The text below is reprinted from the Virginia Historical Society’s Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, “The Capitol Disaster: A Letter of Judge Joseph Christian to His Wife” (Vol. 68, No. 2, April, 1960, pp. 193-197) edited by William M.E. Rachal.
The letter’s author Judge Joseph Christian was a native of Middlesex County, and as a young lawyer served in the Virginia State Senate as a Whig, and “opposed secession, but he was loyal to Virginia when the break came.” In early 1870 after several years as a circuit judge he was appointed to the Supreme Court of Appeals. He was in his first term when the Richmond Mayoralty case found its way to his court.
Richmond, April 27th 1870
Unite with me my precious wife in praise and thankfulness to God, for his marvelous mercy in saving me this day from a terrible death. The most shocking and appalling calamity that ever happened in this country occurred this morning at the Capitol. This day will long be remembered as a day of horror and death, and there is a wail of sorrow going up from this City tonight, such as never was heard before. Seventy five human beings (and it may be more) have been in a moment hurled into eternity – their forms crushed & mangled – and hundreds others wounded and maimed for life. Among them are some of the best and noblest men in the State, among them many of my dearest friends. Oh God what a day of horror, blood, and death it has been. I am hardly calm enough to write the sickening details…
…Just before 11 the Judges had all assembled in the Conference room. We had on yesterday agreed upon the decision & heard the opinion written by Judge Moncure read. There was one passage or two which Judge Staples & myself insisted should be changed. This was not done yesterday and this morning a discussion ensued in conference which delayed us 15 minutes. But for this delay we should all have been the victims of the terrible catastrophe. We had just re-written the passages referred to and started into the Court room, which adjoins the conference room, Judge Joynes & Judge Anderson had entered the room and the rest of us about to enter, when the awful crash came. Suddenly the crowded gallery gave way precipitating its living weight into the center of the court room crushing those beneath. In a moment more the floor of the court room began to sink and sway and then, horror of horrors, it fell with its struggling mass of 4 or 5 hundred human beings forty feet into the Hall of the House of Delegates below. The floor of the Conference Room did not go down, but left us (the Judges) on the very brink of that awful abysm from which arose such a wail of agony as mortal ears never heard before. To add to the horrors of the scene a midnight darkness (caused by the dust of tons of plaster) settled over the dreadful chasm. The air was not only filled with the shrieks and groans of the dying and wounded, but the dust was suffocating and we had to rush out of the building for air to breathe. Then followed scenes which cannot be described – heartrending, sickening, appalling. The work of rescuing this living and dying and dead mass of human beings from the awful grave in which they were buried, soon began…
Those who came out and were brought out could not be recognized by their nearest friends. That dreadful lime dust had covered them all and they all looked alike in their horrible coating of lime and blood. They hardly look like human beings but more like bloody ghosts from the regions of despair…. Every now and then I would find that some poor mangled & naked wretch was one of my dear friends. Oh my God what scenes of anguish I passed through this dark and dreadful day. I will not attempt them further. I cant dwell upon these awful scenes, they were so heartrending so appalling that they unman me when I recall them. The wail of sorrow that went up, as wives recognized husbands, brothers & sisters, brothers, and mothers their mangled and bleeding sons, filled the balmy air of spring, and the blood of the best men in the City and State, crimsoned the green lawn around the ill-fated building. Strong men wept like women and women who could not weep were silent in the agony of despair. Men accustomed to restrain their feelings, moaned and wept like children. Judge Moncure threw his arms around my neck and wept aloud in outbursts of uncontrollable grief as friend after friend of ours was brought out, some mangled, some dying, some dead…. Eight or ten lawyers practicing in our Court were killed or dreadfully wounded. Patrick Henry Aylett, Nat Howard, and Powhatan Roberts killed outright….
Oh my dear wife and children – from what an awful fate have we been spared. I have often asked myself the question why was I saved. Oh God in the presence of this dread calamity, I would humble myself in thy presence and devote myself unreservedly to thy service. God help me a poor sinner to love and serve Him.
We shall be compelled to adjourn our Court. The Clerks office with all our records are destroyed and more than half the lawyers practicing in our Court are killed and wounded. We shall remain until the end of the week, to attend the public funerals & other sad ceremonies. You may expect me home on Monday or Tuesday next. May God bless you all.