‘Stampede at Church’: The Court Street Baptist Church Tragedy

‘Stampede at Church’: The Court Street Baptist Church Tragedy

It was standing room only at Lynchburg’s Court Street Baptist Church late on the evening of Oct. 16, 1878. The Iola, Kan., Register would later describe the crowd that gathered that night as an “immense throng,” reporting that while the church could seat about 2,000 people, “there were many more than that present.”

On that night, members of the black community in Lynchburg, Va., had convened at the church for a wedding ceremony and revival service. Some newspapers, including the Register, would identify the couple being married as Thomas Johnson and Malinda Bosher. Others would claim that Andrew Jackson Everett and Mary Rives stood at the altar that night.

What is certain, however, is that before the sun would rise the next morning, as many as 14 people would be dead and dozens more grievously wounded in what newspaper headlines across the country would call “The Lynchburg Calamity,” the “Fatal Panic” and “Terrible Disaster.”

Court Street Baptist Church was founded in 1843 as the African Baptist Church, a spin-off of Lynchburg’s First Baptist Church. The church building one sees today, at the corner of Court and Sixth streets, was built in 1879, a year after the tragedy.

It boasts the tallest steeple in Lynchburg — a steeple topped with a copper ball said to be more than 9 feet in circumference.

When the tragedy occurred, the church was meeting in a building located just west of the current structure. Newspaper reports of the day indicate that structure had seen better days. As the Lynchburg Virginian put it the day after the incident, “The church had been condemned and though repaired was believed to be unsafe, which doubtless increased the panic.”

News stories about exactly what happened on that fateful night vary, sometimes wildly. What appears to have happened, however, is that either during or shortly after the wedding ceremony a false alarm went out among the congregants that the church was collapsing.

Some newspapers describe the sound that prompted the alarm as breaking glass and place the blame on a pea-shooter in the hands of a mischievous boy. Others report that chunks of plaster fell from the ceiling, causing the massive crowd to panic and flee the building, trampling each other in the process.

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The tragedy, as illustrated for the Nov. 9, 1878, issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News. Jones Memorial Library.

The Nov. 9, 1878, issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News reports it this way:

There was a general rush to the doors and windows. The audience-room being on the second floor, those who first reached the head of the stairs were so pressed on by the panic-stricken crowd that they were thrown down, and those who followed shared the same fate, until they were piled up almost to the head of the stairs.

Upon this mass of writhing humanity the throng that followed trod. Men and women rushed over it, careless of everything, so that they made their escape. The consequences were terrible. Many persons were either trampled or smothered to death, and more were badly wounded. Some who were near the bottom bore a weight which every moment threatened to crush their lives out.

Some newspapers also give harrowing accounts of victims leaping from second- and third-story windows to escape the building. The True Northerner newspaper in Paw Paw, Mich., published this account:

Many leaped from windows, and a few who were in the gallery jumped from the third-story windows. Three women who made that venture were killed outright.

Seventeen-year-old Maria Wilson was one woman who leaped to her death. An Oct. 18 story in the Lynchburg News, headlined “The Church Horror: Some Additional Particulars,” ponders Wilson’s final moments:

The view from the window through which Maria Wilson jumped to an instant death is simply fearful. Whether her neck was broken by concussion against the fence or pavement is not known, but certainly ninety-nine in a hundred would never know afterwards that they had attempted the leap.

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The grave of Maria Wilson at Old City Cemetery. Cemetery officials believe other victims are buried there, too, but no marker’s exist.

Like everything else in this story, the number of fatalities reported in newspapers from New York to New Orleans and beyond varies, from eight to 14 people. The Orleans County Monitor, of Barton, Vt., reported that “14 people are known to have been trampled to death and 20 were so badly injured that a number cannot recover.”

The New York Herald, while admitting that “it is still impossible to get the full list,” reported on Oct. 18 that 11 were dead and 30-some wounded. It also provided a list of 19 of the wounded: Jane Lee, Lou Winfree, Judith Ward, Ellen Archer, Milly Leftwich, Paschal Horton, Miss Irvine, Lena Diamond, Henrietta Booker, Mrs. Jones, Eliza Ward, Martha Bopp, Ellen Shurr, Mary Smith, Mrs. Coleman, Caroline Irvine, Miss Watkins, Mary Ann Read and Walter Perkins.

