One Prisoner Got Christmas Pardon
By SHIRLEY DONNELLY
The spirit of Christmas at one time was expressed in this state by a gubernatorial pardon for someone serving a long term in the penitentiary.
It was a custom that kept alive in each prisoner’s heart the hope that he might be the lucky one to get another chance.
But it usually was the man with influential friends who was awarded the coveted prize. The friendless men were left to go “stir crazy.” And in every prison there are friendless men–human beings whose longings–“Oh I wish I had someone to love me. . .” — were embodied in the sentiment of “The Prisoner’s Song.”
AS A SEMINARY student at Richmond, Va., I had opportunity to teach Sunday School in the Virginia State Penitentiary and to know some of the people serving time within those grim walls. Many were old men living on “borrowed time,” as we say of those who have passed their 70th birthday anniversary. Among the men who’d been there so long that their friends on the outside had died or forgotten them was an old man named Price. He was a mean old scoundrel who committed murder in Prince Edward County when he was 75 years old.
A jury convicted him and a life sentence was metered out to him by the court. After serving a good stretch, he was offered a pardon on the grounds that he had fought valiantly in the interest of his slate (during the Civil War and thereby reflecting credit on his family by wearing the grey uniform of the Confederacy.
WHEN PRICE was told he could have his freedom, he asked prison authorities to write his relatives and find out if they would receive him.
Back came a flat “no.” They didn’t want him. They preferred that he stay in prison. Apprised of this, Price decided that the penitentiary was the best place for him. His needs would he supplied and he wouldn’t have to be in anyone’s way on the outside.
Stay he did until he died in the Spring of 1923 at the age of 97, unwept, unhonored and unsung. I received word of his death shortly after settling at Oak Hill.
HE WAS AN unforgettable character, well into his 90’s and spare of build when I first saw him. The last time I saw him was on a warm, sunny day, when he sat in a rocking chair in the prison’s open court.
Chewing tobacco was his principal pleasure and on this occasion, he was cutting away for dear life and paying no attention to anything but the ground in front of him.
He hadn’t a care in the world. He had a bunk in his cell at night, and prison fare to eat during the day. He had complete social security. No one cared a rap about him. He appeared to care about nobody.
What his thoughts were as he sat that day with crossed legs, rocking and chewing, often was conjectured. He was an object of pity.
With the Psalmist of Holy Writ (Psalms 143:4), this man, who had committed a heinous crime and drew a life sentence in durance vile, could say with more truth than poetry, “No man cared for my soul.”