From the Richmond Dispatch, 12/16/1888

Two Governors Threatened - The "Bread Riot" - Burning of the Penitentiary and More Recent Exploits.

Recent tragical performances at Birmingham have led some of our elderly citizens to ransack memory and revive tradition to see if ever Richmond 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.


Many strangers who come here and spend sunny days in the Capitol Square , 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 Richmond 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 Capitol Square ," said an old citizen, who has written a great deal about Richmond , "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 Richmond . [They are said to have been on Shockoe creek near where the city jail is and 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 West Virginia 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 Capitol Square . 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.


Politics seem always to have run high in Richmond , and there was a considerable manifestation of them in 1846. During a part of that war there was a United States 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.


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 . Jackson was chastising Hatcher when Hatcher suddenly seized an iron poker and dealt Jackson a mortal blow. A number of the most respectable citizens of Richmond , 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., &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.


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 Chesapeake and Ohio 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 New York 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 Richmond .


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 taken to Richmond . 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 Main street 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 Main street 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 Virginia , 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 Baldwin '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 out. The Alabama 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 few friends."

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 order.

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 and earnestly.

"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 Franklin street near the Old market, not on Main . I first saw the mob on Main 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 Davis 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.


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 to pillage.

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 flames.

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 Richmond 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 dreary.


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 Wilmington ( Del. ) fire company came to Richmond , 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, Richmond stands at the head of the list.

The New York Sun not so very long ago compiled the criminal statistics from all the principal cities of the United States , and Richmond occupied the place of honor, and the Sun so stated.

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