Some newspapers even said the bride and groom died in the chaos that followed their blessed event. If that couple was Jack and Mary Everett — sometimes spelled “Averett” — they didn’t perish that night. Through at least 1910, the Everetts were very much alive and living on Floyd Street.

(As for Thomas Johnson and Melinda Bosher, I have yet to find any records of them or their marriage.)

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The names of the victims are painted on this church window, located behind the pulpit at Court Street Baptist. As you’ll notice, the spellings of some names differ from the city’s death records and other accounts.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics (records on microfilm at Jones Memorial Library), the following eight women died on Oct. 16, 1878, or succumbed to their injuries shortly after the tragedy:

Ann Cox, 16, born in Campbell County. Some sources call her Lucinda Cox or Arena Cox.

Mary Henry, a 60-year-old cook.

Emma Powell, 14 years old.

Virginia Robinson (sometimes Robertson), age 19.

Maria Ransom, 19 years old. According to the health department’s records, her mother’s first name was Malinda. The last name is illegible.

Millie Wood, a 26-year-old cook. She also can be found as Mildred Ward, Mollie Wood and Mildred Walls.

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Diuguid Funeral Home record of Wilson’s burial.

Maria Wilson, 17, a cook. She buried at Old City Cemetery in Lynchburg. Her brother, John, paid $30 for her burial.

Adeline Burks held on for 10 days after the tragedy, surrendering to her injuries on Oct. 26. She was about 50 years old, born in Appomattox, and her occupation in the records appears to be “housework.”

Next to each name listed was the cause of death: “stampede at church” or “church stampede.”

Also, I’m working on a bigger project involving this story, so if anyone has information — family stories or records, etc. — that they would like to share, please post in the comments section. Thanks!

New Mexican Green Chile Stew

I love New Mexico. Anyone who knows me well knows that, and I try to visit the Land of Enchantment as often as possible, which ends up being about once a year. I even have a T-shirt — created by my sister, Theresa, who also loves New Mexico — that says, “I’m a better version of myself in New Mexico.”

And it’s true. I am.

Every time I visit, which has been about 14 times over the past 10 years, I come back renewed in spirit and with all sorts of ideas. I return home determined to finish whatever ambitious writing project I’m working on or create the folk art masterpiece that’s been lolling around in my head for months.

Sometimes the feeling lasts; sometimes it doesn’t. OK, oftentimes it doesn’t. Life gets in the way and those projects take the back burner until my next trip to New Mexico, when I’ll dream big dreams and come home with big plans.

One thing that has stuck around between trips is my love for New Mexican cuisine, particularly green chile stew, a popular dish in New Mexico. The spicy, slow-cooked concoction of green chiles, potatoes and pork is one of my favorite meals.

In fact, I’m eating it right now. As I write this blog post. Yes, I really am.

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Green chile stew

Hatch, N.M., is known as the green chile capital of the world. The small, southern New Mexico village also is home to the Hatch Chile Festival, held each Labor Day weekend. I haven’t been to the festival yet, but it’s definitely on the bucket list.

So, is seeing the burning of Zozobra, which takes place on the same weekend in Santa Fe, four hours to the north. Santa Feans have been burning Zozobra — also called “Old Man Gloom” — since 1924.

It’s not only a huge party, but a time to symbolically set fire to the worries and hardships of the past year. You can read all about the history of Zozobra hereAfter all, this post is about stew.

My recipe for green chile stew — there are many — is from Ramona’s Restaurant in Alamogordo, N.M.

While visiting New Mexico with husband John and his parents in 2006, we went to White Sands National Monument, an otherworldly place near Alamogordo. White Sands is a massive gypsum dune, with snow-white sand nearly as far as the eye can see. It’s pretty amazing.

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White Sands National Monument

Afterward, we went to this nondescript diner called Ramona’s. There, I ordered my first bowl of green chile stew and it was a revelation.

For the rest of the trip, I ordered green chile stew every time it was on the menu. At the end of the week, I declared Ramona’s my favorite. And when I got home, I called the restaurant and they gave me the recipe.

Ramona’s closed some time ago, but because I was lucky enough to snag the recipe beforehand, I still make her green chile stew several times a year. Now, you can make it, too. Enjoy!

