1870, March 16: On this date, Henry K. Ellyson was elected Mayor of Richmond by the City Council. That’s when the real trouble began.
That vote, the first tentative move toward self-government allowed in five years, sparked what would be an electoral morass, a political war, a city rent apart, Civil War divisions reopened at the point of a gun, and would reach all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States, before a shocking, horrific finale unforeseen by anyone, with sixty-two left dead in an instant, the entire affair to go down in national history as “The Capitol Disaster.”
In was, in short, Bush v. Gore with blood and gore.
As background, here’s a short primer on the facts from the Virginia Historical Society’s Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, “The Capitol Disaster” (Vol. 68, No. 2, April, 1960, pp. 193-197) by William M.E. Rachal:
As 1870 opened, the people of Richmond, weary of military rule, looked forward eagerly to the return of self-government under Virginia’s new constitution. Since the fall of the city on April 3, 1865, the United States Army had been in occupation, and in many ways the five years of Reconstruction had been more galling than the four years of Civil War which preceded it.
Early in February the General Assembly empowered the recently inaugurated governor, Gilbert C. Walker, to replace the Richmond City Council, which held office under General Edward R. S. Canby, commander of Military District No. 1. The Governor appointed a new council, which met on March 16 and elected Henry K. Ellyson mayor. When the old mayor, George Chahoon, anxious to retain the spoils of office, refused to recognized the validity of Ellyson’s election, a struggle for power developed between the two mayors and their respective police forces. Walker backed Ellyson, and Canby backed Chahoon in the bitter but inconclusive contest. Both police forces made arrests, and both mayors held court and jailed those they found guilty. As feeling mounted, each side sought the support of various courts, but neither obeyed adverse orders. Subsequently the whole matter was laid before Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase in Washington, and at his suggestion the case was continued until the May term of the court.
Meanwhile, with the consent of Chief Justice Chase, the parties agreed that the “Richmond Mayoralty Case” should be decided by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. On it sat Judges R. C. L. Moncure, William T. Joynes, Joseph Christian, Waller R. Staples, and Francis T. Anderson, all recently elected by the General Assembly to replace the judges serving under the military. The new court convened for the first time on April 12, and the mayoralty case came before it on a writ of habeas corpus, returnable the eighteenth. Archibald Dyer and J. H. Bell contended that they were confined unlawfully by “H. K. Ellyson, representing himself as mayor of Richmond.”
Interest in the case was intense, and on Wednesday, April 27, the courtroom on the top floor of the Capitol was packed. As the judges filed in to give their decision, the spectators rose and, under the shifting weight of the crowd, first the gallery and then the main floor of the room collapsed….