Mug Shot_Virginia Christian_6_3_1912

A Day for Reflection

This morning, at the time of day Virginia Christian was pronounced dead and unstrapped from the electric chair at the state penitentiary in Richmond, Virginia, on August 16, 1912, I began working on this essay. Virgie was seventeen years old, an African American girl taken out of a Negro school at the age of thirteen because her […]

Martha Green

Reader’s Profile: Martha Green

(Large photo) Martha Green, photographed in Chicago, Ill., by Stephan Chodorov. (Small photo) George Washington Fields, lead defense attorney for Virginia Christian, at the time of his graduation from Cornell Law School. Fields was a very successful attorney, even though he lost his eyesight more than a decade before he represented Virgie. Martha Green recently […]

Elizabeth City County Courthouse, 1913. (Courtesy of the Hampton History Museum, Hampton, Va. Cheyne Collection 2009.15.1998)

Dangerous Situation

(Large photo) Elizabeth City County Courthouse, Hampton, Virginia, where Virginia Christian was tried for murder in 1912. (Small photo) Inez C. Fields, the daughter of George Washington Fields, lead defense attorney in the Virginia Christian trial. (Massachusetts Historical Society) Was it a good idea for the father [Henry Christian] to testify that he did not know the […]

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A Reader’s Question

(Large photo) Courthouse in Hillsville, Virginia, where five people died in a March 1912 shooting in the Blue Ridge Mountains. (Small photo) Virginia Christian, who was charged in March 1912 with murder in Hampton, Virginia, and was not allowed to testify in her own defense. Recently a reader from Brooklyn, New York, sent me a […]

Santa Claus

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus

“Is there a Santa Claus?” asked little Virginia O’Hanlon in a letter to the editor of the New York Sun newspaper in 1897. Francis Pharcellus Church wrote the paper’s legendary reply. “Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus,” Church said. “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that […]

UVA Hospital 1901

Skeleton in the Closet

When I arrived at the University of Virginia in 1968, I sometimes whispered to myself the names I saw memorialized on facades and statues. Surely those were great men, I thought. Soon I had a part-time job in a lab located in the Barringer wing of the University hospital. I gave little heed to the […]

0349 Sheriff Curtis & Officers 1920

Sheriff R. K. Curtis

How excited I was when I found the photograph of the six men above! Why? The man standing at the far right is the historical Sheriff R. K. Curtis, who arrested and held Virginia Christian in the Elizabeth City County jail in Hampton. Sheriff Curtis’s deputies accompanied the girl to the courthouse the days of […]

Derryn Moten_Ross Howell Jr (2)

Derryn Moten Conversation

In my August 5 blog, “A Special Day,” I described meeting for the first time Derryn Moten, the historian whose dissertation convinced me to write Forsaken. A video of our conversation, produced by NewSouth Books, is now available. Please have a look. Derryn and I spoke about many of the issues narrator Charlie Mears ponders […]

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The Slender Man

American courts used to try children over the age of seven as adults. While they received the strict protections of a defendant in a criminal trial, they could also receive a court’s harshest penalty, death. By the nineteenth century, attitudes had changed. The first juvenile court convened in Chicago, Illinois, in 1899. Procedures were more […]

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A Special Day

Saturday I talked with someone I’d admired for years, but had never met. Mary Leigh Howell, our three dogs, and I were on our way from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Seagrove Beach, Florida. During the drive we had an unsettling moment. In Atlanta we merged into a convoy of pickups flying Confederate battle flags, probably […]