Ramona’s Green Chile Stew

1 pound pork (loin, roast, chops, boneless ribs, etc.), cut into 1-inch cubes
3 large cloves garlic, pressed/minced (or 1 1/2 tsp. jarred, minced garlic)
1 T. cumin
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. white pepper
16 oz. diced green chiles (mild, medium, hot or a mix)
4 cups of diced potatoes (I like to use red or Yukon gold – no need to peel)
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

Put all ingredients in a good-sized stock pot or Dutch oven. Cook until potatoes are soft.

Hints: Sometimes, I use ground pork instead. If going that route, brown and drain the pork before adding the other ingredients to the pot. Also, if doubling the recipe, there’s no need to double the salt. Makes about four, meal-sized servings, and it’s great with piping-hot sopapillas or cornbread.

All the ‘Bawdy Ladies’ at Old City Cemetery

On Sunday, Sept. 25, Old City Cemetery will host its biennial “Bawdy Ladies of 19th-century Lynchburg” tour. The free, hour-long tour will be led by local historian Nancy Jamerson Weiland.

While giving the tour, Weiland will portray Lizzie Langley, one of the infamous “sporting women” of Lynchburg, Va.

For those not familiar with the phrase, “sporting women” has nothing to do with tennis, golf or softball. We’re talking about prostitutes, ladies of the night, hookers — you get it.

Langley (1828-1891) is one of several sporting women buried at Old City Cemetery, which was founded in 1806. Langley and her mother, Agnes — same profession — are buried just inside the cemetery’s Taylor Street entrance.

An impressive monument and iron fencing make the Langley plot easy to find on the right-hand side of the driveway. It’s been said the elaborate plot was paid for by appreciative customers — that, or it’s evidence of just how successful these working women were.

The “Bawdy Ladies” tour begins at 3 p.m. at the Langley plot.

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The Langley plot.

During the tour, Weiland will talk about the history of prostitution in Lynchburg from 1805 to 1940. According to a brochure she wrote on the subject, the first “houses of ill repute” in Lynchburg were located not too far from the James River in an area called Buzzard’s Roost.

Buzzard’s Roost — now the name of a local antique shop — was located in the vicinity of Seventh, Eighth, Tenth, Jefferson and Commerce (then called Lynch) streets. As Weiland writes, “Before the Civil War, this section along the river gained a notorious reputation for its bordellos, bars and gambling houses.”

Around the turn of the 20th century, Lynchburg’s prostitution business moved uphill from the river, to the Tinbridge Hill neighborhood, more specifically Monroe, Jackson and Fourth streets.

A passage in the book “Remembering Tinbridge Hill in Lynchburg, 1920-1970” describes this new red light district:

At the end of the 19th century, prostitutes began moving their thriving business into the area; bootlegging and gambling establishments sprang up there, as well. Unsavory activities, hilly terrain, and a growing black majority made it easy for the City to neglect this marginal area. By the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, its informal designation as “the forgotten hill” seemed well deserved, at least from the outside.

Also in the book, Gloria Franklin, who grew up in Tinbridge Hill, describes the “sporting houses” that were active there in the 1930s and 40s:

On the Monroe Street side, we’d sit on the wall and watch the people go in there. During the war the soldiers, they would line up out there. And the businessmen would come up in the big Packards, which was exciting to me. I’ve always loved cars. And they would take negligees, I guess, and things, it looked like that’s what they were, in to them.

Recalling the working girls she saw, Franklin adds with a laugh, “… they’d be sitting out there with the prettiest negligees on, and birds in cages. All of them had birds. I thought that was just wonderful. I probably wanted to be a prostitute at one time.”

Weiland, a research assistant at Jones Memorial Library, has been leading the “Bawdy Ladies” tour for 15 years. She’s been researching the women — approximately 700 of them — for more than 30 years.

Asked how she first became interested in these colorful women, Weiland said, “I was going to write the great American novel [and] I got caught up in the research. The research was just so fascinating I just kept researching.”

During her research, Weiland used newspaper articles and public records to learn what she could about Lynchburg’s early prostitutes. In the process, she also found some distant cousins among their ranks.

And she’s not the only one. In her 21 years at Jones Memorial, a genealogy and history library located on Memorial Avenue, Weiland said she’s encountered lots of people with familial ties to Lynchburg’s red light districts.

“Oh yeah, that happens quite frequently, people coming into the library to research and it turns out they’re one of my girls,” Weiland said. “That’s not an uncommon thing to happen. It’s happened a number of times over the years.”

