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The best thing about being a reference archivist is that every time you pick up the phone you have no idea what the question will be, or kind of research odyssey you will be embarking on.

Whether helping patrons with genealogical or academic research, there are a few foundational questions you ask to increase the chances of success. Are you looking at the right records, in the right place, for the right time period? However, the most important question that most researchers take for granted is, are you looking for the right person? Many individuals do not use their given name on a regular basis. Some people use initials or a nickname, so tracking them down even in official records can be tricky even for the most careful of researchers.

Death Certificate of Harry Judson Coleman

Virginia Vital Statistics Collection, certificate #15170 dated June 30. 1936. Download from

Case in point, a few weeks ago I answered a reference call from a patron who was trying to track down information about her uncle, Harry Judson Coleman. She had no idea who he was, and only found his name when looking at an obituary for one of her grandparents. She wondered why no one in the family had ever mentioned him. She began researching him and found his death certificate, which gave her even more questions.

The certificate showed that Harry Coleman was at the Virginia State Penitentiary in 1936, and died of a gunshot wound. She wanted to know any additional information about why he was incarcerated and the circumstances of his death. The patron also told me she found Harry Coleman listed on the 1930 census as an inmate at the penitentiary.

In order to uncover crime and sentence, I checked the state penitentiary register for that time period and found a listing for Harry Coleman. It may have been her uncle but this Harry Coleman (inmate 25253) was sentenced for robbery and was only in the penitentiary from 20 February to 17 September 1930.

I continued to search several years worth of the register’s index, but found no other entries for Harry Coleman. We know he was in the penitentiary in 1936 when he was killed, but why he is not on the register? Could he have been listed under Henry or Harold? The patron was sure his given name was Harry. Upon reflection, I figured if an inmate had been shot, it would have been a big enough story to warrant an article in the newspaper. Going back to Harry Coleman’s death certificate, I identified two important dates. The date of his injury was listed as 16 June 1936, and the date of death was listed as 30 June 1936.

On the front page of the Richmond Times Dispatch on 17 June 1936 were several articles concerning a failed prison break at the State Penitentiary involving 8 inmates who had taken a guard hostage. The article named the inmates involved, including “Debie Coleman, 32, of Roanoke County, serving 20 years for hijacking cigarette trucks in Botetourt County; badly wounded in head and not expected to live.”

My interest was piqued. Previously when I was checking the penitentiary register Index for “Coleman,” I remembered seeing the name “Debie” since it was unusual, but the patron had never heard the nickname.

I also looked at the Richmond Times Dispatch for 1 July 1936. There was an article about Debie Coleman dying from his injuries on 30 June 1936 at Richmond Memorial Hospital at 2:55 pm. Going back to the death certificate for Harry Judson Coleman, we matched the hospital and the time of death.

“Gunn Orders Sanity Hearing for 2 Held in Break``, Excerpt

Richmond Times Dispatch July 1, 1936, p. 1, Library of Virginia.

I returned to the prisoner register and found the entry for Debie Coleman (inmate 34076). He was received at the penitentiary on 13 June 1935, and the register notes his death at Richmond Memorial Hospital on 30 June 1936.

Entry for Debie Coleman, inmate 34076. Virginia State Penitentiary, Accession 41558, Series II, Subseries A, Prison Register (no number) inmate #33562-40653, Miscellaneous Reel 5996, frame 346.

Once I had obtained the prisoner number from the register, I was also able to track down his photograph. The patron was thrilled to have an answer to this family mystery and to have an image of the uncle she had not even known existed a few weeks before.

Further research in the Richmond Times Dispatch also uncovered a photograph of the inmate at the hospital, where he is identified as Harry J Coleman.

Although it is unusual that an inmate would be listed on an official record by a nickname instead of their legal name, this is a perfect example of how even if you are looking in the right place, you might not find what you are looking for right away. Using details from primary sources can help corroborate details in other records to make sure that you are researching the right individual.

Mugshot of Debie Coleman, inmate #34076.

Virginia State Penitentiary, Accession 41558, Series II, subseries B, Box 25, BC1164813, Lab# 21_0747_001.

-Dawn Tinnell, Senior Reference Archivist

Dawn Tinnell

Senior Reference Archivist


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