This is the latest entry in series of posts highlighting inmate photographs in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary. Herbert Irving Roberts, the subject of this week’s post, was a career criminal, escaped from the Virginia Penitentiary in 1928, and was “taken for a ride” and killed in New York City in 1930.
On the evening of 13 February 1927, Herbert Irving Roberts entered Mrs. Cook’s Cafeteria at 805 East Grace Street in Richmond. His accomplice, John E. Morgan, waited outside as the lookout.
Roberts, armed with a gun, subdued and tied up a janitor and night watchman, cracked open the basement safe, and stole about $1,000. Roberts went to the first floor to rob another safe when the door bell rang. Frightened, Roberts left his tools and escaped through a rear window. Roberts and Morgan hurried to the Broad Street railroad station and took the 11:50 p.m. train to Washington, D.C. Richmond detectives contacted Washington police to be on the lookout for the two men. They were arrested and transported back to Richmond. Roberts, acting as his own lawyer, was tried and convicted on 14 April 1927 and sentenced to 18 years in the penitentiary.
Roberts was not incarcerated very long. On the night of 3 July 1928, Roberts made a dummy out of blankets, stuffing a pair of pants and a shirt to deceive the guards when they did their evening count of prisoners. Meanwhile, Roberts hid in the prison yard. Sometime late 3 July or early 4 July, Roberts took a 12-foot pipe, left in the yard by workmen doing repairs to the penitentiary, and climbed to the top of the prison wall. He used the same pipe to slide down into the garden of Penitentiary Superintendent Rice M. Youell and freedom. Guard E.B. Barger was dismissed for failure to make sure Roberts was in his cell.
Roberts was never caught. On 7 October 1930, Roberts was found dead, with a single gunshot wound to the head, in the back seat of an abandoned automobile in a quiet residential neighborhood of the Bronx. New York City police believed that it was a mob hit and that Roberts had been taken for a “ride.” The police found a car in a nearby garage that Roberts purchased in Miami two months earlier. Published reports in Miami stated that Roberts may have spent the winter of 1930 there with members of the Al Capone organization. Roberts’ murder was never solved.
-Roger Christman, LVA Senior State Records Archivist