On this day in 1870, the “Capitol Disaster” occurred at the Richmond Capitol Building.
Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, Virginia was under military rule for almost five years. Political positions were filled by the military governors of the states that they controlled. In Virginia, General John Schofield was governor. In May of 1868 he appointed George Chahoon, a New Yorker, as the mayor of Richmond. He held his post until January of 1870 when military rule ended in Virginia. The first few months of 1870 were filled with uncertainty and disputes over who was in charge. After the Richmond City Council chose Henry K. Ellyson as the interim mayor in March of 1870, Chahoon and his staff refused to step down. This caused the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to hold a special hearing on April 27 to decide who was in charge of Richmond’s government. This set the stage for the disaster that took place that day.
On that April morning in 1870, hundreds of spectators crowded into the courtroom to see the outcome of this important case which would shape the city’s future for the next several years. In that second story courtroom was a balcony that was known prior to that day for its unsafe construction and improper support. It had held up for several years, but on this day the mass of human weight would be too much for it. Just prior to the start of the hearing around 11am, as the clerk of the court and some of the judges were either already seated or about to enter the courtroom from an adjacent conference room, the faulty balcony collapsed and fell into the center of the room. As the balcony landed, the entire courtroom floor also gave way, plunging 40 feet to the floor of the House of Delegates chamber below. With the debris fell the hundreds of onlookers and court case participants present that day, including Chahoon and Ellyson, both of whom survived but were injured. Thankfully there were very few people in the House of Delegates chamber at the time.
As the second floor collapsed into the House of Delegates chamber, a huge cloud of choking dust filled the building. As it turned out, many were killed or seriously injured thanks to the suffocating dust that dominated the space. Of course many were hurt or killed by falling beams and other building debris that collapsed on them. The bodies of dead and wounded lay everywhere. As the dust cloud settled, the survivors of the disaster and rescue crews from the city rushed to save those trapped under debris and slowly dying from their wounds and lack of air.
Among the prominent people who died in the disaster were Patrick Henry Aylett, a well known attorney, grandson of the famous Revolutionary War hero Patrick Henry, and brother of Colonel William Aylett. Also killed were General Schofield’s brother, E.M. Schofield; Mr. J.W.D. Bland, a member of the Virginia State Senate; Dr. J.B. Brock, editor at the Richmond Enquirer and Examiner papers; and Julius Hobson, the city collector. A total of 62 were killed, among them 11 police officers on duty in the building that day. The injury list was even bigger, with 251 wounded, some permanently scarred and disabled for life.
The disaster on that day made international news, and hit the city hard for a long time with the loss of so many prominent members of the government and the damage done to the capitol building. In the following weeks after the disaster, there was a push to demolish the badly damaged structure. Instead, the city chose to repair it. In 1904 two more wings were added to the building. The building continues to operate in the same capacity to this day.
As for the original court case that brought so many people together that day in April, the hearing was reconvened a few days later in the City Hall. The appeals court ruled against Chahoon’s rule. A city-wide election later took place, giving Ellyson the victory but in a disputed manner. Chahoon ultimately left for New York, and Ellyson dropped out of the running. In 1871 Anthony Keily was elected mayor, thus ending a tumultuous period in the history of Richmond politics that included a major disaster indirectly caused by the feud between the two factions.