Polite and deferential, the letter from Flossie DeBrossard asks about her relative, Francis Grayson, one of seven condemned Virginia black men known as the Martinsville Seven. The paper ghosts of the group are among hundreds haunting the archives of the Library of Virginia, says the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Several rarely disturbed boxes hold the now-open penitentiary files of prisoners electrocuted at a time when prosecutors, judges, and juries aimed parts of the state’s death penalty law almost exclusively at blacks.
It was a justice system that curbed mob-imposed lynchings by supplanting them with court-imposed exectutions, says the newspaper. The records, some brittle and yellowing are made public 50 years after the inmates’ deaths. They start in 1908, the year electrocutions began at the State Penitentiary in Richmond, and end now in 1954. The letters can be deeply touching, but much of the material consists of the dispassionate paperwork needed to impose the state’s ultimate sanction. The language reflects the attitudes of the times, and some of it is now considered racist and offensive. There are telegrams from funeral homes in search of bodies. There are death certificates, FBI fingerprint search results, forms used by inmates to donate eyes for research and transplants, and letters from would-be execution witnesses.