The 1870 "Capitol Disaster"

On Wednesday, April 27, 1870, dozens of persons were killed and injured when the floor gave way in a courtroom packed with spectators.  The courtroom was on  the top floor of the Capitol Building (now referred to as the third floor, then called the second).  Later generally known as the "Capitol Disaster," it was a tragedy reported across the nation and around the world.

Harper's Weekly, a newspaper of wide circulation for its time, reported on the Capitol Disaster in the May 14, 1870 issue.

  Top half of front page, Harper's Weekly, May 14, 1870 The full article is below.  The spelling and punctuation appear as printed in the original article.




Vol. XIV - No. 698]    New York, Saturday, May 14, 1870.


The country was shocked last week by the news of a dreadful disaster, in which more than fifty people were instantly killed, and more than a hundred wounded, many of them so seriously that, even if their life should be spared, they will bear the effects of their injuries to the grave.  The circumstances of this calamity remove it from the catalogue of ordinary disasters.  We are so accustomed to railway accidents, by collision, by the breaking of rails, by the misplacement of switches -- to boiler accidents in factories and on steamboats -- to fires in hotels and tenement-houses, that we have come to regard these almost as visitations of Providence, or as the result of chances against which no foresight could provide.  But the calamity at Richmond occurred in a public building, the Capitol of the State, where the Legislature met and several courts held their sessions.  It was often densely crowded, and on these occasions the life and safety of hundreds of people depended on its strength.

On Wednesday, April 27, the court-room in the second story of the Capitol was packed with an immense audience to hear the decision of the Court of Appeals in the Mayoralty case.  This room was constructed in a most extraordinary manner.  A few years ago, when it became necessary to have additional offices in the Capitol, a floor was thrown across the very high hall in which the lower house of the Legislature met, thus making two stories instead of one.  In doing this the architect, instead of inserting the floor-beams in the walls, rested them upon a slight ledge, or offset, projecting about four inches from the wall.  This frail ledge was made to support timbers measuring two feet by ten inches, assisted by a row of pillars in the hall below.  This arrangement was probably sufficient to resist ordinary pressure; but a few years ago, in order to improve the appearance of the Hall of Delegates, these pillars were removed, under the direction of an incompetent architect, leaving the beams without any central support whatever, and further weakened by the mortices in which the pillars had been fastened.  The flooring immediately commenced sagging, and for several years, says a Richmond paper, it "had been concave to an extent that was alarming; but familiarity had, as usual, removed the doubts of its safety."

In this frightful man-trap hundreds of people were packed on the occasion alluded to above.  The bells had just struck the hour of eleven.  The clerk of the 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.

The annexed diagram shows the interior of the court-room, and will aid materially in understanding the catastrophe.

[diagram and explanation - click here to view]

Immediately after the catastrophe the survivors set about the work of rescuing those who were buried beneath the ruins, and whose groans and cries for help were pitiful to hear.  The firemen were called out by the fire-alarm, and rendered most valuable assistance in this work.  Ladders were raised to the windows of the Hall of Delegates, and, as fast as they were rescued, the bodies of the dead and wounded were passed out through the windows and brought down by the firemen, in the manner shown in our illustration on page 313.

Most of them were placed under the trees in the square for recognition or surgical attendance.  The whole city wore a aspect of mourning, and business was every where suspended.

It was several hours before the number of dead and wounded could be ascertained; but at length the ruins were cleared away, and it was found that sixty persons were killed and nearly a hundred and twenty wounded.  Providentially the Hall of Delegates was nearly empty, or the loss of life would have been much greater than it was.  The greater number of those who went down with the floor were uninjured, most of the casualties having been among those who were caught by the falling gallery, and those who were in the hall below.  It is sad to know that many who escaped death and even wounds in the falling timbers were suffocated by the clouds of dust that rose from the crumbling plastering.  When the dead bodies were brought out and exposed on the square, scarcely one of them could be recognized, so fearfully disfigured were they; and the broken hearted wives, sisters, and mothers of several even failed, in some instances, to recognize the victims.  The faces of all the dead were fearfully swollen and blackened, it is supposed from suffocation; and about the mouth and lips was a sort of coagulated froth, tinctured [jump to next page, 306]

Illustration - "View of Richmond, Virginia.--[Photographed by Anderson and Co., Richmond.]"  [click here to view]

[continued from front] with blood, which was hardened and stiffened with dust.  In the case of Dr. J. H. Brock, reporter of the Enquirer, it is said his wife failed to recognize him; and a brother reporter only discovered his identity by searching his pockets.

Among the prominent persons killed were Mr. P. H. Aylett, an eminent member of the Richmond bar, and Assistant Attorney-General for the Confederate States until Lee's surrender; Mr. E. M. Schofield, a brother of Major-General Schofield, and an officer in the Union army during  the war; Mr. J. W. D. Bland (colored), a member of the Virginia State Senate; General Thomas H. Wilcox, a Major-General in the Confederate army; and Dr. J. B. Brock, a reporter of the Richmond Enquirer and Examiner.  Among the seriously wounded was ex-Governor Wells.

Some very remarkable escapes are related of some of the survivors.  Mr. D. B. White, a member of the Legislature, fell through the floor with the rest, and did not receive a scratch.  He did not leave the spot, but, despite the suffocating dust, remained and worked vigorously to get out the wounded and dead.  Mayor Kelly, of Fredericksburg, was conversing with Mr. Aylett when the crash began, and says Mr. Aylett was killed by a beam from the gallery.  The larger number of deaths, as already stated, occurred among those persons who were standing under the gallery.  Dr. Brock was just in reach of it, sitting at his table writing, when the same beam that killed Mr. Aylett struck him.  A member of the Legislature describes the fall as follows:

"I heard a low, rumbling sound, and felt myself sinking rapidly.  I was facing the gallery, and saw it falling toward me.  Fortunately it did not reach me.  I saw the men scrambling over each other in the gallery, and heard what seemed to be one unearthly yell of agony.  Then came the crash, and I sank into darkness.  I found myself under a mass of rubbish, with a dead body over me, a wounded man under me, and another at my side.  The poor fellow under me said: 'Oh me? but if I could only fear God always as I do now? How wicked I have been all my days! O God, forgive me!'  The man at my side exclaimed: 'O death, where is thy sting! O grave, where is thy victory!' I heard a number of cries all about me; some were speaking about their wives, others of their children, while others were begging for air.  I believe many of them died from suffocation, for, although but little hurt myself, I should have died from suffocation if I had not been removed when I was."

On the day following the catastrophe many of the dead were buried, and the day was devoted by the whole city to mourning, humiliation, and prayer.

In the general view of the city of Richmond on the preceding page, the position of the Capitol is seen.  It is the large building a little to the left of centre, with columns on the front.

[page 312 - full page illustration] - "The Richmond Calamity - Interior of Hall of Delegates - Getting Out the Dead and Wounded.  From a Sketch by W. L. Sheppard. --[See Front Page.]" [click here to view]

[page 313 - full page illustration] - "The Richmond Calamity - Removing the Dead and Wounded from the Capitol.  From Photographs by E. and H. T. Anthony, 501 Broadway, N.Y. --[see Front Page.]"



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