympathy toward them than their victims. On the contrary, I admit from the start that many of these crimes were horrendous, and all guilty offenders deserved some form of punishment. But, the haphazard, mob-violence-driven, racially prejudiced criminal-justice procedures of early 20th-century Jim Crow make a determination of true guilt or innocence almost impossible, and the resulting death sentence extreme and irrational.
What sort of research did this book require? How did you go about finding these stories?
Any research into capital executions starts with what is called the Espy File. It is a complete database compiled by M. Watt Espy and John Smykla that compiles data on all civil executions between 1608 and 2002, with annual updates. The database describes each individual executed and the circumstances surrounding the crime. Variables include age, race, name, sex, occupation and other information pertinent to the offense. It can also be accessed through the Death Penalty Information Center, which is a complete and unbiased storehouse of information.
With all the names gathered and in proper order, I began the painstaking process of searching through digital newspaper collections to find news stories on each execution. This presented many challenges, as I explain in the book that newspaper accounts from this time were subjective, conflicting and sometimes highly unreliable. Names, especially of victims, were consistently misspelled. More accurate research methods using court documents, gubernatorial papers and trial transcripts frequently had to be used to distill multiple and sometimes inconsistent accounts to arrive at the most truthful outcome. Sometimes it may or may not be the actual story, which may be lost forever, but the most plausible story that is ultimately presented.
"The racial, social and cultural disparities inherent with the 1908-1920 capital punishment system remain in the 21st century. Blacks are still seven times more likely to get a death sentence than whites for the same crimes. They are also at least three times more likely to get a death sentence if their victim is white, rather than Black."
Whether the newspaper had white or Black ownership was crucial in the news coverage. The white newspapers were much more subjective, biased, even malicious in their coverage of certain crimes (especially Black-on-white and Black-on-Black crime), so oftentimes I had to “sideshadow,” or read between the lines of multiple accounts if available, to reveal the most likely story, then verify or debunk each statement with other non-news sources. Nothing in the daily newspapers could be fully trusted.
In addition to the obvious databases, such as newspapers, Chronicling America, and Virginia Chronicle, some unlikely digital collections proved invaluable, including Ancestry, HathiTrust, and even an Australian newspaper database called Trove. Apparently, Australians in the early part of the 20th century were starved for news from America, so wire service stories edited for space in American newspapers frequently ran in full in Australia, providing valuable insights and details not available in the American papers. Virginia House of Delegates and Senate journals from these years proved to be excellent resources as well.
Do any of the 100 stories stand out? Could you tell me a bit about one that is particularly important or revealing?
As mentioned earlier, during the Jim Crow era, Virginia used the electric chair as a form of legal lynching. After a crime, or a perceived crime, was committed, hastily assembled mobs fanned out and caught mostly young, Black males, then ushered them into minutes-long sham trials, convictions and speedy electrocutions, sometimes with no legal counsel and for such nonsense crimes as intimidating schoolchildren.
The story of Benjamin Baily is a textbook example of this “legal lynching” mentality. Baily was a 23-year-old, intellectually disabled Black man accused and tried in 1913 for a “criminal assault” on a 6-year-old white girl in Fairfax County. Captured on May 27, he was indicted the very next day after only a few minutes of deliberation. The press noted that Baily “seemed to be half-witted and did not understand the few questions that were put to him.” Regardless, he was rushed into court two days later to prevent a threatened lynching. The trial took less than two hours, with the young girl the only witness called. The jury was out only 10 minutes before returning with a verdict of guilty and a punishment of death. While awaiting execution, Baily wrote in a letter to his mother that “I am about to be electrocuted, whatever that means.” He concluded by telling her that he wished they would “make haste and do it” because “I want to get back home.”
What truly surprised me was the prevalence and threat of lynch mobs, and they were not just confined to rural areas — mobs surrounded jails in Charlottesville, Norfolk, Alexandria and other urban centers. One man, Albert Barrett, and his son Aubrey were caught by a mob of over 500 men south of Lynchburg after he was accused of killing a white farmer. When authorities caught up with them they found Albert standing in a field, his hands and feet tied, with the mob arguing among themselves whether to shoot him, hang him, or soak his entire family in gasoline and light them on fire. Albert eventually went to the electric chair, while Aubrey received a prison sentence.
In researching these stories, you found significant racial disparities in who Virginia sent to the electric chair. Can you elaborate on this?
The death penalty, even in 2020, has possibly the highest racial disparities of any facet of our criminal justice system. Today, nationwide, 42% of death row prisoners are Black in a country where they make up only 14% of the population. Of the 100 executions I researched (1908-1920), 87 were Black and only 13 white. Ninety-nine were men, with one (Black) woman.
White women on death row are considered unicorns. Since the Civil War, only one white woman was executed in a murder for hire, in 2002. In a bizarre paradox of social propriety and “Virginia way” condescension, white women in Virginia were never considered strong enough nor smart enough to commit a capital crime.
The two men who sit today on Virginia’s death row are both Black.
"During the Jim Crow era, Virginia used the electric chair as a form of legal lynching."
Black-on-white crime was (and remains) the most likely to get a death sentence, with corresponding derogatory press coverage. The alleged attacker frequently was called a “brute” who “will probably get the chair.” The trial was frequently a sham, with jury deliberations mere formalities. A Black man named Charles Gillespie, for example, was found guilty of “attempted criminal assault” of the 19-year-old daughter of a prominent white Richmond businessman on Jan. 16, 1909. The all-white jury sentenced him to death after less than five minutes of deliberation under the auspices of “protecting Richmond’s womanhood.” Gillespie was executed in the electric chair on Feb. 16, a mere 38 days after the attack.
Black-on-Black crime resulted in many executions, but had much less press coverage since those Black lives didn’t matter. In these cases, Black men’s drunkenness, propensity to violence, even their intelligence levels were frequently emphasized in the white press in an attempt to render their executions more palatable to readers. For example, the first man to be electrocuted, Henry Smith, was described as “below the average in sense …”. William Finney was considered to be “an idiot.”
The race of the victim played (and still plays) a large role in the determination of a death sentence. Today, the murderer of a white victim is three times more likely to receive a death sentence than the murderer of a Black victim. Of [Virginia’s] first 100 executions, 70 victims were white. In fact, Virginia did not execute a white person for the murder of a Black person until 1997, and only three since then.
This book, which arrives amid Black Lives Matter protests across the country and in Richmond, serves as a reminder of racial disparities that have always persisted in the criminal justice system. What do you hope this book contributes to the current debate?
The 21st-century death penalty is a ragged, racist remnant of a previous generation that needs to go away. Many people today support the death penalty in theory but have no knowledge of the process, which is riddled with corruption, prosecutorial misconduct, financial overruns, bogus science, egregious racial bias, and most terrifying of all, the possibility of innocence. Since 1973, the Innocence Project (and others) have released 171 innocent men off of death rows nationwide — that is one out of nine.
Similarly, these death-penalty supporters may argue that the racial makeup of Virginia’s executions since a 20-year death penalty moratorium ended in 1982 is evenly split between 54 Black, 55 white and four foreign nationals, but these arguments fail to take into account that Virginia’s 14% African-American population makes minorities an astonishing seven times more likely to be executed than whites for identical crimes.
Any serious criminal justice reform in consideration must include the abolition of Virginia’s death penalty.