Sunday, March 25, 2018

Hero Hidden in Hindsight - Gilbert Hunt (1780-1863)

There is a lot more to Gilbert Hunt’s story than his heroic bravery at the December 26, 1811 Richmond Theatre Fire.  In fact, he was actively involved in many of Richmond’s pivotal historical events.  He purchased his own freedom through hard work as a blacksmith during war and peace.  At a time when freed persons of color were legally required to leave Virginia, he immigrated to the colony of Liberia.  Once there, he decided he was not an African after all, but a Virginian.  When he returned to his hometown of Richmond, Virginia he did not encourage others to immigrate to Africa, causing friction between him and the Richmond elite who supported the colonization effort. Marie Tyler McGraw and Gregg Kimball wrote in In Bondage and Freedom that what set Gilbert Hunt apart from others was not “his physical courage but his existential courage in speaking his mind.”

When the frantic auction bidding ended, Gilbert Hunt was once again sold.  How was this possible?  Born into slavery in 1780, Gilbert Hunt had worked hard, saved up, and purchased his own freedom for $800 in Richmond, Virginia by 1829.
An image taken by Julian Vannerson of Gilbert Hunt was underwritten by philanthropic ladies of Richmond.  He sold these at a fair to raise funds for his care in old age.  This one was sold at an auction just a few years ago.

As it turned out, the auctioneer’s gavel fell not in antebellum America, but just recently at an antiques firm in Ohio.  The total price, including the buyer’s premium, was $7,800.  Obviously this was not for the original Gilbert Hunt, who went to his heavenly reward in 1863. This was for an image taken of him in 1859 right here in Richmond, Virginia.  The auctioneer described the oval matted print as  “Exceptional Gilbert Hunt, Freed Richmond Slave, Salt Print by Vannerson… A rich and luminous photograph of an individual with a complex and inspirational past.”  Gilbert Hunt posed for this image in 1859 at the studio of Smith and Vannerson at 17 Main Street in Richmond. A charitable group of local ladies commissioned the photograph as part of a campaign to raise funds for Gilbert Hunt. 
The portrait was commissioned about the same time a writer named Philip Barrett (pseudonym for Thomas Ward White) wrote a public testimonial that was published by James Woodhouse, a local printer.  In a 19th century version of crowdfunding, readers were urged to assist a man who was owed this philanthropy due to his many acts of public bravery. “Shall we neglect him in his old age, when the arm which defended, and the hand which saved our fathers and mothers are palsied with age?”  At that time in his late sixties, Hunt was probably feeling the effects of a lifetime of hard work as a blacksmith, carriage builder, and volunteer firefighter.  Born into bondage in 1780, he became an accomplished city blacksmith, enabling him to earn enough to eventually purchase his own freedom.

Photographer Julian Vannerson who took the image we all know today was as well known around town for his talent as he was for his temper.  When Hunt posed for his camera at the studio on Main Street, Vannerson’s partner was a man named Smith, but that professional relationship did not last.  Julian Vannerson produced several prints of the original, which proved to be an extremely compelling image.  These were to be sold to raise funds at the state fairground with Gilbert Hunt making an appearance.  As a result of many copies of this being made, several Richmond museums and archives have copies.  Gilbert Hunt is shown in a direct pose, his upright posture reflecting his proud character.  His confident gaze connects with the viewer, engaging us, making us want to know more about him. It is difficult not to peer back at him and wonder what his world was like.  With his patched, once proud suit, tattered from years of hard work at the blacksmith’s forge, he exudes a calm determined presence.  In his right hand he holds one of the main tools of his trade, the sledgehammer he skillfully and powerfully wielded for decades.
In 1823 Gilbert Hunt helped rescue inmates from the Virginia Penitentiary fire by allowing another volunteer firefighter to stand on his shoulders and bash in a wall allowing inmates to be handed down to the ground.  He later said he regretted placing shackles on the prisoners that he made in his own blacksmith shop.  

