News & Features » News and Features

Excavating the Past

Human remains discovered at the former Virginia State Penitentiary may include national folk hero, John Henry. As researchers work to identify descendants, the broken bodies tell their own stories.


They said it looked like a human femur sticking out of the ground.

No one really knew what to expect when the former Virginia State Penitentiary, at Spring and Belvidere streets in Richmond, was demolished beginning in late 1991.

“We didn’t expect to find any burials at all,” recalls the demolition manager, Terrell Dorn. It was therefore a shock to everyone when some human remains were noticed in a load of fill dirt. All work stopped.

“The bones were discovered as the hilltop was being cleared away,” says Vernon Trollinger, the former site archaeologist. “There was a small clifflike face about 8 feet tall that the earth mover had been clearing away. During one pass, it tore open an old trench that had been lined with red clay and exposed two wooden boxes full of bones that spilled some of their contents down the slope.”

That femur, the pine boxes and subsequent discoveries led to one of the largest assemblages of human remains ever found in Virginia.

Now, 27 years later, RVA Archaeology, a community organization dedicated to archeological research and advocacy, is collaborating with Ana Edwards, chairwoman of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, and Libby Cook, a historian who did her PhD on craftsmen and buildings in Richmond, to raise funds and awareness to publicly interpret the site and the remains, with a goal of eventually returning them to Richmond for proper burial.

Their three-part objective includes getting site reports completed so that the site is accessible for research and interpretation, promoting discussions with descendant communities to determine what should happen to the remains now at the Smithsonian Institution, and bringing the artifacts and archaeological findings about mass incarceration and the role of Jim Crow in the history of the state’s legal system into public conversations.

And maybe, identify the remains of John Henry, the steel drivin’ man of the legend, who was supposedly incarcerated and died at the penitentiary.

This 1971 aerial photo is of the Virginia State Penitentiary, which was the second major construction project undertaken by Virginia after the State Capitol.
  • This 1971 aerial photo is of the Virginia State Penitentiary, which was the second major construction project undertaken by Virginia after the State Capitol.
“The Most Shameful Prison in America”

Proposed in 1796 by Thomas Jefferson, and designed and constructed under the supervision of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe from 1797-1805, the “Gaol and Penitentiary-House” was the second major construction project undertaken by the Commonwealth of Virginia behind the State Capitol, and was at the time the largest structure south of Washington.
Jefferson’s concept of rehabilitation by “labor in confinement” was unusual at the time, and the penitentiary construction was part of a reform movement sweeping the fledgling United States, which had become increasingly frustrated by excessive uses of the gallows and other barbaric punishments enacted under British colonial laws.

On March 25, 1800, the penitentiary commenced operation on a hill overlooking the James River with 21 inmates, and remained for 190 years at what later became the corner of Belvidere and Spring Streets before finally closing in December 1990. The American Civil Liberties Union once called it the “most shameful prison in America,” and it endured severe overcrowding, three fires, an earthquake and numerous strikes and riots. Virginia’s death row was sporadically located there from 1908 until 1990, and 247 prisoners, among them 187 black men and one black woman, were executed there in the electric chair.

By 1987, with more modern prisons nearing completion across the state, Ethyl Corp. purchased the 16-acre property for $5 million. Then on Dec. 14, 1990, the day after a Southern-talking drifter named Buddy Lee Justus was executed for the 1978 rape and murder of Ida Mae Moses, and the last four inmates were transferred to Greensville Correctional, Warden Raymond Muncy declared the penitentiary closed. In August 1991, Wrecking Corporation of America of St. Louis, Missouri, began demolition.

An 1875 map of the penitentiary.
  • An 1875 map of the penitentiary.

Since the penitentiary was state owned, however, Virginia was required to mitigate the site’s historic status under regulations governing demolition of state-owned buildings. Testing at the site in 1991 into 1992 was led by archaeologist Katharine Beidleman, who first focused on finding evidence of Latrobe’s original 1800 horseshoe-shaped, three-story structure, along with underground solitary confinement cells and early workshop areas. As early as 1801, the penitentiary was manufacturing nails and shoes as part of Jefferson’s labor in confinement theory.

“When I began planning the demolition, I suggested that we involve an archaeologist early,” Dorn recounts. “Bill and Bruce Gottwald at Ethyl were fully supportive, so we ended up working with Katherine Beidleman.” While the state was unsure of the existence of any remnants of Latrobe’s first building, or of any burial grounds on the property, archaeological testing begun after the final inmate transfer revealed many artifacts from that original structure, which had been demolished in 1925.

“Really interesting stuff,” recalls Ellen Chapman, an archaeologist who also works as a cultural resources specialist at Cultural Heritage Partners. “Archaeology of the earliest solitary confinement cells was conducted right here in Richmond, but so far very few people know anything about it.”

Items discovered during this phase include many pieces of brick foundation left from the original Latrobe structure, ceramic shards, bottles and a 19th-century key. Also found were toothbrushes and toilet brush handles.

