Monday, April 23, 2018

“This Frightful Man-Trap” Capitol Collapse Catastrophe

As we watch construction of the new General Assembly Building on Virginia’s Capitol Square, it is important to remember that not every architectural transformation there has occurred under such happy circumstances.

If you want to treat yourself to a fun day trip, head east along 360.  As you pass by gorgeous green fields on the way to Tappahannock, you will go through a place called Aylett. The unincorporated place called Aylett is known for its recreation, rich history, and a day school of the same name.  Because there is often a story behind such names, one can’t help wondering where this one originated. As it happens, it was named for a family called Aylett, William Aylett in particular, who successfully ran mills and warehouses there.  It is also where Patrick Henry Aylett was born in 1825.

Patrick H. Aylett, 1825-1870.

Patrick Henry Aylett traced his roots to the Revolutionary War generation. His grandmother, Elizabeth Henry Aylett, was the youngest daughter of the great orator and first Virginia Governor Patrick Henry. So it was that in that family Patrick Henry became a popular name. Many of you may have met Patrick Henry in modern guise at Richmond’s historic St. John’s Church reenactment of the “Give me liberty or give me death” speech from the 1775 Second Virginia Convention.  The public participates in this passionately patriotic reenactment Sundays from Memorial to Labor Day.  It’s a really Richmond thing to do with family and friends.

Patrick Henry Aylett distinguished himself from his famous ancestor by going by the name of Henry.  Intelligent and articulate, Henry Aylett began his academic pursuits at Washington College, next at the University of Virginia, and finally earned his law degree at Harvard. He embarked on a successful law practice in both King William County and Richmond.  He was so successful in fact that President James Buchanan appointed him to be the United States District Attorney for the Eastern District. He was lured from the law by the literary bug, editing and publishing Richmond’s Examiner and Enquirer. Unlike many of his peers, he managed to avoid what was then the editorial occupational hazard of dueling. He married well and had three beautiful daughters.  It was as a journalist that he found himself covering a contentious trial over a Richmond mayoral race on April 27, 1870 at Virginia’s Capitol.

What set the scene for the trial was a rehash of North versus South all over again. During the first years after the war, federally appointed George Chahoon was mayor of Richmond. He completely reorganized city hall. He hired new policemen to enforce order, and they were grateful to him for their jobs.  He’d cleaned out the city bureaucracy of openly southern sympathizers, and replaced them with politically neutral ones.  Newly enfranchised blacks were among those hired. Consequently, George Chahoon’s recruits were understandably loyal to him.  In January, 1870 when Virginia was readmitted to the Union and localities began electing and appointing their own officials, Richmond City Council chose Henry Ellyson to lead them.  But George Chahoon did not give up his office without a fight.  This initiated the lawsuit that ended up in court on April 27, 1870. The Court of Appeals trial that Henry Aylett was covering for his paper took place on a floor above the old House of Delegates hall in the state Capitol.  By 1870 the Capitol was already an old building, having been completed in 1788.

Many years earlier, when extra space in the Capitol was required, and extra space was and is always required, a floor was inserted above the House chamber.  This created a courtroom and offices. The beams were insecurely rested on a small ledge that ran around the ceiling of the House chamber.  These timbers were also supported by a row of columns in the hall below. At some point, that system was altered, and the columns were removed, setting the stage for the coming disaster.  The courtroom floor was observed to be sagging for some time, but no one addressed it.

Henry Aylett arrived at early to get a good seat, and soon the courtroom was crowded past capacity.  It was later estimated over 300 men were in attendance for a trial which proved to be key to the future trajectory of politics of Richmond, and possibly Virginia as well.  Some were angry with the federal government for interfering with their post war partisan affairs during Reconstruction.  Others just wanted life to get back to normal, whatever that was.  And still others, who had found employment and status after the war in the federal administration felt insecure at the thought of losing all that in a dicey economic era.  Times were tough, and emotions ran high.

"Richmond calamity -- Interior of Hall of Delegates -- Getting out the dead and wounded"- From a sketch by W. L. Sheppard, Harper's Weekly, May 14, 1870.
Just before the proceedings were about to begin, Judge Joseph Christian walked out onto the balcony above the courtroom. There he had a bird’s eye view of what was about to occur. He later wrote what happened next was “the most shocking and appalling calamity that every happened in this country,” To his horror, he witnessed the ensuing carnage.  No warning was given when the floor violently gave way, trapping and crushing its victims. Immediately a giant cloud of dust from plaster and debris covered everything, making locating and rescuing survivors difficult. Volunteers from all classes and races immediately sprang into action to dig out the victims.  Firefighters threw ladders up against the outside walls to assist survivors through windows to safety. Some victims clung to windowsills until they could be rescued, and one poor man was left dangling from the room’s only fireplace mantel for what seemed to him forever.

