SOME EXPERIENCES IN THIS CITY WITH UNRULY MASSES.
Two Governors Threatened - The "Bread Riot" - Burning of the
Penitentiary and More Recent Exploits.
Recent tragical performances at
have led some of our elderly citizens to ransack memory and revive tradition to
see if ever
was afflicted with mobs, and if so, to what extent they disturbed the public
peace and inflicted injury upon their fellow citizens. From this retrospect it
appears that our mobs usually have been of a placable nature, and have been more
dangerous in promise than in performance. However on two occasions they
threatened to do great violence to Governors of the State; on another it took
the President, the Governor, and the military all combined to cause them to
subside into peaceful pursuits, and at various other times they have evinced a
most insubordinate spirit, but upon the appearance of the military or large
bodies of police invariably they have been persuaded that home was the best
place for them. One these several occasions some clubbing and knocking were
done, but it never became necessary to appeal to that sovreign remedy which
resides in powder and ball.
HAS A FENCE AROUND IT.
Many strangers who come here and spend sunny days in the
, feeding the squirrels and viewing the statuary, ask why in the world that
piece of ground (which is capable of being made the finest little park in the
country) is inclosed with a tall iron fence? What is there to steal, what is
there to protect? they ask, since hogs and cattle are no longer permitted to
roam at large in the centre of the city.
The correct answer is rarely forthcoming.
The formidable spear-shaped iron palings or pickets are
usually supposed to be a relic of old times, and rarely do the people bother
themselves to inquire further. But the truth is that but for an extraordinary
circumstance the Legislature would have left the Capitol Square in its pristine
condition, free (so far as the fence has anything to do with it) to be grazed
upon by goats, cows, and hogs. A
mob caused that fence to be built, and it is a question if their exploit was
not the most disastrous piece of work for the city that was ever done, inasmuch
as it heightened and exaggerated and long continued that latent hostility which
always and everywhere exists between rural and urban communities.
"The iron fence around the
," said an old citizen, who has written a great deal about
, "was erected during the administration of Governor Nicholas [1814-'16].
It seems," he continued, "that Governor Nicholas and a citizen named
Winston, who lived on Church Hill, were close friends. Winston was a butcher and
carried on an extensive business, having his slaughter-pens near
. [They are said to have been on Shockoe creek near where the city jail is ad
almost on the site of the present Valley public-school building, formerly the
Lancastrian school.] Governor Nicholas and his friend Winston formed a
partnership, and at certain seasons of the year the Governor would bring down
from his farm in
large herds of swine. The idea of the Governor of Virginia engaging in the
butchering business was repugnant to certain of our citizens, most of whom were
opposed to the Governor in politics, and one night they had the fence around the
mansion festooned with hog-entrails. When the Legislature convened General
Blackburn, a representative from the county from which Governor Nicholas came,
declared that the act was intended as a fling at the country members, and he
introduced a resolution looking to the erection of an iron fence around the
. The resolution evoked a lively and spirited discussion and was passed, and the
iron fence now standing was ordered to be erected. When it was finished the
gates were locked and no person was permitted to pass through the Square after 9
P. M., and this rule continued for some years.
MEXICAN WAR RIOT.
Politics seem always to have run high in
, and there was a considerable manifestation of them in 1846. During a part of
that war there was a
revenue cutter lying in our harbor and in its crew were a band of musicians who
were considered very fine players. A number of Democrats seated one night in
Dick Haskins's store at Rocketts earning the music of the band as its echoes
died ashore in the twilight, resolved that they would secure the musicians and
go up and serenade Extra Billy Smith, who was then Governor. They did so, and
numerous patriotic speeches were made, and the war was the chief topic.
Returning down town the parading statesmen became very hilarious, and as the
night wore on and their enthusiasm swelled, they grew unruly and inflicted
injuries upon divers of their fellow-citizens of the opposite party, and the
consequence was that the night-watch made some arrests and carried the prisoners
to the cage, at the Old market.
Now, the valor of the crowd by this time having reached a
high pitch, they marched to the caged and liberated or threatened to liberate
their unfortunate brothers; and hereupon arose a most exciting commotion and
great crowds filled the streets, and there was great excitement and dreadful
alarm, and the mob did considerable violence (after the order of those unruly
gentlemen), but the authorities of that day - long since gone to slumber with
their forefathers in Shockoe cemetery and St. John's - called out the Public
Guard and other military, and pretty soon had the disturbers of the peace
dispersed and the ringleaders arrested.
