1870, April 27:  One cannot read accounts of the 1870 Capitol Disaster without thinking of the late war as an inner voice shouts, “Metaphor! METAPHOR!”

Harper’s Weekly laid out the story to a riveted national audience two weeks later in a special edition with several illustrations and breathless prose.

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.”

Detail from "The Richmond Calamity - Interior of Hall of Delegates - Getting Out the Dead and Wounded. From a Sketch by W. L. Sheppard." Harper's Weekly

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.”

via Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization, Vol. XIV – No. 698; New York, Saturday, May 14, 1870, found at http://www.vacapitol.org/disaster.htm.

The full Harper’s Weekly image is at http://www.vacapitol.org/images2/CapitolDisaster.jpg