“Die and Prove it.”
by Dale M. Brumfield
By 1945 all prisons in northern states had long abandoned flogging convicts with a leather strap, yet most all southern states, including Virginia, could not let it go.
In November of that year, a brash young Richmond lawyer named Howard Carwile was contacted by Helen Kuntz, the sister of an inmate named Edward Wall, regarding sadistic treatments committed against her brother at the Goochland State Farm. Kuntz charged that her brother, a 30-year-old sentenced to a three-year term for bigamy, had not received medical attention while he and others endured overwork and bloody beatings by guards and other convicts.
After interviewing Wall and many other convicts, Carwile later told Governor Colgate Darden that he had dozens of prisoners ready to testify of abuses and substandard living arrangements. He also requested an open hearing before the Board of Corrections. Darden agreed, but kept the hearing closed.
Penitentiary Superintendent Rice Youell admitted prior to the hearing that he gave State Farm Superintendent R. L. Royster permission to flog convicts as State law provided. According to Wall, on September 19, Royster oversaw the strap whipping of twelve men – including Wall –for refusing to work in a knee-deep muddy cornfield. Wall also claimed he was struck in the head with a rifle butt, breaking three teeth. Carwile designated Royster his main target in the investigation, charging that he was a sadist and unfit for his job.
Wall, on the other hand, was considered a “malingerer” at the farm and according to officials seemed to complain of a different malady almost every day. But it was not until Wall was eventually taken back to the penitentiary hospital that Dr. Asa Shield reported “in his present condition, I don’t think he’s fit to do any work.”
On November 10, a prisoner named R. C. Almond verified all of Wall’s farm mistreatment claims to the Richmond News-Leader. Almond said that one of the convicts, Robert Johnson, was sunburned on his back, yet was still beaten 39 times with a 2-inch wide strap, “making him bleed profusely.”
Almond also told of a young convict named Dye who was kept in chains for 11 months. Later the 23-year-old Dye was found to be diabetic, and was only given medical care after he wasted down to 98 pounds.
A subcommittee chaired by Albert Bryan of Alexandria and State Senator A. E. Stevens was formed on November 14 to investigate the charges brought by Carwile. Then, a hearing conducted November 20 before the State Board of Corrections branched into the airing of other charges not just at the farm but at all units of the state penal system.
The cat was suddenly out of the bag. A penitentiary parolee named Jesse Woodson testified that a road camp guard, Johnny Perry, told sick men to “die and prove it.” Another camp guard named W. Harvey allegedly kicked sick men in shackles and beat men in the face with blackjacks when they were “hung up” and unable to defend themselves.
“After reading the reports in the News-Leader concerning the inhuman treatment of the prisoners at the State Farm of Virginia, I begin to wonder why our servicemen went abroad to relieve persons in the concentration camps,” stated a 1945 letter to the editor of that newspaper signed “Worried Reader.” “Seems to me the Gestapo could have taken lessons on this side.”
Guards and administrators insisted that there was no abusive behavior by guards against inmates, and that the inmates were fabricating charges against them. All told 55 witnesses – guards and inmates – testified.
On December 17 the subcommittee submitted their report, showing no instances of unjust punishment against inmates. One statement benignly said “temporary road camps give rise to objectionable although unavoidable conditions and practices, such as the chaining of prisoners at night to secure them, inadequate sanitary facilities, and unprogressive methods of punishment which could be eliminated in a system of permanent road camps.”
The report also stated that the practice of flogging was authorized under state law but “under limited conditions.” The report reminded readers that a particular flogging in question, in which 12 men were lashed over their bare buttocks and backs for insubordination, was attended by doctors both before and after the whippings.
The report also stated that punishments known as “hanging up” and “the rack” were deceptively named. Prisoners were not suspended over the floor, it stated, but left in a standing position with their arms locked to a bar at eye level.
The report glossed over the charges of sexual perversions, noting that such activities were “common,” that they “exist in all institutions of this type,” but were “far from widespread.” Food was found to be “ample, wholesome and clean.”
Carwile raged that the report “was as complete and thorough whitewashing as was ever perpetrated, and is the same as if Hitler were presiding at his own trial.”
Just as the report exonerated penal officials, House member Charles Phillips abruptly proposed an anti-flogging bill in the January, 1946 General Assembly session after a prisoner named Lawrence Starling, who escaped from prison camp 24 at South Hill, was recaptured in Kansas City, Missouri.
An articulate spokesman with Hollywood good looks, Starling described a “bitter story of spread-eagle treatment, of shackles and lashings” at the Virginia camp to a United Press International reporter. Suddenly, Virginia’s penal system was pushed into an ugly national spotlight, especially after photos of Starling displaying his bruised wrists and feet circulated among the legislators. Missouri Governor Phil Donnelly decried Virginia as “medieval” and “barbaric,” to the great embarrassment of Governor William Tuck.
Phillips’ bill forbid the use of “whipping, flogging, or administration of any similar corporal punishment of, or to, any prisoner.”
The bill passed. It was signed by Governor Tuck and became effective June 18, 1946. Flogging in Virginia was officially over.
Editor’s Note: This is a short excerpt from Dale Brumfield’s illustrated history of the Virginia State Penitentiary which will be published by Arcadia Publishing this coming September.