The Capitol Disaster of 1870

Reconstruction in Richmond

The Verdict of the Mayoralty Case

Two days after the disaster, the Court of Appeals read their decision on the mayoralty case. Chahoon claimed his appointment as mayor was upheld by Virginia’s constitution, and argued against the Enabling Act’s ability to authorize and appoint another person as mayor. Ellyson claimed that he was rightfully mayor in accordance with the Enabling Act. The Court of Appeals was faced with determining the constitutionality of the Enabling Act. The judges found nothing in the Virginia or United States constitutions and the Reconstruction Acts that gave Chahoon the right to continue in his capacity as mayor. Ultimately, the Court found the parts of the Enabling Act that authorized the appointment of councilmen and mayors of cities to be constitutional. According to their ruling, on March 17, 1870, Henry K. Ellyson was lawfully appointed mayor of Richmond.[1]

May 23

Daily Dispatch headlines, May 23, 1870

For the next two months, Richmond remained in a state of political uncertainty as the result of election fraud and voter intimidation. Ellyson did not want to take office under a cloud of uncertainty, and with both Ellyson and Chahoon unhappy with the Court of Appeal’s ruling, the two men agreed to hold another election. Full Conservative and Radical tickets were drawn up and voted upon, and unsurprisingly, Chahoon won the mayoral seat on the Radical ticket while Ellyson won on the Radical ticket.[2] The election was held on May 26, and initial reports had the Conservatives defeating the Republicans.[3] While the Dispatch claimed the election was fair and orderly, Radicals asserted that “roughs” had “taken charge of the polls” and were violent and threatened those voters who voted on the Republican ticket.[4] By May 30, the results of the election were under debate, and a session attended by judges of the election decided that the returns needed to be re-examined.[5] The following day the commissioners who had been appointed to analyze the returns announced that the official figures showed Ellyson received 5,634 votes, and Chahoon received 5,595 votes.[6]

June 22

Daily Dispatch headlines, June 22, 1870

The Radicals did not find the results of the election as reported by the commissioners legitimate, and sought legal recourse. On June 4, a group of twenty-one Radicals petitioned the Honorable Alexander B. Guigon, the judge of the Hustings Court of Richmond, stating that commissioners of the election refused to acknowledge the election results and instead, in violation of their official duty, wrongfully declared Ellyson mayor. According to the group of Radicals, the commissioners were guilty of fraud, and disregarded the votes of the third precinct of Jefferson Ward, a historically African American community, and the second precinct of Marshall Ward. The Radicals asked the Judge that the election results be annulled and set aside, and that the judge determine the legitimate election results.[7] After listening to the court case, Guigon decided that another election must be held. Anthony Keiley ran on the Conservative ticket against GW Smith, a Radical. Keiley was fairly elected mayor of Richmond on November 5, 1870.[8]

June 24

Daily Dispatch headlines, June 24, 1870

While the election results were being debated, Chahoon came under scrutiny for another matter. On June 6, Chahoon was arrested on charges of forgery and for conspiracy to defraud the commonwealth.[9] He was tried and convicted, and sentenced to four years in prison. The Supreme Court granted him a new trial, but he was again sentenced to two years in jail. Governor Walker pardoned Chahoon on the condition that he leave the state. He then served as a member of the Senate of New York from 1891 until 1900.[10]

The verdict in the mayoral case and the events of the disputed election are another indicator of how volatile Richmond’s political environment was in 1870. These occurrences directly contradict Rozario’s argument that disasters are agents of progress. For months after the disaster, the citizens of Richmond were in a state of political uncertainty. The contested mayoral seat remained contested; despite an election by the people, Chahoon was not officially elected mayor. In addition, Conservative election administrators engaged in election fraud, which was the catalyst for bringing the election results to court. The people of Richmond had to wait until early November before their city government had a properly elected official head of government. The Capitol Disaster was not an impetus for political change, inherent in which is progress: elections continued to be contested and election administrators engaged in unethical practices. Courts remained the arena for determining political legitimacy.


1. “The Mayoralty Case,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 30, 1870.
2. “City Conservative Ticket,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 21, 1870; “The Carpet Baggers’ Ticket in the Field,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 23, 1870.
3. “The Election To-Day,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 26, 1870; “The City Election,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 27, 1870.
4. “The Election,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 27, 1870.
5. “Local Matters,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 30, 1870.
6. “Local Matters – Result of the Municipal Election,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 31, 1870.
7. “Local Matters,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, June 13, 1870; “Local Matters – The Municipal Election,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, June 6, 1870.
8. George Chahoon, Mayor 1870, page 4, George Chahoon Papers, LVA; Slipek, “The Mayor Time Forgot,” 3; date of election from Joseph P. O’Grady, “Anthony M. Keiley (1832-1905): Virginia’s Catholic Politician,” The Catholic Historical Review 54, no. 4 (1969): 628.
9. “Ex-Mayor Chahoon Indicted for Forgery,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, June 6, 1870.
10. From Richmond News Leader, Monday, July 30, 1934, George Chahoon Papers, LVA.