Among the military that night called upon was the company
of Captain R. G. Scott, which had been formed to go to the war, and was then at
the United States Hotel awaiting orders.
TALK ABOUT HANGING A GOVERNOR.
The doings of the aforesaid mob, though not of a very
peaceable and orderly character, compared favorably to the boldness of front at
first, put on by a large number of people who held that the law and public
sentiment had been outraged by Governor Johnson. This executive had excited the
ire of the community by commuting to transportation for life, the sentence of a
negro man who had been condemned to death; his offence being killing the manager
of the tobacco-factory in which he was employed Jordan Hatcher killed Mr.
William P. Jackson
February 25, 1852
was chastising Hatcher when Hatcher suddenly seized an iron poker and dealt
a mortal blow. A number of the most respectable citizens of
, believing that Hatcher had no intention of committing murder, petitioned the
Governor for a commutation of the death-sentence, and it was granted.
A public meeting held at the City Hall passed resolutions
condemnatory of the Governor, and after the meeting was over people to the
number of about 2,000 marched over to the Governor's Mansion, where they behaved
in a tumultuous manner, threw stones at the windows, and uttered most savage
cries and denunciations.
It seemed to be the wish of some to destroy the mansion and
lynch the Governor; but if so they lacked a leader, and while hesitating, Mayor
Lambert, Commonwealth's Attorney Joe Mayo, and J. S. Spalding, of the Whig, made
speeches which mollified the mob and caused it to disperse. It is uncertain if
the Public Guard was called out; probably it was, though not to put to actual
use but a number of police officers were at hand, and were in the dining-room
(in the basement) with the Governor hen there were proposals to hang his
Excellency "with a briar" and with "a grape-vine," &c.,
Out of the complications of this affair Marmaduke Johnson
emerged the Commonwealth's Attorney, while many who had signed the petition
found themselves in public disfavor for years.
THE BREAD RIOT.
April 1, 1863, occurred in Richmond what is commonly called
the "bread riot," though as a matter of fact many of the people
engaged in it were willing to take anything they could lay their hands on; and
though some of them were no doubt honest though much misguided people, crazed
almost by the woes laid on them by the war; the majority were coarse women, and
two of them paid the penalty of their misdeeds by being convicted of robbery and
were sent to the penitentiary.
The incidents of this remarkable affair have never yet been
written up in truly historical style, though they deserve to be.
The best account at hand is below given. It is the relation
of the Hon. John W. Daniel, an eye-witness, but he never wrote it for
publication. In 1878 he was traveling on a
car, and to while the hours of the night away he described the mob to Dr.
Moffat and Hon. John Paul. Without knowing it he had another listener - a
reporter for the
Sun - which enterprising individual sat with open ears, and as soon as possible
thereafter wrote out what he had heard. While most of the publication is in the
reporter's own language, Major Daniel said when he saw it that it was
substantially correct. The reporter probably misquotes the Major in attributing
to President Davis the commands to Captain Gay, of the Public Guard. That
company was a State organization in State service. The mob was violating a State
law, and it is safe to presume that Governor Letcher or the Mayor (very likely
the Governor) managed all those little details, which, with the presence of the
State Guard, disposed of the most remarkable mob in the history of
MAJOR DANIEL'S STORY.
The Major said that when Harper's Ferry was captured at the
beginning of the war all the available machinery for the manufacture of arms was
. Hundreds of workmen and their wives and daughters had been employed in the
arsenals and machine-shops, and they followed the machinery to the capital in
search of employment.. They got it. For a time they were regularly paid in good
money, and everything moved smoothly. But as the currency depreciated they began
to suffer. The money received by the workmen would not support their families.
As the war progressed Confederate notes became almost valueless. The wages of
the workmen would not purchase food for their families. They protested, but in
vain. They were too patriotic to organize a revolution. Their women, however,
formed a secret society, based on communistic principles. They seem to have held
that their husbands were working for the Confederacy, and that the Confederacy
was the only safety of the grocers ad shopkeepers. Without clothing and
provisions their husbands and sons must stop work. This would cut off necessary
munitions and supplies, the Government would fall, and all be involved in one
common ruin. To avoid this a general division of food and clothing must be made.
