17-year-old Virginia Christian was the first and last female juvenile to be executed in the electric chair in 1912. At a time when Jim Crow legislation and racial purity laws were in effect, Virginia, who was African American, was not granted a fair trial.
Even in this day and age, people of colour are disproportionately sentenced to death and there is an infectious presence of racism in the death penalty with racial disparities plaguing the justice system.
At the age of 13, Virginia dropped out of Hampton Whitter Training School to work as a laundress for Mrs. Ida Virginia Belote, a 51-year-old white woman from Hampton, Virginia.1 She was one of Hampton’s white aristocracy by way of her father’s prominence as the owner of a large grocery.2
Ida was known to frequently beat and berate Virginia and on the 18th of March, 1912, she accused her of stealing a locket and skirt. Virginia staunchly denied these claims before Ida threw a clay pot at Virginia, hitting her on the shoulder. When it fell and shattered, Ida threw the broken pieces at Virginia. The next item Ida attempted to retrieve to use as a weapon was a nearby broom. However, Virginia managed to grab it before her and cracked Ida over the head. Ida started to scream and in an attempt to muffle the screams, Virginia shoved a towel in Ida’s mouth, causing her to suffocate.
She readily confessed to the murder and contended that she didn’t want to kill Ida but was so terrified of her screaming. In fact, she didn’t even realise that Ida was dead.
The following morning, The Newport News Daily described Virginia as: “A full-blooded negress, with kinky hair done up in threads, with dark lustreless eyes and with splotches on the skin of her face. Her color is dark brown and her figure is short, dumpy and squashy. She has had some schooling but her speech does not betray it. Her language is the same as the unlettered members of her race.“
Virginia was not allowed to defend herself or explain her actions during her trial. The constant beatings from Ida were not taken into consideration or the evidence of self-defence. Virginia was found guilty on the 9th of April, 1912, and sentenced to die in the electric chair in the state penitentiary in Richmond.
Her mother wrote a pleading letter to Gov. William Hodges Mann in which she pleaded for her daughter’s life:
“My dear Mr. Governor: Please forgive me for bothering you … I have been paralyzed for more than three years and I could not look after Gennie as I wants to. I know she done an awful wicked thing when she killed Miss Belote and I hear that people at the penitentiary wants to kill her. But I am praying night and day on my knees to God that he will soften your heart. If you only save my child who is so little, God will bless you forever.”
After Mann refused to stop the execution, E. Val Putnam, a newspaper editor for The Chicago Evening World sent a telegram to him expressing his outrage that Virginia’s race, gender, and youth were all irrelevant. “If not the State of Virginia herself in part responsible; this child was left without training or education. The picture of her sitting alone in her cell, helpless and friendless, is an indictment against society for her condition and one that comes home to all of us,” wrote an article in the Daily Press in 1999.
In the months running up to her execution, Mann received hundreds of letters from people expressing their outrage at the execution. The day before she was sent to the electric chair, the headlines in the Evening Star read: “Mann Will not Save Negress.”
The state of Virginia is only second behind Texas in executions and five months after the crime, Virginia was executed. Her execution fell on the day after her 17th birthday. She “spent a comparatively restful night sleeping as though she were at peace with the world” and ate her breakfast of rolls, eggs and coffee before being escorted to the electric chair.3 “The 17-year-old negro murderess was led to her death in the state penitentiary at 7:25 o’clock this morning,” read The News Leader.
A tragic ending to a tragic tale: Following her execution, Virginia’s body was turned over to the state medical school as her parents could not afford to transport the body from Richmond.
- Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History, Dale M. Brumfield
- Daily Press, 15 August, 1999 – “Few Records of Historic Executions”
- Virginian-Pilot, 5 September, 1993 – “Electrocution in Virginia”