An overview details the locations and arrangements of human remains in 1992 from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
  • An overview details the locations and arrangements of human remains in 1992 from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Human Remains Found

It was in January 1992, after examination of the site’s architecture was complete, that construction in an area outside the original penitentiary walls on the Byrd Street side accidentally disturbed co-mingled, or mixed up, human remains in an area where there was no documented cemetery.

With work halted, Beidleman obtained a permit from DHR to exhume the remains, which ballooned into an immense excavation on the Byrd Street side of the property near Belvidere that eventually revealed more than 100 articulated, or full anatomical, skeletons located in single and multiple boxes. Other disarticulated, or fragmented, skeletal remains drove the total to more than 200 human beings.

Numerous artifacts were also discovered with the remains, including milk glass buttons, a perforated Indian head penny, interpreted by some as a post-Civil War Emancipation pendant, scraps of penitentiary clothing, pipes and rings.

“We were shocked and confused by the number of boxes and coffins,” Dorn recalls. “Some were clearly jumbled up remains from multiple persons in the same box. One that still sticks out in my mind was called ‘the piano box,’ because it was the size of a piano and seemed to contain remains of at least a dozen people.”

An archeological field note provided by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History shows bones in red and artifacts in blue found in one of the coffins.
  • An archeological field note provided by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History shows bones in red and artifacts in blue found in one of the coffins.

“Virginia soil is pretty hard on bone,” Chapman explains. “Most of the skeletons recovered were in very delicate condition and some of the bone was more of a stain in the ground than a complete object.”

“All of us in the crew were cautioned to stay very professional … and to treat the remains with respect,” Trollinger says of the situation. “Katherine Biedleman was very sensitive to how disturbing the discovery of human remains in Richmond might be, given the city’s complex history.”

There is much speculation as to who these remains may be, but with records indicating burials beginning around 1878, many are most likely black convicts leased out to railroads, canals, farms and granite quarries as a result of the post-Civil War-era black codes. These were a series of laws passed specifically to entrap young black men for such petty crimes as vagrancy and loitering then send them to the Penitentiary, sometimes for years, where they would in turn be leased out by the hundreds as cheap labor. Records show that from the late 1850s up into the early 1900s inmates were leased off-site to various companies, where they routinely worked backbreaking, 10-hour days, six days per week.

It was slavery under the guise of convict labor, and unscrupulous contractors realized they could literally work the inmates to death with impunity. One Kentucky businessman famously said of his disposable convict labor pool, “one dies, get another.”

This John Henry monument is in Talcott, West Virginia. Henry was an African-American folk hero known for his prowess as a steel-drivin’ man who raced a steam-powered rock drilling machine. The statue now sits near the entrance to Big Bend railroad tunnel.
  • This John Henry monument is in Talcott, West Virginia. Henry was an African-American folk hero known for his prowess as a steel-drivin’ man who raced a steam-powered rock drilling machine. The statue now sits near the entrance to Big Bend railroad tunnel.

The Legend of John Henry

On Dec. 1, 1869, a 19-year-old Elizabeth City, New Jersey, native named John Henry, who was just starting a 10-year sentence for housebreaking and larceny in Prince George County, was sent with 14 fellow inmates to work on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad’s Lewis and Big Bend tunnels in the new state of West Virginia. Most inmates were given unskilled jobs, such as loading and dumping broken rock, before graduating to more dangerous work, such as drilling holes for explosives.

John Henry was admitted to prison on Nov. 16, 1866, from the Library of Virginia microfilm penitentiary records.
  • John Henry was admitted to prison on Nov. 16, 1866, from the Library of Virginia microfilm penitentiary records.

These are the same areas and time period given in many early versions of the famous song, “The Ballad of John Henry.” According to Scott Reynolds Nelson’s 2006 book “John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend,” whether this particular John Henry was the man or even just the inspiration behind the legendary folk hero who single-handedly beat modern technology is hypothetical, but it seems more likely that his name evolved to represent hundreds of black convicts who gave their lives on these railroads between 1869 and 1879.

While the hero of the legend is described as a muscular giant, the real-life John Henry, according to his penitentiary admittance record, was a diminutive 5-feet-1-inch tall. Records also show that he did not die heroically by beating the newfangled steam drill, but by contracting silicosis, a form of pneumonia, from the grueling tunnel work. Like most broken and terminally ill inmates, he was shipped back to the white house, or the penitentiary’s whitewashed main building, to die.

Regardless of his role in the legend, Henry’s case remains a maddening paradox. He was born a free man in the North before the Civil War, but fell into legalized slavery in the South just after the war ended and died a slave. It is possible his remains are in this collection.

Women and children were routinely held in the penitentiary after the Civil War up into the 1920s. Pregnant women who had their babies behind the wall were required by law to keep the children with them until the age of 4, when they could be released to family. With almost nonexistent prenatal care, however, records show several newborns died at birth or shortly after, with no account of burial.

Lawbreakers as young as 9 were also incarcerated in the general population, and some of them died there, due to accidents or illness. Most notable was Thomas Nowlin, a 10-year-old Roanoke boy who was serving a four-year sentence for arson. On Oct. 1, 1875, he died five days after falling into a tub of boiling coffee in the kitchen. There is also no record of his burial.

