Horrible Calamity.

April 28, 1870


The Capitol partially collapses during the case between Chahoon and Ellyson.


THE CATASTROPHE. The room of the Court of Appeals was the scene of this horrible occurrence, and its many historic associations and reminiscences have culminated in an affair which beggars description, and which will bo remembered as long as Richmond is a city. As is well known, the Mayoralty controversy was about to be decided, and an immense concourse of anxious spectators and listeners had gathered to ascertain the result. Members of the Legislature, visitors to the city from all parts of our country, members of the bar, representatives of both police forces of the city, members of the press, and representatives of all classes and conditions of life, were assembled. [We give above a diagram of the room and clerk's office, with the proper references.] The bells had just tolled the hour of 11, and death-like silence reigned as Mr. Starke, the clerk, entered and placed his books on the table. Judge Joynes was in his seat. Mr. Starke, leaning over the railing, was talking with him, while the rest of the Judges were in the conference-room not quite prepared to enter on their day's duty. The counsel for Mayor Ellyson, Messrs. Neeson and Meredith, had taken their seats, and were ready to proceed to business. Ex-Governor Wells and L. H. Chandler, Esq., were also in their places; and the reporters of the Enquirer, Dispatch, Whig, and State Journal, were at the desks set apart for their use and accommodation. The moments were spent in pleasant conversation by the spectators present. Various were the speculations as to the final result, when, all at once, a panel piece of ceiling fell, and then the girder, which is represented by the line of partition between the clerk's office and the courtroom, gave way with an awful crash, and precipitated the spectators who were in the gallery of the court-room to the main floor, and the additional weight in one single moment's time crushing the courtroom floor through. The mass of human beings who were in attendance were sent, mingled with the bricks, mortar, splinters, beams, iron bars, desks, and chairs, to the floor of the House of Delegates, and in a second more, over fifty souls were launched into eternity! The whole atmosphere was thick with a dense cloud of dust from the plastering, and the human beings sent up a groan which will ring forever in the ears upon which it fell. In a moment, a few survivors clinging to the windows and fragments of hanging timber, and the bare and torn walls were all that remained to mark the place where only a moment before there was a scene of life, vigor, and hope. SCENE ABOUT THE CAPITOL BUILDING. The scene about the Capitol building just after the sad occurrence was one of terror. The first notice that those who were in the building had of the impending evil was the promonitory rumbling as the floor was settling. Then there came a fearful crash, accompanied by a cry of human agony and terror which smote the hearts of all who heard it. In a moment the frightful situation was realized. The few who had been so fortunate as to be able to get into the windows shouted aloud for help for those who had fallen, and called for ladders. In a short time the bells were tolling, and, the hook and ladder truck being brought upon the spot, the ladders were put up to the windows, and the work of humanity began. The blinding dust within prevented any one from seeing anything, and the rushing of persons within the building and the cries of the wounded was all that could be heard. IN THE HOUSE OF DELEGATES. Here was a scene that fairly made one's heart bleed. As the dust cleared away a little a mass of timbers and rubbish of every description was descried, and the reflection of the numbers of human beings crushed beneath its weight, dead and dying, was sickening. Add to this the cries and groans of those who were there, many in the agony of death, and there is a picture to make the stoutest hearts quail. The entire hall was flooded with the ruins, except the space under the gallery. Desks, chairs, and tables, were crushed completely, showing the force of the falling wreck. The work of removing the debris was a difficult one, but was undertaken by those present with a will, and it was not long before the unfortunate men were being rescued from their painful position. BRINGING OUT THE DEAD AND WOUNDED. This scene defies even an attempt at description. The doors and windows of the Hall were thrown open, and within were soon collected the busy workers, who, mid their own shouts and the agonizing groans of those they were seeking to rescue, were removing the timbers. As the wounded and dead were reached, they were brought out and placed in the Senate chamber or else under the trees in the Square, where they were attended by our city physicians and others who were on hand with such appliances as could be obtained. As the men were brought out they were so covered with dust that they could scarcely be recognized, and for a while the anxious inquiries of the bystanders, "Who is he?" could not be answered. One by one they were borne out--the dead and dying. Here was one mangled and silently enduring, another