While standing in
one morning the Major witnesses an extraordinary scene. Hundreds of women
suddenly appeared. The broad avenue was filled with them. They came filing in
from the cross-streets by platoons, and began to sack the stores. Hollow-eyed
and gaunt with hunger, nobody dared resist them. A crowd of men hung upon the
outskirts, offering no interference and expressing no sympathy for the
shop-keepers. The women took the stores in line, one after the other. They
proceeded systematically. The goods were piled upon wagons drawn by horses
driven by female sympathizers. Not a word was spoken. The work was done with
terrible earnestness. When the mob entered a grocery a certain percentage of
them piled the goods upon the outstretched arms of the others, and they were
borne to the streets and dumped into the wagons. The women had it all heir own
way. Neither soldiers nor police were in sight. Meanwhile the crowd increased.
Other women heard what was going on, and flocked to
for a share of the plunder. Not a man joined them, and for a long time no one
made an effort to stop them. At last Colonel Baldwin, of
, jumped upon a dry-goods box, and made an impassioned appeal for law and order.
He might as well have talked to the wind. No one paid the least attention to
him. The women went on with their sacking, and the bystanders drowned
's voice with their whoops and cheers.
"While I was gazing at the scene," said the
Major, "I saw a captain of a cavalry regiment, with whom I had a slight
acquaintance. We were both in uniform. We agreed that something ought to be done
to restore order and stop the robbery. At his suggestion we stationed ourselves
at the door of a store already overrun. In a few seconds a virazo tried to pass
us. I can see her now. Her cheeks and lips were red, but she had a pinched,
starved look, and an eye like a hawk. She carried in her arms a half dozen bars
of yellow soap, a piece of dress silk, a long box of stockings, and some raisins
and herrings. I said:
"'Madam, I beg your pardon; but you are forgetting
yourself. These goods are not yours. You have not paid for them, and you will
not be permitted to leave this store with them.'
"She looked at me," said the Major, "in a
wild way, as though endeavoring to comprehend what I had said, and then went to
the counter and threw down the goods. As she came back she deliberately took me
by the arm and slung me from her with such force that I went spinning around
like a top, and struck the front of the building so hard that it took the breath
out of me. She then quickly gathered up her load from the counter and walked
captain looked at me and laughed, but kept his hands in his pockets ad said
nothing. I told him I thought we were out of place, ad he nodded. We concluded
after that to remain simple spectators.
"Meanwhile the women were approaching near the Old
Market. Certain people down there were credited with great wealth. It was said
that they had made barrels of money out of the Confederacy, and the female
Communists went at them without a qualm of conscience. The shopkeepers, however,
had heard what was going on above and tried to protect themselves. They put up
their shutters, barricaded their doors, ran up-stairs, and watched the
proceedings from the second-story windows. But the women were not dismayed.
While some of them ran for axes, others found a long piece of scantling ad used
it as a battering-ram. The first door flew open amid the cheers of the
outsiders, followed by a wail of sorrow. 'Oh mine kott! mine kott!I ish ruined,
I ish ruined!' was the cry. But they made no further defence. Indeed it would
have been dangerous for them to attempt it, for if one of the female robbers had
bee hurt the crowd of husbands and brothers would surely have avenged it.
"And so," said the Major, "the spoilation
continued. At last a rumor ran through the street, 'The Governor is coming.' It
proved true. Down the hill came Governor Letcher, accompanied by his staff and a
Then a second rumor spread over the crowd. The President
was coming. This also proved true. President Davis rode down, followed by a
Captain Gay and the Public Guard. He mounted a wagon and everyone was silent. I
had seen him several times but had never heard him speak, so I forced my way
within the feet of him and stood spell-bound. It was the most eloquent speech I
ever heard. Tall and slender, he swayed with emotion like the willow in the
wind. His words were carefully chosen. He spoke of his experience in the Mexican
war, and, while expressing his deepest sympathy with the sorrows and sufferings
of the children of the Confederacy, sternly maintained the necessity of law and
The Major heard that many of the women stopped pillaging,
and gathered at a distance listening to the words that they could catch. At the
close of his speech the President (?) took out his watch and gazed at it long
"Captain Gay," said he, "order your men to
load with ball cartridges."