Coming up in mid-October at Old City Cemetery are the annual Candlelight Tours, where professional actors in period costumes portray people buried at the cemetery. Past years have included numerous characters from Lynchburg’s history, among them World War I soldier William Harrison Brooks, who I blogged about recently.

Tickets for the Candlelight Tours are $18 (ages 13 and up) and $10 (12 and under), and must be purchased in advance. For more information about events at Old City Cemetery, call (434) 847-1465 or visit the cemetery’s website.

In his own words: the story of Lynchburg freedman Charley Mitchell

If I had a time machine, I’d go back to the 1930s and work for the Federal Writers’ Project. For those who’ve never heard of it, the Federal Writers’ Project was part of the Works Progress Administration, which was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The WPA provided jobs for millions of people during the Great Depression. While most of these jobs involved things like infrastructure — building roads and bridges, for example — the WPA also hired more creative types, including musicians, artists, actors and writers.

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This mural, painted by John Augustus Walker, was a WPA project. It’s in the lobby of the History Museum of Mobile.

The Federal Writers’ Project employed more than 6,000 people — not only writers and editors but also historians, researchers, map-makers, geologists and archaeologists. These people worked on all sorts of projects, among them travel guides, children’s books and local histories.

What they might be best known for, however, are the slave narratives.

From 1936 to 1938, Federal Writers’ Project employees interviewed more than 2,000 former slaves. They also took photographs. The collection that resulted is titled, “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States.”

You can read the narratives online. They’ve also been used in other projects, including a book I read a year or so ago, “The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves,” by Andrew Ward. It was an interesting and enlightening book and I recommend it.

One of the individuals interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project (and included in “The Slaves War’ ” as well) was Charley Mitchell. Mitchell was born in Lynchburg, Va., in 1852. Because he moved to Panola County, Texas, in 1887, his interview is included with the Texas narratives.

Mitchell was owned by Nathaniel B. Terry, who is described in the narrative as an “itinerant Baptist preacher.” After the war, Mitchell worked in a tobacco factory and as a waiter. At the time of the interview, however, he was farming.

Mitchell, then in his 80s, spoke with the interviewer about a variety of things, everything from slave sales and attitudes about educating slaves to ghosts.

First, an important note: You’ll see that Mitchell uses the “N-word” throughout the interview. I’ve decided to leave the narrative as it was recorded by the interviewer. Also, there’s been some debate over the years about the use of dialect in the narratives, but again, I’m leaving it as is.

Charley Mitchell’s Story

“I’s born in Virginia, over in Lynchburg, and it was in 1852, and I ’longed to Parson Terry and Missy Julia. I don’t ’member my pappy, ’cause he’s sold when I’s a baby, but my mammy was willed to the Terrys and allus lived with them till freedom. She worked for them and they hired her out there in town for cook and house servant.

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Charley Mitchell, Texas, 1937. Library of Congress.

“They hired me out most times as nuss for white folks chillen, and I nussed Tom Thurman’s chillen. He run the bakery there in Lynchburg and come from the north, and when war broke they made him and ’nother northener take a iron clad oath they wouldn’t help the north. Durin’ the war I worked in Massa Thurman’s bakery, helping make hard tack and doughnuts for the ’federate sojers. He give me plenty to eat and wear and treated me as well as I could hope for.

“Course, I didn’t git no schoolin’. The white folks allus said niggers don’t need no larnin’. Some niggers larnt to write their initials on the barn door with charcoal, then they try to find out who done that, the white folks, I mean, and say they cut his fingers off iffen they jus’ find out who done it.

“Lynchburg was good sized when war come on and Woodruff’s nigger tradin’ yard was ’bout the bigges’ thing there. It was all fenced in and had a big stand in middle of where they sold the slaves. They got a big price for ’em and handcuffed and chained ’em together and led ’em off like convicts. That yard was full of Louisiana and Texas slave buyers mos’ all the time. None of the niggers wanted to be sold to Louisiana, ’cause that’s where they beat ’em till the hide was raw, and salted ’em and beat ’em some more.

“Course us slaves of white folks what lived in town wasn’t treated like they was on most plantations. Massa Nat and Missy Julia was good to us and most the folks we was hired out to was good to us. Lynchburg was full of pattyrollers, jus’ like the country, though, and they had a fenced in whippin’ post there in town and the pattyrollers sho’ put it on a nigger iffen they cotch him without a pass.

