Paul Prather

‘A wail of agony as mortal ears never heard before’: History says life is short, tragedy will happen again

Sarah Whiting Cooleen, Project Manager for the Historic Richmond Foundation, looks up at some of the massive brick arches in the basement of Monumental Church in Richmond, Va. in April, 2003. Just behind her is the crypt which contains the remains of 72 people, including Virginia Governor George W. Smith, who were killed in a fire on this spot in 1811. The fire consumed the Richmond Theater and the church was built over the site in 1814, with the help of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall.
Sarah Whiting Cooleen, Project Manager for the Historic Richmond Foundation, looks up at some of the massive brick arches in the basement of Monumental Church in Richmond, Va. in April, 2003. Just behind her is the crypt which contains the remains of 72 people, including Virginia Governor George W. Smith, who were killed in a fire on this spot in 1811. The fire consumed the Richmond Theater and the church was built over the site in 1814, with the help of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall. RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH

While on a spring break getaway to Richmond, Va., my wife Liz and I happened into a used bookstore on West Cary Street with the unlikely name of Chop Suey Tuey — motto, “Books You Want. No MSG.”

There, I bought a volume called “A Richmond Reader, 1733-1983,” edited by Maurice Duke and Daniel P. Jordan, first published in 1983.

It’s an anthology made up of 60 selections, 400-plus pages in all, of accounts about newsworthy events and famous people in Richmond’s history, many of the accounts taken from contemporaneous, first-person sources such as letters.

I couldn’t wait to get back to the bed-and-breakfast where we were staying and crack it open.

Within my first 15 or 20 minutes of scanning “A Richmond Reader,” hopping from one entry to another at random, I was struck by how blighted by peril our human lives always have been.

On the night after Christmas, 1811, 600 patrons packed into the Richmond Theatre to watch a play.

A lamp meant to illuminate the play’s scenery somehow ignited it instead. Flaming scenery crashed onto the stage. In moments, the building was engulfed.

Seventy-two people died in the conflagration, including Virginia’s governor.

The next day, an eyewitness named Thomas R. Joynes, a distinguished lawyer, shakily took up his pen to describe the tragedy to his brother.

Joynes somehow had escaped the theater. Standing outside, he helplessly watched the devastation unfold.

“I myself saw a crowd standing at one of the windows when they were well surrounded by the flames, their clothes took fire and they perished in the general conflagration,” he writes. “I saw two wretched men, frantic for the loss of an affectionate wife, and dear relatives and connections, after they were themselves safe on the ground rush impetuously into the flames and share the fate of those who were dearer to them than life.”

He tells of other survivors running to and fro in hysterics, searching for the lost.

It was, he says, “a scene of horror and misery” of “which one more tragic perhaps never happened.”

Yet less than 60 years later, Joseph Christian, a judge, describes an equally cataclysmic — and far odder — disaster.

In 1870, post-Civil War Richmond was racked by a dispute related to Reconstruction. Two competing politicians claimed to be the city’s rightful mayor. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, of which Christian was a member, took up the case.

When word went out that the court had reached a decision, spectators thronged the state capitol building. The courtroom, on an upper floor, was packed beyond capacity.

As the judges entered from an adjoining conference room, the overloaded gallery above them collapsed into the courtroom’s center, which in turn swayed and then crashed into the hall of the House of Delegates 40 feet below, Christian says in a letter he wrote his wife that night.

Christian was among the last judges out of the conference room. Narrowly—by a few feet—he’d avoided being crushed.

He estimates that between 400 and 500 people in a “struggling mass” plunged into an “awful abysm from which arose such a wail of agony as mortal ears never heard before.”

Dozens were crushed to death, others maimed beyond repair, all of them, the living and the dead, covered in plaster and dust.

“Men accustomed to restrain their feelings, moaned and wept like children,” Christian writes of the aftermath. “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.”

The book’s editors say the crash injured 313 people, including 62 who died. Among the casualties were prominent Richmond lawyers and other leading citizens.

Christian calls it “the most shocking and appalling calamity that ever happened in this country.” It’s understandable he believed that, but you wonder if he’d ever heard of the 1811 theater fire in that same town.

Both tragedies were monumental. If calamities of a similar magnitude were to happen today in an American city — or, better said, when they do, as in Houston or New Orleans — they’re national news. They’re broadcast around the clock, for weeks.

We shake our heads and gasp and point fingers and vow to remember forever.

Then we forget.

After a half-century of reading history, I’d never heard of either of these Richmond disasters or of the people caught up in them.

The eyewitnesses thought nothing more terrible had ever befallen other people.

But it had. It will again. And then again.

That’s something reading history teaches us: Life is ephemeral. Each of us is transient.

By coincidence, just the other day a friend of mine recalled a conversation he’d had when he was younger. He and his dad visited a cemetery.

Son, look at all these rows of graves with their tombstones, his dad said. See them?

Yes, my friend said.

In every one of those graves, his dad said, lies someone who was sure the world couldn’t keep turning if he was gone, that his family and friends would never get by without him.

To that, I say amen. Neither our victories nor our tragedies nor our darkest worries amount to much in the grand scheme. Soon enough, they’re buried with us.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com
  Comments