"Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t." - Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897.
If you spend any time exploring Richmond’s fabulous history and culture, you have probably heard some of our urban legends. We’ve got some good ones. More often than not, this kind of local lore is the foundation for local tours. Perhaps you have heard some intriguing stories on your way around town by trolley, canal boat, or other mode of transportation. Most of what you heard is probably true, or very close to the truth. Some of what you heard might be real whoppers, however. To follow are some of the most common myths and misconceptions about Richmond. Maybe you have heard them too!
Currier and Ives, 1865, The Fall of Richmond, Virginia on the Night of April 2nd, 1865.
The Great Fire of April 1865 was started by Federal Troops as they entered the former Capital of the Confederacy. This is a myth that has survived for generations. Once on a crowded tour at the Museum of the Confederacy, several guests carried on a running argument with the tour guide about this. They were positive that Yankee invaders had started all the trouble. The truth is harder to explain, as it often is. The retreating Confederates lit what has come to be known as the Evacuation Fire. This was an old trick going back to antiquity when defeat was inevitable, goods and weapons were destroyed so the enemy would not have access to them. Perhaps this was their motivation. Whatever it was, things got very bad very fast. It was a windy day in April, and the fire quickly got out of hand and spread dramatically, destroying a major part of downtown. This was reported in the New York Times April 8, 1865:
“The evacuation of Richmond commenced in earnest Sunday night, closed at daylight on Monday morning with a terrific conflagration, which, was kindled by the Confederate authorities wantonly and recklessly applying the torch to Shockoe warehouse and other buildings in which was stored a large quantity of tobacco. The fire spread rapidly, and it was some time before the Fire Brigade could be gotten to work. A fresh breeze was blowing from the south, and the fire swept over great space in an incredible short space of time. By noon the flames had transformed into a desert waste that portion of the city bounded between Seventh and Fifteenth streets, from Main-street to the river, comprising the main business portion. We can form no estimate at this moment of the number of houses destroyed, but public and private they will certainly number six or eight hundred.
“At present we cannot do more than enumerate some of the most prominent buildings destroyed. These include the Bank of Richmond, Traders' Bank, Bank of the Commonwealth, Bank of Virginia, Farmers' Bank, all the banking houses, the American Hotel, the Columbian Hotel, the Enquirer building on Twelfth-street, the Dispatch Office and job rooms, corner of Thirteenth and Main streets; all that block of buildings known as Devlin's Block; the Examiner Office, engine and machinery rooms; the Confederate Post-office Department building; the State Court-house; a fine old building situated on Capitol-square, at its Franklin-street entrance; the Mechanics' Institute, vacated by the Confederate States War Department, and all the buildings on that square up to Eighth-street and back to Main-street; the confederate arsenal and laboratory, Seventh-street.”
According to the Virginia Highway Marker at Main Street near 9th in the heart of the devastation:
“After midnight on 3 April 1865, Confederate soldiers set fire to several tobacco warehouses nearby on orders from Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, as the army evacuated Richmond and marched west. Two distinct fires spread rapidly throughout the commercial and industrial sections of the capital. The core of the burned-out area, some 35 blocks, extended from the James River in some areas as far north as Capitol Square, and from 4th St. east to 16th St. Frightened citizens huddled in Capitol Square while looters rampaged and firefighters battled the fires. The Union army, which occupied the city early on 3 April, finally brought the fires under control in the afternoon.”
The Jefferson Hotel Grand Staircase.
The staircase in the Jefferson Hotel inspired the famous one in the film Gone With the Wind. Where there is a whiff of a rumor like this one, there may be a trace of truth. Perhaps it began when the wife of someone involved in the production of the movie was a guest at the Jefferson. If so, she’d have been in distinguished company because celebrities and heads of state have selected the Jefferson Hotel as their first choice accommodation for generations. Real fans of the movie will know better, however. If you think about it, there were several significant staircases in Gone With the Wind. There was a distinctive one at Twelve Oaks Plantation during the barbeque scene. There were couple of them at Tara. Then finally the granddaddy of all staircases in the film was the one at Rhett and Scarlett’s Atlanta home. Those who cling to the myth that Scarlett swished up or down a staircase just like the one at the Jefferson need not despair. It is still a remarkable gem of a landmark in a city that is studded with them. Anyone seeking to impress out of town visitors only need escort them inside the Main Street entrance of the Jefferson for the ultimate view of the Grand Staircase. After that, it is difficult to get them out of there.