“After war broke, Lee, you know General Lee himself, come to Lynchburg and had a campground there and it look like ’nother town. The ’federates had a scrimmage with the Yankees ’bout two miles out from Lynchburg, and after surrender General Wilcox and a big company of Yankees come there. De camp was clost to a big college there in Lynchburg and they throwed up a big breastworks out the other side the college. I never seed it till after surrender, ’cause us wasn’t ’lowed to go out there. Gen. Shumaker was commander of the ’Federate artillery and kilt the first Yankee that come to Lynchburg. They drilled the college boys, too, there in town. I didn’t know till after surrender what they drilled them for, ’cause the white folks didn’t talk the war ’mongst us.

“Bout a year after the Yankees come to Lynchburg they moved the cullud free school out to Lee’s Camp and met in one of the barracks and had four white teachers from the north, and that school run sev’ral years after surrender.

“Lots of ’Federate sojers passed through Lynchburg goin’ to Petersburg. Once some Yankee sojers come through clost by and there was a scrimmage ’tween the two armies, but it didn’t last long. Gen. Wilcox had a standin’ army in Lynchburg after the war, when the Yankees took things over, but everything was peaceful and quiet then.

“After surrender a man calls a meetin’ of all the slaves in the fairgrounds and tells us we’s free. We wasn’t promised anything. We jus’ had to do the best we could. But I heared lots of slaves what lived on farms say they’s promised forty acres and a mule but they never did git it. We had to go to work for whatever they’d pay us, and we didn’t have nothing and no place to go when we was turned loose, but down the street and road. When I left the Terry’s I worked in a tobacco factory for a dollar a week and that was big money to me. Mammy worked too and we managed somehow to live.

“After I married I started farmin’, but since I got too old I live round with my chillen. I has two sons and a boy what I raised. One boy lives clost to Jacksonville and the other in the Sabine bottom and the boy what I raised lives at Henderson. I been gittin’ $10.00 pension since January this year. (1937)

“I never fool round with politics much. I’s voted a few times, but most the time I don’t. I leaves that for folks what knows politics. I says this, the young niggers ain’t bein’ raised like we was. Most of them don’t have no manners or no moral self-respect.

“I don’t ’lieve much in hants but I’s heared my wife call my name. She’s been dead four years. If you crave to see your dead folks, you’ll never see them, but if you don’t think ’bout them they’ll come back sometime.

“Two nigger women died in this house and both of them allus smoked a pipe. My boy and me used to smell the pipes at night, since they died, and one mornin’ I seed one of them. I jus’ happened to look out the window and saw one of them goin’ to the cow-pen. I knowed her by her bonnet.

“They’s a nigger church and cemetery up the road away from my house where the dead folks come out by twos at night and go in the church and hold service. Me and the preacher what preaches there done seed and heared them.

“They’s a way of keepin’ off hants. That’s done by tackin’ an old shoe by the side the door, or a horseshoe over the door, or pullin’ off part of the planks of your house and puttin’ on some new boards.”

A few more things:

Woodruff’s slave trading lot, mentioned by Mitchell, also is mentioned in Asbury Christian’s book, “Lynchburg and its People,” published in 1900. Christian writes that “Woodruff’s jail, on Lynch Street [now Commerce], between Ninth and Tenth” was “where the traders kept their slaves.”

Christian adds that the jail was “well patronized.”

According to an article written by John Marks in the 2007 issue of Agora, a journal published by Lynchburg College, the jail was built by Seth Woodruff in 1852 “to serve as a boarding house for slaves before their owners sent them to other parts of the country.”

That’s in keeping with Mitchell’s recollections about slaves being sold to buyers from Louisiana and Texas.

The college Mitchell mentions isn’t the current Lynchburg College, but one that operated in Lynchburg before the Civil War. The College Hill neighborhood, in Lynchburg’s downtown historic district, is named for this college. I couldn’t find much information about the college online, so that’s all I know at this point.

You can read more about Gen. Orlando Wilcox here in a book about his experiences.

I found the baker Tom Thurman in the 1860 census. His occupation is nearly illegible, but looks like “confectioner.” In the previous, 1850 census, Thurman works as a salesman for a confectioner named Samuel Thurman, perhaps his brother.

As for “Parson Terry,” I found a couple of censuses where he appears. Neither time is he described as a minister. In 1850, he’s a grocer and in 1870, he “works in tobacco factory.” Mitchell describes him as “itinerant.” Perhaps he means part-time preacher.

Hard to tell at this point without a time machine.