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This is the latest entry in a series of posts highlighting inmate photographs in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary.  John Henry Ellis, the subject of this week’s post, was convicted three times for housebreaking and grand larceny.  His temper got him in trouble several times while incarcerated.

John Henry Ellis was convicted in March 1932 in Richmond Hustings Court for housebreaking and sentenced to three years in the Penitentiary.  Ellis was sent to work on State Convict Road Force Camp 19 in Wythe County where he immediately clashed with the guards.

Photograph of John Henry Ellis, #43346, Prisoner Negative, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Negatives, Box 234, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

“Ellis has been saucy and impudent with the guard and foreman here,” reported Camp Sgt. M.C. Russell to Penitentiary Superintendent Rice M. Youell on 19 October 1932.  His work was unsatisfactory as well.  “The [State Highway Department] foreman called him out without any results,” Russell wrote.  “Finally he threatened to stand him on the bank and Ellis told him he didn’t give a damn what he did with him.”  Russell punished him on 5 October 1932 by making him “stand in cuffs from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. taking him down only for meals and to use the bucket.”

Ellis turned violent on 17 October 1932.  While a group of prisoners worked in a quarry, one of them broke wind.  Another prisoner, Robert Coleman, said to Ellis, “I believe that was you.”  Ellis responded by striking Coleman in the face with a shovel.  “He only hit him once,” Russell reported to Youell, “but that cut a gash on Colemans [sic] face that Dr. Graham had to take four stitches to sew it up.  Coleman never made any attempt to hit Ellis.”  Ellis was punished with the strap.  Youell was reluctant to authorize corporal punishment but, he wrote Russell on 21 October 1932, “I suppose that the strap will be the only thing that will straighten him [Ellis] out.”  It did.  Russell told Youell in September 1933 that he hadn’t had any trouble with Ellis since his punishment.  Ellis was discharged on 28 October 1933.

Unfortunately for Ellis, he didn’t stay out of trouble after his release from the penitentiary.  In February 1935, Ellis was arrested in Richmond for stealing three women’s purses.  He pled guilty to grand larceny in March 1935 and was sentenced to three years in the penitentiary.  In May 1940 he was sentenced to one year in prison for housebreaking.  Because it was his third conviction, an additional ten years was added to his sentence.  Ellis didn’t want to go back to prison.  As he was being led out of the courtroom, Ellis tried to escape, but he was tripped by a police officer and quickly recaptured.  Due to gaps in the penitentiary records, Ellis’ fate is unknown.

-Roger Christman, LVA Senior State Records Archivist

Roger Christman

Senior State Records Archivist

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