Lee Monument on Monument Avenue. This postcard image (postmarked 1916) shows
Virginia Military Institute cadets marching down the avenue.
There is a hidden meaning in the direction the Monument Avenue statues face, or the way the horses are posed. This includes stories that if the monuments faced north or south, that represented defeat or victory. There is another that if their horses have a hoof in the air, or on the ground, that symbolizes whether or not they died in battle. If you travel up and down Monument Avenue, several things become obvious. First, not all the figures are on horseback, so that shoos that theory. Jefferson Davis is standing with his arm outstretched like a classical figure from antiquity. Matthew Fontaine Maury, known as the Pathfinder of the Seas, is shown seated because at the age of 33 he broke his right leg in a carriage accident and it never healed properly. Since 1996 with the installation of the Arthur Ashe monument, not all the figures on Monument Avenue even represent Confederate heroes. It is worth mentioning that Arthur Ashe is the only Richmond native depicted on Monument Avenue. The bottom line is, the way the monuments were mounted depended upon the artistic expressions of their creators.
Allen and Ginter cigarette card, ca. 1880s.
Lewis Ginter, who built the Jefferson Hotel and developed Ginter Park, was the inventor of the cigarette. While it is true that Lewis Ginter, a Richmond transplant from New York, did make one of his fortunes in tobacco, he did not invent the machine rolled cigarette.That distinction belongs to Roanoke native James Albert Bonsack. What Lewis Ginter did invent, however, was something that today is very collectible. He noted that the paper packets holding the early cigarettes often collapsed, crushing them. So he created cardboard advertising cards to insert into the packets. Seeing no need to let a marketing opportunity go to waste, he decided to use the cards to promote his products with decorative motifs. So he designed images and stories to go along with them. The cards had themes like the Tropics, Flags of all Nations, American Presidents, and beautiful women. These Allen & Ginter cigarette cards, many of which featured sports popular at the time including baseball, were most likely the early inspiration for baseball cards, and can be found in antiques stores as well as online.
Like Rome, Richmond was built on seven hills. This is an old myth that just won’t go away on its own. No one is disputing that there are hills in Richmond. If you travel around the city, you have no doubt realized that there are some serious inclines, as well as equally generous valleys (Shockoe Bottom). This came to a discussion at city council in the 1930s, and they drafted an ordinance naming the original “seven” hills. The reason the ordinance was never adopted is perhaps because they could not agree to disagree on which to include. Because there are not or have not been seven hills. If you count some of the former ones along with the current ones they are:
Chimborazo HillChurch HillCouncil Chamber HillFrench Garden HillFulton HillGambles HillLibby HillNavy HillOregon HillShockoe HillUnion Hill
It gets even more confusing if you research old Richmond records, because several of these hills have gone through an equal number of names. Church Hill has been Richmond Hill and Indian Hill. Church Hill gets its name from the many churches there, but in particular, the first church, St. John’s. Fulton Hill was also called Powhatan Hill. Fulton was named for James Alexander Fulton who married Eliza Mayo, and built a (then) suburban house they named Powhatan there. Legend has it that is where Powhatan’s son Parahunt met with English adventurers John Smith and Christopher Newport in May of 1607. Eliza Mayo is from the family that built the Mayo Bridge over the James River. Those of you fond of recreating and residing in the former municipality of Manchester across the James River will also be reminded of Forest Hill and Westover Hills.
Richmond's Church Hill now has many churches, but the original one that inspired the name was historic St. John's dating to 1741. Before this it was called Richmond or Indian Hill. Photo by Alyson.
There are lots more peculiar and puzzling myths and misconceptions about a city with Richmond’s diverse and interesting history. What are your favorites?
- Alyson Lindsey Taylor-White.