An extremely skilled blacksmith by trade, Gilbert Hunt was also in his spare time a volunteer firefighter.  Perhaps it was his strong frame and agility with tools that made him a good candidate for firefighting, then in its infancy in Richmond.  Perhaps it was that as a blacksmith, he had an intimate working relationship with fire.  All of his lifesaving skills would be tested on the night after Christmas, 1811.

Everyone who was anyone in Richmond that Thursday night was at the Richmond Theatre.  Rich, poor, young, old, black and white, free and enslaved, theater was wildly popular with city inhabitants.  The General Assembly was about to come into session, so the city population was larger than usual.  The Richmond Theatre was near the corner of what is now Broad and College Streets in downtown Richmond.  The house was packed with a crowd estimated in excess of 600.  The cheaper seats were on the floor, and the more expensive ones were in the balconies.  The performance featured a full-length play as well as a bonus shorter piece to benefit Placide who owned the theater company.
The fire on December 26, 1811 horrified Richmonders and was the talk in every household for generations to come.  Gilbert Hunt, a volunteer firefighter was on the scene with Dr. James McCaw who threw ladies down to Hunt from a second story window. They rescued about a dozen ladies as well as Dr. McCaw who got out of the blaze just in time.
Gilbert Hunt was an active member of the First African Baptist Church, just east of the Richmond Theatre.  After work on December 26, he attended to church duties, then headed to his wife’s quarters nearby at her owners, the Prestons.  John Preston was the treasurer of Virginia, and he had just married the widow Elizabeth Carrington Mayo.  Just as Hunt sat down to eat, Mrs. Preston ran in screaming that her seventeen-year-old daughter Louisa Mayo was at the theater, and that it had caught on fire.  Gilbert Hunt had great admiration for seventeen-year-old Louisa Mayo; she had taught him how to read.  He rushed without hesitation to the scene of the conflagration and saw to his horror that the inferno was already out of control.  Frantically, he yelled to a nearby neighbor African American fiddler Sy Gilliat, to give him a mattress to help cushion the fall of the victims who were hurling themselves from upper story windows.   The mattress was not brought, so he hastily grabbed a ladder and shoved it up to the side of the smoldering, tottering building.  As he did so, a powerful voice called down from an upper story window of the theater.  It was Dr. James D. McCaw.

Dr. McCaw was a large, imposing individual who was later described as “a man who could might have been chosen by a sculptor for a model of Hercules.”  He’d attended the packed theater that night with his sister and some friends who sat in an upper balcony.  McCaw implored Hunt to catch the women as he lifted them, and then dropped them down from the window.  The desperate women crowded around him waiting for rescue, flames furiously lapping about them as the inferno intensified. One by one, Gilbert Hunt caught the ladies, and lost his balance only once when Dr. McCaw’s sister, also a large individual, plummeted his way. 

Finally the doctor steadied himself to jump.  Gilbert Hunt readied himself to make his last heroic catch.  As McCaw leapt, he got caught on a piece of metal as he leapt, and in what seemed like a terrifying long time, he twisted and turned, getting singed and burned as he did so.  At last, the metal gave way, and he fell several feet away from Gilbert who quickly dragged them both to safety.  Just as he did so, the wall collapsed and flames shot skyward right where they were seconds before. 

As soon as they had a moment to collect their wits, the doctor realized his leg was broken.  Gilbert Hunt tore up part of a nearby fence and created a temporary splint.  Dr. McCaw would bear the scars of that night the rest of his life.  Because of Gilbert Hunt’s quick thinking and rapid response, Dr. McCaw and the dozen rescued women also survived the ordeal.  It was later published that Dr. McCaw’s son played the role enacted by Gilbert Hunt.  That was not the case.  And it was also reported in many sources that grateful citizens of Richmond bought Gilbert Hunt’s freedom in reward for this noble act. That was not true either.

Many have written about that horrific night and the ensuing madness for days to come as the city, and in turn the entire nation reeled from the enormity of the atrocity.  Americans had not seen a tragedy like this outside of war.  In all, 72 individuals are thought to have lost their lives, including seventeen-year old Louisa Mayo, whom Gilbert Hunt had gone there to rescue.  Some perished who’d actually gotten out of the theater, but who went back in to retrieve relatives or friends.  Virginia Governor George William Smith, who had just recently been sworn into office, was one of those unfortunate victims.  He had escaped the flames, and then went in to get a relative, who, as it turned out, had actually escaped unharmed. In the ensuing panic, people wondered if this was a terrorist act, or if it was part of a slave insurrection. But in reality, a stage lantern that brushed against a varnished set caused the agony that caused the entire city to mourn for some time.

