“Launched into eternity”—Richmond, Virginia

Virginia State Capitol
1000 Bank Street
Richmond, Virginia
 

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!
Richmond Dispatch, 28 April 1870

Under the headline “HORRIBLE CALAMITY” the Richmond Dispatch was admittedly at a loss of words for the events that had occurred at the state capitol the previous day. A mass of spectators had gathered in a second-floor courtroom to bring about an end to mayoral tensions in the city when the room seemingly disintegrated throwing the mass of humanity through the floor into the room below. The reporter who had been given the sad duty of reporting the events was taken aback in “palsied horror in the undertaking of the narration.” Continuing, he remarked, “To describe it would be beyond the power of man, and with those who witnessed it its recollection will remain indelibly vivid as long as life shall last.”

Virginia State Capitol Richmond
The state capitol building a few years after the disaster. From the 1879 American Cyclopaedia.

The city of Richmond, over the past decade had witnessed the heights of glory when it was named the capital of the Confederacy to the depths of despair as war waged around it. A portion of the city was left a smoking ruin after the war and the city had to endure the indignities of Reconstruction before self-rule was once again allowed. It was the issues of this self-rule that was the cause of this court session.

Under Reconstruction, the city’s mayor was appointed by the state’s Federal military commander. Appointed in 1868, George Chahoon immediately undertook a purge of former Confederates in the city government and stiffened many local ordinances, causing a good deal of consternation among the city’s citizens. When Reconstruction ended in the state in 1870, the new governor appointed newspaper publisher Henry K. Ellison as mayor. Chahoon and his supporters refused to leave office and with much of the loyalty of the police force, battled the forces of the new mayor and his acolytes.

The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals undertook the case and was poised to announce the verdict on April 27th in the second-floor courtroom inside the state capitol building. Just after 11 AM, the clerk entered the packed courtroom with the two mayors and their counsels were already sitting along with reporters for all the city’s major papers. A piece of the ceiling fell into the courtroom followed by one of the girders supporting the spectator-laden gallery. As the gallery’s structure crashed into the floor, the room’s entire floor gave away sending those gathered and debris to the floor of the House of Delegates chamber below. “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.”

Virginia State Capitol disaster 1870 Harper's Weekly Virginia State Capitol Richmond
The disaster as illustrated in Harper’s Weekly, 14 May 1870.

Within the twisted rubble lay 62 dead or gravely wounded who would die from their injuries in short order and nearly 250 were injured. Among the casualties were Patrick Henry’s grandson and three members of the state’s General Assembly. The injured included both the men vying for mayor; Henry H. Wells, a former governor; and a former Confederate general, Montgomery Corse.

The cause of disaster was attributed to a poorly designed floor for the courtroom, which had been added to the building some years previous. The architect failed to provide proper support for the courtroom’s floor which had developed a noticeable sag. With the political turmoil brought about by the Civil War and Reconstruction, the sag was overlooked. After the disaster, consideration was made to demolish the capitol, though others decided to repair the noble Thomas Jefferson and Charles-Louis Clerisseau designed structure.

Virginia State Capitol Richmond
The state capitol in 2015. Photo by Farragutful, courtesy of Wikipedia.

For many years since the disasters there have been murmurs of paranormal activity within the halls of the venerable state capitol. L.B. Taylor, Jr., the state’s major chronicler of its mysterious events, was the first author to note “some say the eerie cry of mournful voices, muted under tons of debris, can still be heard in the hallowed corridors of the Capitol.” Pamela K. Kinney echoes this description in her 2007 Haunted Richmond.

It wasn’t until the 2013 publication of Paul Hope’s Policing the Paranormal, that the Capitol’s haunting activity has enjoyed a detailed description. Hope, a former member of the Capitol’s police force, records the experiences of many of the force’s officers throughout the complex of buildings that comprise the Capitol complex. At least some of the activity experienced in the building centers on the Old House of Delegates Chamber, the room which witnessed the tragic events of 1870.

Virginia State Capitol Richmond Old House of Delegates Chamber
Old House of Delegates Chamber in 2010. Photo by AlbertHerring, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Only a few days into his training for the Capitol police force, Hope was assigned to work a graveyard shift along with one of the longtime officers. The nightly patrol of the building provided the young officer with his first brush with the odd activity of the Capitol at night. Entering the magnificent Rotunda occupied by Jean-Antoine Houdon’s marble likeness of George Washington, the pair made their entry into the Old House Chamber. Hope notes that the room had a constant mysterious chill, so much so that the doors of the room were sometimes opened to help cool the other parts of the building during the sweltering Southern summers.

Virginia State Capitol Richmond plaque
The plaque in the Old House of Delegates Chamber that the officers were reading when they observed a shadow in the gallery. Photo 2008 by AlertHerring, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Scanning the dark chamber with their flashlights, the training officer encouraged Hope to read the plaque memorializing the 1870 collapse. As the pair stood silently reading the plaque, Hope saw a dark shadow move and then disappear in the gallery above them. The other officer saw this as well and the pair scanned the gallery with their flashlights to determine that no living humans were up there. No one appeared in the gallery, and the pair resumed their patrol after only a brief acknowledgement of the strange moment.

Perhaps one of the souls that was “launched into eternity” here in 1870 has remained within this old chamber for eternity.

The Old House of Delegates Chamber is not the only haunted space within the Capitol building, Hope reports experiences throughout the building and on the surrounding grounds.

Sources

  • George Chahoon. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 19 January 2020.
  • Hope, Paul. Policing the Paranormal: The Haunting of Virginia’s State Capitol Complex. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2013.
  • “Horrible Calamity.” Richmond Dispatch. 28 April 1870.
  • HUIS 1501. “The Virginia Capitol Disaster of 1870.” UVADisasters Wiki. Accessed 19 January 2020.
  • Kinney, Pamela K. Haunted Richmond. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2007.
  • Taylor, L.B., Jr. The Ghosts of Richmond…and Nearby Environs. Progress Printing, 1985.
  • Virginia State Capitol. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 19 January 2020.
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