Let the children suffer

On October 1, 1875, Virginia State Penitentiary inmate Thomas Nowlin died of third-degree burns suffered when he fell into a tub of boiling coffee in the kitchen. Thomas was 10 years old.

From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1891.

Virginia law once dictated that children under the age of 17 who committed certain crimes were sent, as Nowlin, to the penitentiary in Richmond to serve sentences as full-blown inmates. There was no juvenile detention, reform schools or other options for these young lawbreakers. They received no sympathy from an indifferent corrections system. Most all ages were tried and sentenced as adults, and it appears little consideration was given to shortened sentences due to age.

These were not career criminals — they were almost always troubled, desperately poor or mentally disabled kids committing isolated incidents, many times at the behest of adults. A prisoner admittance register for 1873, for example, lists Emma Warren, a 14-year-old black girl from Mecklenburg County sentenced to six years for “jail burning.” She was identified by “Two front teeth broke off” and her “unkempt appearance.” Her court record indicates she was attempting to free a parent from the county jail.

Like Tom Nowlin, Jeff Connally was a 10-year-old black Halifax County youth who was sentenced on April 15, 1873 to five years for manslaughter. On November 13, Connally’s situation got a lot worse when he was contracted out with 35 adult convicts to Mason, Gooch & Hoge to labor on the Valley Railroad in West Virginia. At 51 inches he was an ideal height for working in the tunnels. At night he was chained together to several adult men in the barracks.

Fortunately for this child, his sentence was commuted sometime in 1875.

A nine-year-old Richmond boy named Jasper Washington was convicted in Hustings Court of stealing a horse and surrey then sentenced in October 1896 to three years. In September 1898 the youth escaped from the Henrico work farm but was quickly recaptured. He was eventually released May 22, 1899 — a penitentiary veteran at age 12.

Leased out for labor

Juvenile inmates were put in general population, got no favors, and as evidenced by Jeff Connally, were not exempt from being farmed out on grueling and often deadly public works projects to labor side by side with adults. On June 19, 1868, 13-year-old Thomas Buck, a black youth from Southampton County and serving a 10-year sentence for grand larceny, was sent to work 12-hour days as a “clay picker” for the Old Dominion Granite Company (ODGC). Twelve-year-old Richmond boy Marcellus Lowlen, labored for two years there. Fifteen-year-old Sam Carter labored for four years for ODGC before he was discharged May 17, 1872.

Convicts leased to harvest timber in Georgia, 1915.

Located in Chesterfield, the ODGC started using convict labor at the suggestion of former Union railroad engineer Herman Haupt, who formed an alliance with the quarry to transport the convict-mined granite for a reduced rate aboard his trains on the Richmond & Danville Railroad. These back-door deals at the expense of convict (and child) labor were typical of the times.

On April 16, 1875 ODGC specifically requested “boys and infirm convicts” to work at an unspecified job. Penitentiary Superintendent Strother responded by sending 13-year-old James Crocker, who was serving an 18-month sentence for unlawful shooting; 10-year-old William Davis, serving three years for larceny; and John Smith, a disabled 18-year-old serving 10 years for malicious assault. They were accompanied by 50-year-old Pittsylvania County man Morton Witcher, who was serving a 15-year sentence for homicide.

On February 23, 1876, James Crocker’s work partner, a 39-year-old black man named Joe Bird, had both legs crushed by a massive block of granite at the quarry. He died of his horrific injuries February 26, underscoring the relentless worksite danger to which those young convicts were exposed.

By September 30, 1881, there was incarcerated at the penitentiary three 11-year-olds, three 12-year-olds, eight 13-year-olds, twelve 14-year-olds and 23 15-year-olds. All were black males with the exception of one 11-year-old.

Legislative impotence

Into the 1880s Governors and legislators continued to voice toothless apprehensions of the very real threat to juvenile inmates in general population, of being corrupted (and much worse) by older and frequently more vicious inmates, but time and again failed to act on those concerns. Some Assemblymen even insisted that for many of Richmond’s notorious “street urchins,” having a roof over their head and three meals a day, even inside the notorious penitentiary or toiling in granite quarries and railroad tunnels, was a much more beneficial lifestyle than begging, stealing and scrounging through trash in the city’s filthy streets.

Thus Virginia continued her reprehensible treatment of children as the juvenile penitentiary population continued to grow. A Superintendent’s report to the General Assembly in 1883 stated that on September 30 of that year, there were 140 inmates between 11 and 21 years of age, serving sentences of one year and more. “These young criminals are thrown in the cells at night, on Sundays and holidays, with hardened and habitual criminals of the most dangerous class,” the report warned in almost customary boilerplate that once again, would be ignored by the General Assembly. “If these young men have not belonged to the criminal class and enter the prison with the determination that this term shall be their last, they are disheartened and degraded by the association.”