For whatever reason, Gilbert Hunt returned to the tragic site the next day.  He later remarked, “I went to the scene where such awful sights had been witnessed, and oh!  how my heart shudders even now at the things which then and there met my eye.- All that remained of the theater and those that perished in it was a mound of smoldering ash.”

Monumental Church now covers the site of the former disaster.  The fragile remains of the victims were carefully gathered up into mahogany caskets and buried in the crypt underneath the church. It is now the setting for much happier memories as many couples choose it for their wedding.

The Richmond Theatre fire rescue was just one of the many dramatic stories featuring Gilbert Hunt.  It helps to explain why a single photograph of him would fetch such a large sum as the one at that Ohio auctioneer in 2014.  But one does wonder, what would he think about the fact that it cost more to buy a photograph of Gilbert Hunt than he paid to purchase his own freedom? When we learn about his interesting and at times controversial life, we cannot help but wonder why, in a city famous for its monuments and historic markers, that Gilbert Hunt has garnered little if any notice.  A Virginia highway marker mention, and modest plaque bearing his name at Monumental Church are the only public mentions of his name.  Somehow that just does not seem enough.


I was born somewhere about the year 1780, in the county of King William, at a place called the Piping Tree, long a celebrated tavern on the Pamunkey river.  My master at the time was proprietor of the tavern.  He was a gentleman of considerable wealth.

At the marriage of my master’s youngest daughter, I was brought to Richmond, and learned the carriage-making business under her husband, at what is now the corner of Broad and 12th streets.  I served him till his death – about four or five years.  I was then again sold.  It was during the time I was owned by my last purchaser that the war of 1812 occurred. 
I remember the occurrences of that day as well as if it were yesterday.  I worked eighteen months for the army, at my master’s shop, which was situated on the corner of Locust alley and Franklin street – directly opposite the present Odd Fellows Hall.  I ironed off carriages for the cannon, mounting one every two days.  We then had four forges going constantly.  I was also busily engaged in making pick-axes &c., shoeing horses for the army, and such other work as was needed.  We worked day and night, not even stopping to rest on the Sabbath day.  I was also engaged in making grappling hooks for boarding the vessels down at Norfolk.  During all this time, my master gave me complete control of the whole shop.
-Gilbert Hunt, The City Blacksmith, by Philip Barrett, Richmond, Virginia 1859
LOST – On Tuesday, the 30th, between my shop and my dwelling, corner of College and Marshall streets, my POCKET-BOOK containing a few accounts and my free papers, in a tin case.  The finder will confer a great favor of leaving it at this office.  GILBERT HUNT
-Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 27, 1863.
Gilbert Hunt
            This old “African Hero,” who saved so many lives at the burning of the Richmond Theatre, and who is struggling hard in his old age to obtain a livelihood, has been kindly permitted by authorities at the Fair grounds to dispose of some photographs of himself, which some benevolent ladies have kindly gotten up for his benefit, and the proceeds of which will help the deserving old man at a time when the weight of years has left him but little power to help himself.  We trust every one will embrace such an opportunity to mark the general sense of his brave and loyal services.
-        The Daily Dispatch, October 25, 1860.

Violation of an Ordinance – Gilbert Hunt, a venerable and well known African, appeared before the Mayor yesterday, to answer a charge of using the city water without paying for the same.  Gilbert thought he could prove his innocence of any blame, and the Mayor continued the case until Friday.
-     --------- from a Richmond newspaper account from Feb. of 1847 - Hunt appeared before the Richmond Hustings Court Record on a charge of  selling liquor without a license 

Alyson Lindsey Taylor-White


rocketwerks said...

A great article on an undersung hero. Well done!

georgeglass said...

Thanks for sharing! It would be fitting to have a monument of this man on Monument Ave.