Since the remains recovered on the property include women and children, it is unknown at this point if they were all inmates or children of inmates, or that one or more family cemeteries could have been combined with that temporary penitentiary burial ground.

Trollinger recalls their experience uncovering an infant.

“A friend of mine did excellent work exposing it. You could see the tiny pins still holding fragments of cloth. So, it was a strange moment to behold both the technical skill of laying bare this little skeleton and also quietly mourning the little tragedy that it revealed.”

The job also revealed to the archaeologists the harsh lives these people endured.

“I saw signs of osteomyelitis and infection, healed fractures, deformed vertebra,” Trollinger explains of anomalies in the skeletons. “There were bones from women, old people, and some from very big men.” He and Chapman both add that some bones showed signs of violent death, either from accidents or traumatic altercations.

“What got me was the teeth,” he admits. “After finding twenty-some teeth … it really sank in that I was sorting through parts of dead people. And that made my own mortality a very real thing.”

The National Significance

Richmond’s “complex history” of which Trollinger spoke, is of national significance because the penitentiary was one of many institutions across the South that openly exploited the relationships between slavery, the post-war mass imprisonment of black men, forced labor (sometimes to death) and assembly line, racially-biased capital punishments.

“Burial practices are part of the lived culture of a people and there is a thread of Richmond’s black community’s experiences — ordinary, tragic and empowering — that can only be understood by knitting together a contiguous story of its burial places,” affirms Ana Edwards about the importance of the burials to the Richmond community.

She stresses that this site should carry similar importance of other black burial grounds already recognized, such as the African Burial Ground in Shockoe Bottom, the Burying Ground for Slaves and Free People of Color at Fifth and Hospital streets, Evergreen and Oakwood cemeteries, and others.

Because of the mystery surrounding such a large number of remains, in 1992, a representative from the Smithsonian Institution was invited to the site. An agreement was made for it to take temporary possession of the remains for study and a report, and they would eventually be returned to Richmond for proper burial. This agreement allowed for demolition and grading to continue.

“At the time, I was unsure of the best way to eventually arrange for re-internment,” Dorn explains, who hoped that the Smithsonian could determine who the remains were, or where they came from, so it could make the proper burial arrangements within the appropriate Richmond communities.

By 1998, however, the mission had ground to a standstill as archaeologists and investigators moved on to other projects. Then, as the Smithsonian sat on the remains with precious few studies done, the dormant project was rocked by two tragedies. In 2008, a horrific fire in Beidleman’s apartment destroyed irreplaceable maps, site photographs and computer records, leaving only a scarce few photos and records of the excavation and recovery, which are now in the possession of Historic Resources and RVA Archaeology. Then in 2013, Katherine Beidleman herself died of a prolonged illness.

Since identification of individuals without descendant information is extremely difficult, Chapman underscores that the project’s priority is first identifying those affected descendant communities, then learning what they would like to see from those tests.

“That’s very important to stress,” she emphasizes, “because anthropology has been undergoing a sea change in recent decades about the damage caused to descendant communities when these projects aren’t done with descendant buy-in.”

Edwards agrees. “I would like to see reburial take place along with memorialization, hopefully through interaction with descendant family members first. Then, there should be a way to incorporate what is learned into the public sphere, including as part of public education curricula at every level.”

Editor's note: Chapman, who is working on this as a personal/academic project, later sent a clarification with regards to this story's print headline, Finding John Henry: "This is a community engagement project about a past excavation, modeled after the East Marshall Street Well Project. The focus is on bringing awareness and learning from the community what the next steps should be. The types of identifying we are initially focusing on are on identifying descendants through genealogical research based on penitentiary death records, not doing bone analysis."

The group requests that anyone interested in the project, especially possible descendants, to get in touch with it or fill in its online survey. “We’ve already been contacted by one person whose family member died at the penitentiary approximately at the time the cemetery was in use,” Chapman says, adding that ultimately, this process needs to engage all affected Richmond communities for planning public educational or memorial events in the near future.

“The men, women and children whose remains were found at the penitentiary more than 20 years ago … are people whose lives could speak to Richmond’s specific role in business practices in convict labor in the late 19th century, [including] incarceration, health, medical treatment and burial practices within the penal system,” Edwards stresses of the crucial need to move the project forward. “Increased knowledge about any of the individuals buried in our city’s network of cemeteries will also contribute to genealogical research, which for most black Americans involves tricky or very limited paper trails.”

An image of the demolition of Virginia State Penitentiary’s B building taken in the early 1990s.
  • An image of the demolition of Virginia State Penitentiary’s B building taken in the early 1990s.

Edwards emphasizes also that people need to know the story of John Henry to understand the legend, its origins and relationship to this project.

“The fact that his is a Richmond story connected to the national story of the railroad and labor, as well as convict labor, is so important.”

Anyone wishing to become involved or provide feedback to this project is invited to fill in the survey at, or email

CORRECTIONS: A source in this story incorrectly identified Cultural Heritage Partners as archeologists used early in the project. They work in historical legal representation and advocacy and were never hired for this project. Also a photo caption of a field note was provided by Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, not Ellen Chapman as listed in print edition. Style regrets the errors.