The Capitol Disaster of 1870

Reconstruction in Richmond

The Aftermath

inside the courthouse

The scene inside the Capitol

Clean up and relief efforts began quickly after the disaster, while people sought consolation through religion, and employed technology and engineering to explain the cause of the accident. The day after the disaster a public meeting was held at the southern portico of the Capitol. Governor Walker addressed the crowd, reminding them “in the midst of life we are in death.”[1] Dr. Hoge followed Governor Walker’s address with a prayer.[2] Workers began removing the debris in the Hall of Delegates, and Richmond’s Daily Dispatch announced that a committee tasked with receiving and distributing funds for relief of the sufferers was to be announced the following day.[3] The Superintendent of Public Buildings, George Newberry, reported to the General Assembly that the cause of the disaster was the fracturing of one of the main girders that supported the floor joists. The specific girder that supported the gallery had sunk nine inches from its original position, and thus was incapable of sustaining the weight of so many people. He also noted that the building was unsafe, since it had aged considerably since it was first constructed, and had undergone various alterations throughout the years of its use.[4] Richmond citizens in 1870 were able to pair religion and engineering to create a unique blend that both comforted them and explained the cause of the disaster. They did not seek providential reasoning to understand why the disaster happened and instead turned to God as a means to provide spiritual healing. Enlisting an expert, the General Assembly quickly sought to determine a secular and scientific understanding of the disaster.

The [Petersburg Index] warned its readers that the disaster was a lesson in demonstrating the importance of “modesty and moderation,” especially in the current divisive political and social climate.

Local and regional newspapers heavily reported the disaster, as Virginians all over the state reflected on the disaster in letters to family members and friends. These discourses reveal how the disaster was perceived and how people coped with the event. The Dispatch lamented that the Capitol Disaster was the worst calamity in Richmond since the Richmond theater fire in 1811, which killed seventy-two people.[5] Petersburg’s local paper, the Index, used death as a unifying force, cautioning readers that Conservatives, Radicals, whites, and blacks were victims of the disaster. The paper warned its readers that the disaster was a lesson in demonstrating the importance of “modesty and moderation,” especially in the current divisive political and social climate.[6] Prominent doctor and surgeon George Johnston echoed the Daily Dispatch when he wrote to his sister Letty that the disaster was “certainly one of the most terrible accidents I have ever heard of.”[7] Lelia Saunders Winston received a letter from her friend Sally Donald in which she stated that they were fortunate to not have been in Richmond on the dreadful day of the disaster, and that her “soul now thrills with great horror to think of it.”[8] Judge Joseph Christian, a survivor of the disaster, wrote a letter to his wife on April twenty-seventh, telling her that he had been lucky to escape an awful fate, and was curious as to why he survived when so many others had not. He humbled himself before God and promised to devote himself to God’s service.[9] Many, including the Dispatch and Johnston, were quick to judge the event as one of the worst disasters to ever affect the city, and likened its effects and high death toll to that of the Richmond Theater Fire. The Index used the disaster to remind its readers of their mortality, and that despite the divisive nature of politics and society, all people regardless of political leanings or race will succumb to death. Donald and Christian viewed the disaster through a religious lens. Christian saw his escape almost as a sign of divine intervention, and as a result renewed his faith in God, and made a promise to live his life in strict accordance with Christian teachings. These discourses show how some people clung to religion and even renewed their faith, while others were reminded of their mortality. The disaster gave the citizens of Richmond a respite from the political fighting and allowed them to question their views on life and God.


Notes

1. “Meeting on the Square,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 29, 1870.
2. “Meeting on the Square,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 29, 1870.
3. “The Calamity” and “Relief for the Suffering,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 29, 1870.
4. “General Assembly of Virginia,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 30, 1870.
5. “The Terrible Calamity,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 28, 1870.
6. “Can We Learn?” Petersburg Index, April 30, 1870.
7. George Ben Johnston to Letty, May 1, 1870, George Ben Johnston Papers, 1868-1905, Virginia Historical Society.
8. SD [Sally Donald] to Lelia Saunders Winston, May 20, 1870, Lelia Saunders Winston Papers, 1870-1879, Virginia Historical Society.
9. William M.E. Rachal and Joseph Christian, “The Capitol Disaster, April 27, 1870: A Letter of Judge Joseph Christian to His Wife,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 68, no. 2 (1960): 197.
Image of courthouse from "The Richmond Calamity," Harper's Weekly, May 17, 1870.