The case of Virginia Christian stands out for a number of reasons. She was the only female juvenile executed in the USA during the 20th century. She was mentally-retarded and, at best, semi-literate. She was the last woman electrocuted in Virginia and the last woman executed there until the lethal injection of Teresa Lewis on September 23, 2010. Her crime, trial and execution also raise deeply uncomfortable questions about the roles played in American capital punishment by the race and social class of both defendants and their alleged victims.
Born in Virginia on August 15, 1895, her personal situation couldn’t have been much bleaker. She was mentally retarded, black, working class and poor, with a mother crippled by disability and unable to raise her as she wanted to. She was therefore lucky (or so she might have thought) to secure a job as housemaid to 72-year old Ida Belote, a member of Virginia’s white ‘aristocracy’ born 11 years before the start of the Civil War and who seems to have retained certain white Southern attitudes to black employees. She a known to regularly mistreat Christian, assaulting her on a number of occasions but, to quote Hollins University history Professor Ruth Allen Doan:
“Probably a lot of people in Virginia, a lot of white people would have thought that was not abuse, but was normal behaviour.”
It was ‘normal behaviour’ that would ultimately cost both Ida Belote and Virginia Christian their lives.
After being mistreated for some time by her employer, Christian and Belote came to blows yet again on March 18, 1912, this time with fatal consequence for both of them. Belote, under the impression that her maid had stolen a locket and a skirt, threatened to have her arrested and the verbal argument quickly escalated to a physical confrontation. Belote, according to Christian, struck her with a metal spittoon and then both reached for a pair of broomsticks used to prop open a window. Christian struck her across the head and, fearing that anybody nearby might hear Belote’s screams, stuffed a towel into her mouth, stole her purse, some money and a ring before fleeing the house. She didn’t remain at liberty for very long.
By the time Ida Belote was found she’d suffocated on the towel which Christian, having stuffed it into her mouth, had also managed to push into her throat. According to a newspaper her body was discovered:
“Laying face-down in a pool of blood, and her head was horribly mutilated and a towel was stuffed into her mouth and throat.”
Virginia Christian was now in desperate trouble. She was arrested very shortly after the discovery of Belote’s body and quickly confessed to the fight and the theft of the purse, money and ring as she fled the scene. She did, however, strenuously deny any intent whatsoever to murder her erstwhile employer. This didn’t cut much ice with either detectives or the public. A wealthy, white lady, part of Virginia’s white ‘aristocracy,’ had been killed by a poor, mentally retarded housemaid. A black, poor, mentally retarded housemaid, at that. Public opinion turned not towards a fair trial and just punishment, but to whether or not she would be dragged from the jail and lynched before a trial date had even been set. Virginia being the former Confederate capital during the Civil War, a Civil War still being fought in some Southern minds, this was intolerable to many local whites. Despite occurring only days after the notorious ‘Hillsville Massacre,’ State Governor Thomas Mann openly described it as one of the most dastardly crimes in Virginia history and stated afterward that her execution was necessary to protect public safety. Seeing as Mann was Christian’s last hope for clemency in the event of her being convicted and condemned, her already perilous situation had just become infinitely worse.
Her trial began in Hampton (her lawyers having been denied permission for a change of venue) which was where the crime itself had been committed. In so hostile a public climate it was inevitable that she would walk into the Elizabeth City Courthouse, that the all-white jury would convict her and that presiding Judge Clarence Robinson would sentence her to death by electrocution. That was exactly what happened. Despite the best efforts of her black lawyers, who were too scared to put her on the stand and let her testify in her own defense, fearing a general backlash against black people, she started her trial on April 8, 1912. It was concluded with a guilty verdict and a death sentence on April 9. As Professor Doan put it:
“No, she’s not getting a fair trial. She’s not even allowed to testify.”
Professor Doan also clarified the reason for Christian’s lawyers being too afraid of the public response to allow their client to testify in her own defense:
“Maybe, if she’d testified, and certainly if she’d got off, we’d have a lynch mob in town.”
Her execution date was immediately set for June 21 and on June 3 she was shipped to the notoriously tough Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond to await execution. Unlike many poor defendants she had decent, committed lawyers who fought from the start to at least get her fair trial or, failing that, manage to gain a commutation of her sentence. While Christian sat in the maximum-security section of the State Penitentiary on Spring Street, Richmond, they fought their hardest to save her life. That they didn’t do so reflects far more on public attitudes than on their efforts on her behalf.
Governor Mann, then embroiled deeply in the consequences of the ‘Hillsville Massacre’ of March 12 and having already decried Christian as one of the worst criminals in Virginia history, did exactly what was expected. He refused her request for a commutation, issuing only a single, brief stay of execution postponing her date from June 21 to August 16, only five months after the crime itself. The Virginia courts also refused to intervene. Meanwhile, Christian languished in her Death Row cell on Spring Street, able only to tick off dates on the calendar, dates that marched all too rapidly towards August 16, the date with red ring around it.
While her lawyers did their best, her mother wrote to Governor Mann, personally begging him to spare her daughter’s life. In an emotional letter to him she stated:
“I know she dun an awful weaked thing when she kill Miss Belote and I hear that the people at the penetintry wants to kill her but I is praying night and day on my knees to God that he will soften your heart so that She may spend the rest of her days in prison.”
A Chicago newspaper also agitated strongly for a reprieve and Governor Mann received hundreds of letters from the North requesting he exercise executive clemency and spare her life. None of the letters and newspaper articles did any good. Nor could her mother’s letter, the victim’s apparent repeated abuse of her killer or her lawyers making their best efforts overcome public anger, racial prejudice and class snobbery. Virginia Christian had been condemned and, therefore, Virginia Christian must (and did) die according to the law as it was exercised. The public wanted blood, Governor Mann and the Virginia courts gave it to them.
August 15 dawned bright and clear, a day on which most people might look around and feel glad to be alive. So might Virginia Christian if she hadn’t been only one day away from execution. Making it especially hard for her was the fact that, having been tried, convicted and sentenced while aged only 16, August 15, 1912 was her 17th birthday. She spent her last birthday pondering her fate rather than out celebrating as any 17-year old normally would. For her it was simply her last day in a damp, gloomy cell with only cockroaches and the prison Chaplain for company as they sat watching the clock tick away. Hour by hour, minute by minute, she spent her 17th birthday knowing that she’d never see another.
The next day she was prepared. Her head was shaved for an electrode, as were both her forearms. Virginia’s chair had only been installed in 1908 so, unlike more experienced States where another electrode would have been strapped to her leg, she had electrodes strapped to her forearms. According to one reporter:
“The usual three shocks were administered by the officer in charge of the electric current. Each time the electric switch was touched, the body of the woman responded with fearful convulsions. Death, it Is believed, was instantaneous.”
Having been denied a fair trial, a reprieve and a commutation of her death sentence, the Commonwealth of Virginia had one more unpleasantness in store for Virginia Christian. Her family were too poor to claim her body so, after her execution, they were denied the chance to give her a proper funeral. Instead, her body was given to a Virginia medical school for educating its students in experimentation and dissection.
Not what I’d call the Commonwealth of Virginia’s finest hour.