The Notorious History of the Virginia State Penitentiary

Time Period
1764 to 1824
1825 to 1860
1861 to 1876
1877 to 1924
1925 to Today
Media Type
Military History
Politics & Government
Dale M. Brumfield

On November 6, 2019, Dale M. Brumfield delivered a Banner Lecture, “The Notorious History of the Virginia State Penitentiary.”

In 1796, the Virginia General Assembly finally reformed Virginia’s penal laws and embraced Thomas Jefferson’s theory of “labor in confinement.” The Virginia State Penitentiary cornerstone was laid August 19, 1797, near the intersection of what is today Belvidere and Spring Streets, and the first prisoner, a man named Thomas Merryman, was admitted April 1, 1800. For the next 190 years, the penitentiary endured four fires, an earthquake, and numerous riots and escapes. In 1908, the electric chair was introduced, and 246 condemned men and one woman were executed there before the facility was demolished in 1991. Author, journalist, and cultural archaeologist Dale Brumfield will trace the sometimes cruel, sometimes uplifting history of the personalities within this former notorious Richmond landmark.

As well as working as a local journalist, Dale Brumfield is the Field Director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the author of ten books, including Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History and Richmond Independent Press and Independent Press in DC and Virginia: An Underground History. His stories have appeared in Richmond Magazine, Style Weekly, Staunton News Leader, Austin Chronicle, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and USA Today, among others.

The content and opinions expressed in these presentations are solely those of the speaker and not necessarily of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

Want to listen to an audio-only version of this lecture? Listen now on Soundcloud.