Only one Virginia governor has died in office since the state declared independence in 1776 and adopted its first constitution.
Governor George William Smith was appointed governor in April, 1811, after Governor James Monroe resigned to become Secretary of State. Under Virginia's first constitution adpted in 1776, the legislature elected the governor to serve a one-year term. However, the General Assembly was not in session when Governor Monroe resigned. George William Smith was serving on the Council of State, and it chose him as acting governor.
When the legislature met again in December, 1811, Smith was elected as governor by the General Assembly and dropped the "acting" from his title. Governor Smith had served only three weeks when the Richmond Theater caught fire. He escaped the burning building, but re-entered the theater to rescue others and died inside. The Council of State then selected Peyton Randolph to serve as acting governor from December 27, 1811–January 4, 1812, when the General Assembly elected James Barbour.1
since Lord Botetourt died in 1770, the only other Virginia governor to die during his term was Gov. George William Smith in the Richmond Theater Fire on December 26, 1811
Source: Disastrous History, The Richmond Theater Fire
John Tyler was the first governor to resign after 1776. He was elected to a second one-year term by the General Assembly in December 1826, but one month later the legislature chose him to be a US Senator. The General Assembly then elected William Branch Giles to complete the governor's term.2
It was another 21 years after Governor James Monroe resigned in 1811 before the office became vacant again before the end of a governor's term.
The constitution had been revised in 1830 so governors were elected to serve a single three-year term. Governor Littleton Waller Tazewell served the first two years of his three-year term, from 1832-34. He resigned in protest over the decision of President Andrew Jackson to withdraw Federal funds from the Bank of the United States. Tazewell lived 24 more years after resigning, but he did not serve again in public office.3
Thomas Walker Gilmer was elected to a three-year term in 1840, but he resigned just one year into his term. He had proposed to exchange a resident of New York incarcerated in Virginia for fugitive slaves in New York, but the General Assembly refused to concur. Governor Gilmer quit, and won election that year instead to the US House of Representatives.4
The 1851 constitution changed the term of the office to four years and allowed the voters, rather than the General Assembly, to elect the governor. It also abolished the Council of State. To ensure there would be someone in the executive branch "waiting in the wings" to serve as acting governor, the 1851 constitution created the position of Lieutenant Governor with responsibility of presiding over the State Senate. One clue about the perceived value of that office as a stepping stone to becoming governor: no Attorney General has ever chosen to run for Lieutenant Governor; instead, they have run directly for election as governor.5
In 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, William "Extra Billy" Smith was elected by the voters in the Confederate portion of Virginia to serve a 4-year term. Smith did not complete that second term. He resigned formally in May, 1865 after the Confederacy was defeated.6
After Virginia seceded and joined the Confederacy, those who supported staying in the Union formed the Restored Government of Virginia. Francis Pierpont was elected governor on May 28, 1863 by voters in the counties accepting the authority of the Restored Government of Virginia, primarily those counties in the Alleghenies west of the Shenandoah Valley. When West Virginia became a state later in 1863, Governor Pierpont's authority was limited to the areas occupied by the Union Army, and military officials often ignored him.
When the Confederacy collapsed in April, 1865, President Andrew Johnson appointed Pierpont served as Provisional Governor of Virginia during the first years of Reconstruction.
In 1867 Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act and the Commonwealth of Virginia became Military District One. Pierpont's four-year term expired on May 28, 1868, but General John Schofield forced Pierpont out of office and appointed Henry H. Wells as governor on April 4, 1868. Governor Well's military appointment lasted until Virginia finally held another election for governor in July, 1869.
Governor Wells was defeated by Gilbert C. Walker in the race, and he resigned the office on September 21, 1869. General John M. Schofield, the commander of the First Military District, then appointed Walker to serve the rest of the term as Virginia's last military-appointed governor. On January 1, 1870, Gilbert C. Walker became the first elected governor to serve under the Underwood Constitution, which had been ratified by the voters in 1869 and was key to Virginia being readmitted into the Union.7
No Virginia governor has been forced out of office since William Smith and Francis Pierpont in the 1860's.
In 2013, Gov. Robert McDonnell was accused of corruption, trading his influence in exchange for gifts and funding from the owner of a company trying to create a drug from tobacco. Near the very end of his term, McDonnell declined an offer from Federal prosecutors to resign in exchange for a lenient sentence and he finished his four years in office in January, 2014.
That same year the governor and his wife were both convicted in Federal court and later sentenced to jail. The Richmond Style Weekly wryly noted that the only Virginia governor to be convicted of corruption included in his official portrait the statue of George Washington next to the state capitol building:8
The Virginia State Penitentiary with the electric chair for executions was moved to the Greensville Correctional Center and the most violent inmates are now kept at "super-max" prisons built in Wise County. Gov. McDonnell and his wife were sentenced in a Federal court and would be incarcerated in a Federal prison. Even if the state penintentiary was still located in downtown Richmond, they never would have been sent there.
Gov. Robert McDonnell (shown here in his official portrait) is the only Virginia governor to be convicted of corruption
Source: Roanoke Free Press, Governor Bob McDonnell’s official gubernatorial portrait)
In 2019, Governor Ralph Northam considered resigning. New reports highlighted a picture on his page of his 1984 yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School, showing a man dressed in "blackface" and other wearing Ku Klux Klan regalia. Northam acknowledged the old photos were racist and offensive, and admitted that he had once put black shoepolish on his face to compete in a dance contest as Michael Jackson.
Many state and local officials from the Democratic Party called for Governor Northam to resign. Instead, he chose to apologize and dedicated the rest of his term to racial healing. Demands for his ouster were muted after it was revealed that Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who would replace Northam if he resigned, had been accused of sexual assault by two women.
The demands for both Northam and Fairfax to resign were affected by the revelation that Attorney General Mark Herring had also dressed in blackface during his college years. If the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor both quit, then the Attorney General would have become governor. If he too had resigned, then the Speaker of the House would have assumed the office. Speaker Kirk Cox was a conservative Republican, while Governor Northam, Lieutenant Governor Fairfax, and Attorney General Herring were more-liberal Democrats.9