‘Hidden History’ of the public gallows uncovered in Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Thousands of commuters, travelers and tractor trailers zip past Exit 74C along Interstate 95 each day. The highway sounds add to the ambiance of today’s Richmond in that area around Broad Street, where the fate for folks was not as promising more than 100 years ago.

“This is where a lot of people met their end,” gestures Michael J. Thomas, a guide with Richmond Tour Guys.

Executions were held at public gallows in that vicinity for decades, according to Thomas. He says two of the first happened in 1782 for murder and horse thievery, and death by hanging and sometimes firing squad were still commonplace even after an amended criminal code seven years later.

“Slaves were tried for any number of capital offenses,” he explains. “Arson, infanticide, poisoning.”

One of the most famous was Gabriel Prosser, who planned a slave rebellion. Prosser was hanged in 1800.

There were many more during the Civil War.

“Probably one of the more famous Richmond hangings was of Timothy Webster for espionage as a Union spy,” Thomas says. “Much more common were hangings for desertion. The executions were public because they were designed to kind of instill this fear and show the public that justice was being served but also to act as a deterrent.”

However, hangings in Richmond at the public gallows became more of a public show as the years went on. Thomas says one of the last at that location was in 1869 for murder.

“He gave a 30 minute speech from the gallows before leading the crowd in several hymns before finally being executed,” Thomas describes.

He explains the gallows eventually moved to 15th and Marshall Streets behind jailhouse walls.

“From the top of the hill, people could still gather and see over the wall to watch the executions, so it still kinda attracted a carnival crowd, including more than once students from the Medical College of Virginia,” he shares.

Those days are long gone, but Thomas says they are something to think about as we step and drive on the soil of today.

“History is entwined in everything we do.”

In his research of the public gallows, Thomas found some debate over the exact location. Many accounts place it at the Northwest corner of 15th and Broad, which is the modern-day Interstate-95. Still, an 1810 map he has seen shows it right in the middle of the Historic Burial Ground, which was prone to flooding from Shockoe Creek.

Richmond Tour Guys includes the public gallows on its Shockoe Bottom tour. Follow this link for a complete calendar.

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