Richmond calamity -- Removing the dead and wounded from the Capitol From photographs by E. and H. T. Anthony, 501 Broadway, N. Y., Harper's Weekly, May 14, 1870.

The world soon learned of this tragedy through national and international press attention.

…In this frightful man-trap hundreds of people were packed… the bells had just struck the hour of eleven.  The clerk of court had just entered, and placed his books on the table.  One judge was in his seat, his associates being still in the conference-room.  The counsel, the reporters, were in their places, and the spectators were engaged in pleasant conversation.  All at once, without a moment’s warning, the large girder under the partition between the clerk’s office and the court-room snapped in twain, and the floor, yielding to the pressure, began to bend downward, loosening the supports of the crowded gallery, which was wrenched away from the wall and precipitated into the centre of the court-room.  The floor was crushed through as if it had been glass, and, with its mass of human beings, fell into the Hall of delegates, a cloud of dust rising like smoke from the ruin.  The scene was terrible.  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…
-          Harpers Weekly, May 14, 1870.

It had been a generation since Richmonders experienced such a public catastrophe.  Older residents compared it to the Richmond Theatre Fire of 1811 where over 70 Richmonders perished, including Governor George Smith.  The Virginia Capitol Collapse was described in the national news as a pivotal point in the transition from federal to state’s self-rule.  The very trial the spectators were there to witness was a symbol of that struggle.  George Chahoon was perceived as a carpetbagger Reconstructionist, Henry Ellyson as the local elite’s favorite.  When the bloody dust settled, over 100 were wounded, some bearing injuries for life.  And 60 were killed, many outright.  Among them was Henry Aylett.  According to witnesses, he died instantly when a beam fell on him.  

Harper's Weekly, May 14, 1870.

After the disaster, as they looked around Capitol Square, some suspected that all old buildings were unsafe. There was even the suggestion that the Capitol itself should be demolished and a new one built.  But the unfortunate target of the architectural animosity became Richmond City Hall.  It was a beautiful neoclassical edifice that was designed by Robert Mills, the architect of Monumental Church just east on Broad Street.  That remarkable church was erected in 1814 over the tomb of the victims of the 1811 Richmond Theatre Fire.  Mills is best known as the architect of the Washington Monument on the Mall in Washington, D.C.   In the rush to alleviate public anxiety about the stability of old buildings, Richmond City Hall was destroyed.  This is a real pity as it would be a cherished landmark had it survived.  Apparently it was not as unstable as they assumed old buildings to be.  Local lore has it that dynamite was required to take it down when traditional demolition failed.

In the days and weeks that followed the disaster, eyewitness Judge Joseph Christian wrote that it wasn’t just the Capitol building in shambles.  “The Clerks office with all our records are destroyed and more than half the lawyers practicing in our Court are killed and wounded.” 

As for the mayor’s race at the heart of this disaster, Virginia government and judicial offices were relocated in temporary offices as the Capitol was restored.  The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that Henry Ellyson would be Richmond’s mayor.

Few today recall this tragedy on that fateful day in April of 1870.  A plaque describing it was affixed to the wall of what we now call the old House chamber.  Occasionally one can hear mention of it on the tours of the Capitol.   

In a strange twist of fate (and perhaps Mother Nature) Patrick Henry Aylett was once again crushed as his tombstone was toppled by a downed willow oak at Shockoe Hill Cemetery. Photo/ Alyson L. Taylor-White.

As for Patrick Henry Aylett, he is an occupant of Shockoe Hill Cemetery, the city’s 1822 burial ground. A recent windstorm toppled a giant willow oak onto his and several other graves.  His monument and several others were covered from view just as he had been all those years ago in that dreadful Capitol Collapse.  Volunteers are working to repair these markers as well as preserving the stories of Virginians who were known well in their lifetimes, but who might now be all but forgotten.

--- by Allyson Lindsey Taylor-White - who covered state and local government for 25 years, and wrote the recently released Shockoe Hill Cemetery, A Richmond Landmark History.

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