To the penitentiary’s credit, this particular report recommended that the Assembly establish for those prisoners under age 18 a separate department, or reformatory, away from the adult prisoners, with detached workshops for the use of those young convicts who were not career criminals, but who committed isolated punishable offenses. Education was never mentioned, but it was a noble beginning.

A decade later, a woman identified only as “O. L.” of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), after visiting not just the penitentiary but city jails in Richmond, Culpeper and Lynchburg, stressed in a letter to the January 1897 edition of The Reformer magazine that there was an immediate need in the commonwealth for a reformatory especially for “colored youths.”

“Virginia,” she wrote, “mother of states and statesman, has not yet learned the wisdom of practicing preventive methods, but waits for the offence to be committed, the way being kept open for the hapless child to fall into the pitfall of crime, and then provides punishment which, in most cases, leaves him worse in the last state than in the first.”

O. L. wrote of visiting a 14-year-old boy in the penitentiary, “a little vagabond, who had become a nuisance in his neighborhood,” who was sent there for five years for horse stealing. She described a girl age 12, who looked as if she were not over age ten, illustrating her as “a little ginger-cake colored thing, with very nice manners and a soft musical voice” who “scanned me curiously through the iron bars.” After a few kind words and noticing there was nothing in her cell other than a straw mattress and a bucket, the writer promised to take her some quilt pieces so that she could “have something to do while in jail.”

O. L. also spoke of visiting a “sturdy boy” about age 12, who stabbed another boy with a knife in a fight over a game of marbles, “cutting his appetite out of him.” She emphasized presciently that a child like this would eventually end up in the gallows if at such a young age he could not get the help he needed.

She closed her letter by stating “sometimes it seems to me that our community, while professing Christianity, has taken for its motto the words ‘Let the children suffer,’ instead of the saying of the founder of our faith, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’”

But the General Assembly elected to “let the children suffer,” and stubbornly failed time and again to enact any early reform or juvenile detention programs. By 1900, the fact that over 78 penitentiary inmates were still under 18 years of age, all packed into cells with adults, proved the legislature was not serious about keeping children out, keeping them safe or reforming them in any way.

The Assembly did, according to the October 21, 1900 edition of the Richmond Dispatch, vote that session to allot funds to continue caring for “poor, aged, and enfeebled” Confederate veterans.

Harry Sitlington was sentenced to death for murder just days after his 16th birthday in 1910. The press reported, “ The boy had a criminal look and seemed not to realize the enormity of his crime.” Library of Virginia photo.

In 1902 the penitentiary admitted 157 inmates between the ages of 10 and 20 years of age, and in 1904, received 127 between 11 and 20. One of them was Effie Morton, a black girl 12 years of age, who was sentenced for three years for setting her employer’s house on fire after an argument.

One Lynchburg youngster, unfortunately, had to serve twice in the penitentiary. Ten-year-old Willie Smith was admitted in September 1896 to serve two years for housebreaking. He was released in 1897, then was re-admitted April 17, 1900, again for stealing. He was sentenced to one year, with the requisite five more years added for the second offense. When he was eventually discharged on September 15, 1905, at age 19, he had already spent one-third of his young life in the penitentiary.

From Imprisoning to Executing

By 1912 there were fewer juveniles under the age of 16 sentenced for property crimes, but as late as 1915 Virginia was still imprisoning and worse, now executing 16 and 17-year-olds — some even for non-capital crimes — proving that fundamentally very little had changed in attitudes toward children from what Thomas Jefferson described as the “brutal and archaic” martial laws of colonial times.

Records are unclear as to when the practice of incarcerating young children finally stopped, but most likely in the 1920s.

Courtesy Library of Virginia.

Tom Nowlin, the little boy scalded to death, was “mulatto,” 4’-7” in height, from Roanoke, Virginia. He was admitted on April 20, 1875 — two weeks after his 10th birthday — to serve a four-year sentence for setting fire to a tobacco barn. On September 25 he was a little over five months into his sentence when he fell into the boiling coffee while working as a sweeper in the kitchen. He survived for five excruciating days in the penitentiary hospital before he died of his burns.

His burial place is unknown.

Read more at www.dalebrumfield.net. Portions of this story appear in my book “Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History” (Arcadia, 2017).

Anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” historyteller and author of 11 books. More at www.dalebrumfield.net.

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