crying aloud with pain, while the still form of a third told too well that its spirit had fled to another world. In one moment the gray hairs of age could be descried upon the head of some dead one, while in the next the tall, manly form of one who had been cut off in the full bloom of life was being borne past. It seemed as if sickening horrors would never cease, and ages seemed to pass in the performance of this sad duty. THE SCENE IN THE SQUARE. The tolling of bells, the rushing and shouting of excited men, and the news of the fearful calamity, which spread like wild-fire over the city in an incredible short space of time, brought an immense crowd of all classes, ages, and colors, to the Square. Hundreds of wives, mothers, and friends, were constantly filling the grounds, who, with wringing hands sought, in despair, to know if any of their loved ones had been of the number mangled. War, with its horrors, its agonies, its sad separations, its ghastly wounds, its horrible deaths, pictures to the mind no such scene as the one which was yesterday enacted in the Square. To contemplate upon such a shocking af-fair-to see the faces of those who expected each moment to find a near and dear friend borne from the ruins to be cared for on the grounds by the citizens and physicians in attendance-fills the soul with horror and awful fear. Hacks, ambulances, and vehicles of all descriptions, were promptly on the ground, ready to convey the wounded away from the scene of disaster to their homes, where they could be cared for, and their wounds dressed to better advantage than in the dense crowd with which they were surrounded. The dead, who had been brought out, were respectfully and decently laid aside and covered with blankets, and afterwards borne away to their bereaved families. Policemen were stationed on the steps of the building to prevent the crowd from rushing in and thereby hindering those who were administering to the relief of the suf- ferers; and at a late hour the gates of the Square were guarded by Mayor Ellyson's police, who kept out the crowd of persons who seemed bent on viewing the scene of the disaster. ABOUT THE CITY. The excitement of the moment over, the beautiful city of Richmond was wrapped in gloom. The popular heart was sad, the voice of woe and mourning resounded throughout the city, and the asperities of life were softened in the sympathy of a public calamity, leaving our people united in grief and in the desire to show their respect for the dead and feeling for the injured. All the business houses of the city were closed and badges of mourning displayed, and save for the number of persons on them our streets wore the appearance of the Sabbath. TO PHYSICIANS. The Board of Health request that all physicians and surgeons, in making out their certificates of death for the victims of this calamity, will please state that they came to their death in this manner. Their object is to get an accurate list of the killed. THE CITY SURGEONS. The different surgeons of the city in attendance on the wounded would confer a favor on their friends throughout the country as well as relieve the deep anxiety which pervades all classes of our citizens by leaving at our office by 6 o'clock this evening an account of their condition. We will furnish the other papers with a copy of their reports. We give below as accurately as could be ascertained the LIST OF THE KILLED. P. H. Aylett, attorney at law; Powhatan Roberts, attorney at law; N. P. Howard, attorney at law; Dr. J. B. Brock, of the Enquirer; Captain William A. Charters, chief of the fire department; James Murphy, justice of the peace; E. M. Schofield, city assessor; J. W. D. Bland (colored), senator from Prince Edward; D. S. Dugger, not of the House of Delegates; John M. Turner, son of Maior F. P. Turner, and page in the House of Delegates; Lewis N. Webb, formerly merchant in this city; D. S. Donnan, of the firm of Donnan & Sons, hardware merchants: Ash Levy, a former merchant of this city; Thomas H. Quarles, son of Thomas D. Quarles; R. H. Maury, Jr., land agent; Samuel Eaton, clerk for Mr. Chahoon; Samuel Hicks, Lynchburg; Pichegrue Woolfolk, Henrico; Julius A. Hobson, formerly city collector; Hugh M. Hutcheson, Henrico; James A. Blamire, druggist; John Baughan, of Chesterfield; P. S. Coleman; Major S. H. Hairston, of Henry county; G. S. Taylor, Richmond county; B. F. Robinson, of Cumberland; T. P. Foley, deputy marshal; Colonel Thomas H. Wilcox, of Charles City; Charles Watson, clerk at Danville depot; Hugh G. Grady; Wm. H. Thompson; Wm. H. Davis, coal merchant; John Newman, merchant, Broad street; Captain James Kirby, captain of artillery during the war; William Dunn, Venable street; Anton Beine, merchant, Brook avenue; W. E. Randolph, supposed from New York; Benj. W. Lynch, of Manchester; --Meanley; T. A. Brewis, commission merchant, Alexandria; Charles Brown, colored waiter at Mrs. Spotswood's boarding-house; Rev. John Robertson, colored; S. E. Burnham, of Ballston Spa, Saratoga county. New York; Charles J, Grinnan, of Washington, formerly of Richmond; John D. Massie, of Goochland; Unknown, carried to Medical College, and name of Charles Branch found on papers in his pocket; Edward Ward, Tredegar