Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Richmond's Bloody Interregnum

A ballot box was stolen from this Jackson Ward
building 147 years ago. Now it houses Gallery 5.

When I hear stubborn politicians talking about absolutely refusing to compromise with their opponents, it brings to mind what tragedy can flow from such foolishness. When we hear angry activists talking about “second amendment solutions,” it should remind us of how supposedly civilized peoples have sometimes lost their moorings. In its long history Richmond has had its share of bloody "solutions."

It was ten-and-a-half years ago that Richmond’s government seemed to be turning against itself by splitting into pieces. That happened with the Friday Night Fiasco (Sept. 21, 2007). But, if the reader thinks that strange stunt, engineered by then-Mayor Doug Wilder — to evict local public school officials from City Hall — was unprecedented, in that it had the local government at odds with itself, then please read on.

That little tiff was a trifle compared to what happened in these parts in 1870-71. What follows is a glance at the outcome of an instance that encouraged a feud to take root. It's a scary example of what can happen when people lose confidence in the results of elections and shrug off legitimate court rulings.

The Bloody Interregnum was the name that stuck to the politics-gone-wrong brouhaha over whether George Chahoon or Henry K. Ellyson was the lawful mayor of Richmond. When the five-year military occupation of Virginia following the Civil War ended on January 26, 1870, Gov. Gilbert C. Walker promptly appointed a new City Council for Richmond. That body in turn selected Henry K. Ellyson, publisher of The Dispatch — forerunner to today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch — as the city’s mayor.

However, George Chahoon, who had served as mayor during the last two years of Reconstruction, refused to recognize the validity of the process. Although the transplanted New Yorker had a considerable following around town, he was seen by Ellyson’s backers as a usurper of a sort. After all, Chahoon had served at the pleasure of the military overlords.

When neither man nor his followers would back off something had to give. The city fractured. As positions solidified, the split became a chasm. Two separate city governments were created by the process. There were two police departments, two City Halls, etc. Brawls became commonplace as the supporters of both mayors sought to press their case on every street corner. Chaos, with gun-play aplenty, ensued.

Notably, in spite of the fact that Richmond served as the capital of the Confederacy during a portion of the Civil War, it was not without its Union sympathizers. In fact, Richmond was quite divided on the topic of secession before the war. During and after the war there were substantial elements present that could have been characterized as pro-Union.

Like the USA’s 2000 presidential election, in 1870 the impasse found its way into court. On April 27, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals met to hear arguments from the two camps on the third floor of the state Capitol building.

The anxious citizens shouldered onto the balcony to witness the spectacle. Under all the weight the balcony collapsed and crashed onto the hapless spectators below. Widely known as The Capitol Disaster, when the smoke cleared the tragedy left 62 people dead and 251 injured.

Two days later, the court reconvened at City Hall. In due time, a verdict favorable to Ellyson was returned. A month later, a citywide election took place. But no clear winner emerged from that exercise, either.

This time the contentiousness stemmed from the disappearance of a ballot box from a precinct friendly to Chahoon. Same as ever, both sides traded more accusations. Although Ellyson was certified as the winner by the election board, he declined to serve because the election results were tainted, therefore inconclusive. Thus, the battle raged on.

Eventually Chahoon left town to avoid facing the consequences of several felony indictments — supposedly of a nonpolitical nature — that had been heaped upon him. For his part, Ellyson grew weary of the struggle and withdrew from the race.

The impasse was broken on July 1, 1871, with the election of Anthony Keily as the one and only mayor of the exhausted city of Richmond. Some of the actions of those who were most caught up in the 17 months of The Bloody Interregnum left stains that perpetuated grudges in Richmond for generations to come.

As a child growing up in Richmond, I heard adventure tales from my grandfather about this bizarre time. He claimed his salty old Uncle George, who was a sheriff (somewhere), among other things, told him that most men in Richmond carried guns on the street in those wild days, much like what we’ve seen in western movies.

Formal duels and spontaneous gunfights were not unusual in Richmond in that time. The Bloody Interregnum was set in motion by hardheaded people. In those days many Richmonders came to see only what supported their preconceived points of view. Blinded by prejudices and driven by insatiable desires to win, neither side was willing to compromise or recognize any authority.  

During that reckless spell of 17 months too many folks followed the hot-headed trouble-makers willing to lose everything, just to get their way. Those trouble-makers have their counterparts today. 

-- 30 --

No comments: