The penitentiary burials

Local archaeologist Ellen Chapman recently completed a useful dissertation at the College of William and Mary titled “Buried Beneath the River City: Investigating an Archaeological Landscape and its Community Value in Richmond, Virginia.” In it, she detailed the archaeological recovery of a number of burials at the state penitentiary grounds. The penitentiary was built in 1800 above the city’s western riverfront. After it closed in 1990, its grounds were purchased by the Ethyl Corporation which prompted archaeological testing and recovery. There, D. Katharine Beidleman excavated more than one hundred burials outside the old penitentiary walls.

Beidleman’s findings were curious. They apparently dated to the 1870s and 1880s, and they included women and children. The story trails off here. The remains were sent to the Smithsonian, and final reports were never filed.

About four years ago Ellen got involved with the Department of Historic Resources to see what was going on with the remains. RVA Archaeology and the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project joined forces with Ellen this week to try to move the project forward. She is calling for public engagement, starting with the survey below. Great to see this back on the radar. Additional information can be found in Dale Brumfield’s 2017 book, Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History.

Ellen’s survey is here:

4 responses to “The penitentiary burials”

  1. Terrell Dorn Avatar
    Terrell Dorn

    I was Ethyl’s project manager and hired Katherine. We were told that the remains would be returned to Richmond as soon as Doug Owsley was done with them. It is shameful that they are still in DC.

    1. RyanSmith Avatar

      Good to hear from you, Terrell. Thanks for this info.

  2. RyanSmith Avatar

    Ellen Chapman, Libby Cook, and Ana Edwards recently published their study of the penitentiary project as “Bones in Stasis: The Challenging History and Uncertain Future of the Virginia State Penitentiary Collection” in the Spring 2020 issue of the Journal for the Anthropology of North America. See

  3. Lester Wolfrey Avatar
    Lester Wolfrey

    I read a story about an inmate a black man named John William Henry was buried in the sand behind the White House, the White House that was located behind the prison around the mid 1870s. This man was also known to be the legend John Henry the steel driving man. The story goes he was convicted on burglary charges and the warden had him on work release helping build roads and tunnels. Was curious if the records still exist and do they show an inmate during that time period.

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