The Terrible Calamity in Richmond

From the Richmond Dispatch, April 28, 1870

Yesterday occurred the greatest calamity that ever afflicted this city save the burning of the Theatre in 1811. It was occasioned by the falling in of the floor of the old Senate chamber, in the Capitol, which is now used for the sessions of the Supreme Court of Appeals of this State.

The Collapse

Eleven o'clock was the hour for the meeting of the court, and its being understood that there would be announced the decision upon the question of the constitutionality of the "enabling act," - otherwise known as the Chahoon-Ellyson case - which has excited so much interest in this community - a large number of citizens assembled in the gallery and space in front of the bench before the hour appointed. The weight of such a packed mass was too great for the imperfectly-constructed floorings and yet more faulty gallery, which was suspended from the upper joists in a most defective manner. The gallery first fell forward, the floor yielding instantly and going down with it, carrying the packed body of men to the floor of the House of Delegates, fully twenty feet below. As fearful and fatal as this was, the heavy ceiling and the timbers which supported it descended along with the mass, greatly increasing the mortality. Fifty-six were killed outright, and others may die from injuries received.

Had the catastrophe occurred ten minutes earlier possibly half the members of the House of Delegates would have been killed by the falling of the mass upon them, for a caucus of the great majority of the body had adjourned probably not ten minutes before the occurrence; or had the hour for the meeting of the court been 12 instead of 11 o'clock, a like destruction of life would have taken place, for the Legislature would then have been in session.

Description of the Scene

Through the cloud of dust and plaster that obscured the atmosphere, the horror-stricken survivors could discern nothing but a confused mass of dead and wounded flung together on the floor, while cries and groans arose that none who heard will ever forget. [1]

The scene cannot be described, nor can it be appreciated by those who did not witness it. The mass of human beings that fell were so mixed up with the heavy timbers and rubbish that they had to be disengaged with great labor. The sight of the dead and wounded as they were slowly let down from the windows of the House of Delegates (the door of which was blocked up by the ruins) was heart-rending. So covered with dust and blood were they that it was difficult to recognize them. The great body of people outside swayed with anxiety and grief. Many hundreds watched eagerly for friends and relatives who were known to have been in the court-room, and each body that appeared in the hands of the indefatigable men who worked for the relief of those buried with the ruins was scanned with closest scrutiny by a thousand eyes.

The reporters for the Dispatch have gathered all the particulars of this terrible event that were obtainable. We refer the readers to their full details.

inside the courthouse

Inside the courthouse [2]

This calamity has filled with city with gloom, and bowed the public spirit to that providential dispensation which it is not for us to criticize...

Impact on the City

This calamity has filled the city with gloom, and bowed the public spirit to that providential dispensation which it is not for us to criticize, but which it is our duty to turn to our own good by the practice of the public and private virtues which affliction teaches all intelligent and wise communities.

This disaster has swept through all classes of the community. None escape. Some of our best and most distinguished citizens have perished in it. Legislators, lawyers, citizens, State and municipal officers, a journalist, and private citizens, are all numbered in the list of dead, as also in the larger list of wounded. Richmond is chief mourner; but nearly every section of the State shares in the immediate results of the calamity, while we know that the people of the entire Commonwealth will feel the affliction as their own. [3]

References

1. "The Richmond Calamity," Harper's Weekly Journal of Civilization, May 14, 1870, http://www.vacapitol.org/disaster.htm (accessed February 18, 2015).
2. William Ludwell Sheppard, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, May 14, 1870, http://www.lva.virginia.gov/exhibits/capitol/beyond/ (accessed February 18, 2015).
3. "The Terrible Calamity," Richmond Dispatch, April 28, 1870.