The order was obeyed, and the ringing of ramrods was heard.
The crowd began to give way.
"Captain Gay," said the President, (?) still
looking at his watch, "if this street is not cleared within five minutes,
order your men to fire down the street until it is cleared."
The scene was on
near the Old market, not on
. I first saw the mob on
near the old American Hotel.
Mr. Davis rode away. Within three minutes there was not a
soul in sight but the Guards. The mob funneled itself into the side streets.
Those nearest the President gave the information to those in front and rushed
against them with the force of a wave.
"They are going to fire!" The words were heard by
the pilferers in the stores. They knew the character of Jefferson Davis and of
Governor Letcher and they knew the reputation of old Captain Gay. Where
would not flinch from giving an order Gay would not flinch from obeying it. The
women dispersed as quickly as they came and that was the end of the Female
Commune. They never held another meeting.
AT THE EVACUATION.
The mob at the evacuation was one of those results of war
which, however lamentable, seem to be unavoidable. The City Council fearing that
the enemy's victorious soldiery would, upon getting into the city, fill
themselves with liquor and indulge in excesses upon the helpless population,
ordered that all of the intoxicating liquors be seized and destroyed.
Accordingly the appointed officers went from store to store knocking in the
heads of barrels, breaking the jugs and bottles, and pouring the vile stuff then
in vogue into the gutters, and as they went their rounds they were followed by a
crowd of lawless individuals (most of whom had been cast upon the city by the
fortunes of war), who succeeded in making themselves drunk, and who then began
The example thus set was followed by hundreds of better
folks, who thought that as the city was soon to pass into the hands of the
public enemy they had just as well help themselves to what goods they could lay
hands on. The result was that the rioters had complete possession for several
hours before the Federals came in. In that time they emptied most of the stores.
There was a great Saturnalia going on when the Federal troops reached here. It
being then broad day they set to work to restore order, and also detailed
companies to stay the flames, for then the city was afire, not, however, from
the doings of the mob, but from the spread of flames from the tobacco and
Government warehouses and bridges fired by the retreating Confederates. Mr.
Caleb Joseph, an officer of the penitentiary, went down town to beg the Federal
officers to send troops to the penitentiary to stop the mob in its mischief and
(the Public Guard having been withdrawn with the army) to prevent the convicts
from escaping, but before he could succeed many of the prisoners were at liberty
and some of the townspeople were pillaging the institution, and between them the
torch was put to the buildings and a considerable portion of them reduced to
Whether with all of this going out of the Confederates and
coming in of the Federals, with the burning of hundreds of houses and the
general looting that went on many lives were lost does not appear. Those,
indeed, were "war times," and human life was held cheap. A list of
casualties was never made out, but it is certain that here and there the Federal
troops shot down a man, and the sun of April the 4th rose on
in the undisturbed possession of the enemy; its business centre reduced to
ashes; its industries and capital all gone, and the future before it black and
A few years before the war a man named Hardy was arrested
upon the charge of assaulting a little girl. For safety he was immediately put
in jail, and thither a crowd went with ladders to scale the walls and with
determination to hang the fellow; but the Young Guard (Captain John H.
Richardson) were at that moment drilling, and being called upon forthwith
marched to the jail, and by their presence dispersed the crowd.
About 1869 a
) fire company came to
, and because of some fracas that occurred at the trial of engines near the old
canal-packet office the colored people conceived that they had been denied their
rights, and afterward assembled about the Theatre corner and made riotous
demonstrations. The Federal military were still here, and a company being
ordered out, dispersed the mob at the point of the bayonet, giving some stabs
and blows, but killing no one.
On the night of the Tilden election so of our colored
fellow-citizens rampaged Broad street and went to Navy Hill and mistreated one
of their preachers who had voted with the Democrats, but were finally dispersed
by the police force, and a number of them were sent to jail.
With these and a few other trifling exceptions the
latter-day Richmond has been well-behaved, and the law is pretty generally
respected by all classes; but knowing that in every large community there must
always be some mischief-makers the authorities have good arrangements to throw
at any time the whole police force upon a given point and to summon large bodies
of military to their aid.
Indeed, for order and comparative freedom from crime,
stands at the head of the list.
Sun not so very long ago compiled the criminal statistics from all the
principal cities of the
occupied the place of honor, and the Sun so stated.
last updated on