The large, two-and-a-half-story brick jail building was part of a larger complex located on Wall Street, later known as Lumpkin's Alley and sometimes Birch's Alley. The narrow lane connected Fifteenth Street to Broad Street in the city's Shockoe Bottom district, which was bordered, roughly, by Broad Street to the north, Cary Street to the south, Fourteenth Street to the west, and Seventeenth Street to the east. The compact city lots on Wall Street backed onto flood-prone land bordering Shockoe Creek, a sluggish and polluted waterway that meandered through the Shockoe Valley to the James River. Although hardly prime real estate, this is where Richmond's slave trade—the largest in the Upper South—was centered and therefore became the ideal location for slave jails.
Collier lost the property when he used it as collateral for a loan from the Bank of Virginia that he failed to repay. The bank seized the property and sold it to Lumpkin for $6,000 on November 27, 1844. Prior to this, Lumpkin had worked as an itinerant trader, traveling across the South buying and reselling slaves. Thirty-six years old in 1844, he settled down and established a business similar to Collier's on the three lots. Lumpkin probably did no new building himself, and the value of the structures on his property had actually dropped to $5,000 by 1854. During the 1850s, however, he purchased three additional lots adjacent to his property, all on the east side of Wall Street.
Otis Bigelow, who visited from Syracuse, New York, early in the 1850s, later described Lumpkin's establishment: On one side of the open court was a large tank for washing, or lavatory. Opposite was a long, two-story brick house, the lower part fitted up for men and the second story for women, the place, in fact, was a kind of hotel or boardinghouse for negro-traders and their slaves. I was invited to dine at a large table with perhaps twenty traders, who gave me almost no attention, and there was little conversation. They were probably strangers to one another. As the historian Maurie D. McInnis has pointed out, just as likely they preferred "not to talk in front of a stranger who could easily have been an abolitionist."
Contemporary accounts portrayed Lumpkin's Jail as a brutal and dehumanizing place. Anthony Burns, a Virginia slave who escaped to Boston in 1854, was returned to Richmond and held there for four months. In an account of Burns's life published in 1856, Charles Emery Stevens described "the place of his confinement [as] a room only six or eight feet square, in the upper story of the jail, which was accessible only through a trap-door. He was allowed neither bed nor air; a rude bench fastened against the wall and a single, coarse blanket were the only means of repose." In this room, according to Stevens, Burns suffered "torture" by overly tight irons, which held his arms behind his back, ground into his wrists, and caused his feet to swell. He was not able to remove his clothes or properly relieve himself. Once a day he was fed cornbread and a small amount of meat, without utensils, and drank from a pail of water that was refreshed once or twice a week. His health quickly deteriorated, leaving Burns permanently crippled and in ill health. He died in 1862, at the age of twenty-eight.
After the War
Once the testing area had been defined, a backhoe was used to mechanically excavate three large trenches across the suspected jail site. At depths ranging between 8 and 11 feet below the ground surface, archaeologists encountered a well-preserved section of cobble paving and other historic features, along with a variety of household artifacts dating to the Lumpkin period of occupation. Based on these findings, the Slave Trail Commission determined that the site offered the potential to yield significant archaeological information and commissioned JRIA to undertake a full-scale archaeological excavation.
The second phase of the archaeological investigation began in August 2008. This time the testing area was significantly larger, measuring roughly 160 feet long by 80 feet wide. For the first several weeks, archaeologists worked with heavy equipment operators to painstakingly dig through the fill layers covering the site, removing thousands of cubic yards of soil and debris. Early on, the remains of the Seaboard Air Line Railway freight depot and the Richmond Iron Works foundry were identified. Once these had been documented and removed, continued excavation began to reveal an array of intact features associated with the Lumpkin's Jail complex.
The excavations continued for several more weeks before archaeologists finally found evidence of the jail building buried nearly fifteen feet beneath the modern ground level. Unfortunately, this deepest part of the site was prone to flooding, with groundwater continually seeping in from below. Gas-powered pumps temporarily reduced the water level, but only limited testing could be conducted without damaging the sensitive historic features. Despite the challenging conditions, archaeologists identified another well-preserved section of cobble paving and brick drain. More importantly, they found two building wall foundations situated exactly eighteen feet apart in the location predicted from the historic photographs. An 1876 account had described the building as measuring eighteen feet wide, so it was clear that these features were part of the infamous jail.
Over the course of the eighteen-week excavation, which lasted from August to December of 2008, archaeologists retrieved thousands of artifacts spanning the entire history of the site, from the 1830s through the twentieth century. These included a variety of household artifacts, such as ceramics, bottles, and animal bone; items that may have been related to the site's subsequent use as a school, including large stoneware ink bottles, inkwells, and graphite pencils; and many personal items, such as clay tobacco pipes, bone-handled toothbrushes, clothing buttons, spectacle lenses, tiny porcelain doll heads, and a carved bone ring. In addition, the site's damp soil conditions helped to preserve many organic items, such as leather shoes, fabric, and wood that normally would have disintegrated long ago.
Once the excavation had been completed, the site was carefully reburied to preserve it from continued exposure to the elements.
May–June 1830 - The slave trader Bacon Tait purchases three thirty-foot-wide lots on Wall Street, in the Shockoe Bottom district of Richmond.
July 6, 1833 - Bacon Tait sells three lots on Wall Street, in the Shockoe bottom district of Richmond, to Lewis A. Collier. The structures are worth about $400.
November 27, 1844 - The Bank of Virginia sells three lots on Wall Street, in the Shockoe Bottom district of Richmond, to Richard Lumpkin. He establishes a business catering to slave traders, including a so-called jail to confine slaves waiting for sale.
1850s - Richard Lumpkin buys three additional lots adjacent to the three he already owns on Wall Street, in the Shockoe Bottom district of Richmond.
Mid- to late 1854 - Anthony Burns spends four months confined at Lumpkin's Jail, in Richmond, awaiting sale.
1866 - Richard Lumpkin dies in Richmond.
May 1867 - Mary Lumpkin, the African American widow of Richard Lumpkin, leases her property to the Reverend Nathaniel Colver, who seeks to found a Baptist seminary. The first classes are held in Lumpkin's Jail, a former slave-holding pen.
1873 - Mary Lumpkin sells her Richmond property, including the former Lumpkin's jail, to Andrew Jackson Ford and his wife, Mary Lucy Ford. The jail will be demolished sometime in the next three years.
1892 - Andrew Jackson Ford and his wife sell the property that once was the site of Lumpkin's Jail to John Chamblin and James H. Scott, who establish the Richmond Iron Works.
Early 1920s - By this time, the Seaboard Air Line Railway has erected a large freight depot on the Richmond property that was once the site of Lumpkin's Jail, a slave-holding pen.
Late 1950s - The western part of the lots that once were the site of Lumpkin's Jail, a slave-holding pen in Richmond, is buried during construction of the Richmond and Petersburg Turnpike.
Late 2005 - The first phase of an archaeological investigation into the site of Lumpkin's Jail, a slave-holding pen in Richmond, begins.
August–December 2008 - The second phase of an archaeological investigation into the site of Lumpkin's Jail, a slave-holding pen in Richmond, is conducted.
October 2009 - Richmond's Slave Trail Commission unveils a long-term development plan for Lumpkin's Jail, including an archaeological exhibit, slavery museum, and African American genealogical center.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Laird, M. R. Lumpkin's Jail. (2018, January 25). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Lumpkin_s_Jail.
- MLA Citation:
Laird, Matthew R. "Lumpkin's Jail." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 25 Jan. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: December 8, 2015 | Last modified: January 25, 2018