Works; Michael McCarty, police; Captain D. Tourgee, police; James N. Walker, police; J. L. Ryan, police; James A. Seay, police; Sergeant James T. Cox, police; John Meagher, police; E. P. Hulce, police; William Cray, police; --Hisbie, police; Schultz, police; John Carr, police. [List of wounded redacted] ATTENTIONS TO THE WOUNDED. Under this head too much could not be said in praise of many who labored hard to relieve the sufferers. We cannot particularize, as there are too many to be mentioned separately, but we will only say that the members of the Fire Brigade, the police force, and many of our citizens, white and colored labored untiringly in their efforts to alleviate suffering and to render all aid in removing the dead and wounded from the ground. INCIDENTS. When the accident first occurred Mr. W. H.Grant was just entering the court-room. With great presence of mind he rushed to the bell-house and had the alarm rung in an incredibly short time. Mr. Thomas Joynes fell together with Dr. J. B. Brock, and "his mouth rested against the Doctor's cheek. He asked who it was near him. He told him his name, and he asked him in case he survived to carry many messages of affection to his family. With words of endearment and love for those he left behind he died. Mr. Rush Burgess fell on top of a gentleman whose name he could not learn. He asked, "My friend, can you not move a little?" Mr. Burgess replied, "No, I cannot stir." "Well," said he, "I must die. Good-bye." During the time in which Hon. George William Brent, of Alexandria, was covered in the ruins, Mr. Chandler, who was between the window and Mr. Brent, was endeavoring to get away when Mr. Brent caught him by the arm and begged him, for God's sake, to let him get some air, but in Mr. Chandler's position it was impossible for him to move until assistance was rendered. In a short time, however, he was taken out and his life saved. We learn from Mr. Chandler, who was doing well late last evening, that Mr. Samuel A. Eaton was sitting on the back of his chair when the floor fell through. Eaton was killed and Mr. Chandler not seriously injured-such escapes are most remarkable. The Conservative caucus which had met in the hall of the House of Delegates adjourned not many minutes before the calamity. Fortunately there had been a dispute about the judgeship of Henry county, and an adjournment was necessary. Had this not been the case more than half of the Legislature would have been crushed. Dr. Thompson, member of the House of Delegates from Hanover, was caught under two men who were instantly killed by a heavy falling beam. He himself was slightly injured. Mr. P. H. Keenan was buried beneath the ruins for three-quarters of an hour, and was found nearly suffocated under the dead bodies. He has almost entirely recovered. Among the killed was a Mr. Burnham, of New York. Mr. R. C. Burkholder, one of the members of the House from Lynchburg, hearing that Mr. Burnham was a relative of one of his constituents, a wellknown builder of Lynchburg, at once sought out the body, which had been temporarily deposited for identification in the City Hall, and had it placed in a splendid metallic case, and made arrangements to have it deposited in a private vault at Hollywood until called for by friends. THE THEORY OF THE ACCIDENT. From conversations with several who were in the court-room at the time of the fall we learn the following as the true theory of the accident: The large girder which was under the partition between the clerk's office and the court-room snapped in twain, and immediately afterwards the floor commenced to cave. The support of the crowded gallery having given away, the gallery parted from the wall and fell over into the centre of the court-room, crushing through the floor and precipitating the mass of human beings and rubbish into the hall below. "We examined the girder and found that it had broken off just in the centre. It was hewn timber, and just where it broke was a cut, as if the workmen in hewing had made a missflick and driven his adze into the wood about a quarter of an inch. HORRIBLE DEATH. The most terrible feature about this whole affair is the heart-rending manner of death in the majority of instances. Many of the dead, when brought out, were found to be without serious bodily injury, but had evidently died from suffocation. The mere contemplation of such a thing is sickening. Hard, indeed, was the fate of those who had escaped death from the falling timber in the end to die from the untold agonies of suffocation. AN OLD RELIC GONE. If we may be pardoned for any consideration of loss other than that of human life, we will mention the smash-up of an old and much honored relic of bye-gone days, the Speaker's chair of the House of Delegates, which was formerly used in the House of Burgesses, decorated with the royal arms of Great Britain. It was subsequently moved here from Williamsburg, and has been used in the House of Delegates ever since. It was buried and broken in the ruins of yesterday.
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Charles Simmonds




“Horrible Calamity.,” Reconstructing Virginia, accessed October 27, 2020, https://reconstructingvirginia.richmond.edu/items/show/1627.