‘Babes Die in Flames’: The Presbyterian Orphanage fire

At about 4 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 1909, a fire broke out at the Presbyterian Orphanage in Lynchburg, Va., killing five girls, ages about 5 through 10. Stories about the tragedy appeared in newspapers as far away as Texas and Kansas, and perhaps even farther afield.

Under the dramatic headline, “Babes Die in Flames,” the Baltimore Sun reported that the fire erupted in Shelton Cottage, a girls’ dormitory. It was first detected by the orphanage cook, a “Mrs. Priest.”

Mrs. Priest, they say, was awakened “by the roar of the flames.”

In one eternally long sentence, the newspaper goes on to describe the scene:

“When [Mrs. Priest] saw that it was then impossible to get the children out by the stairway, the entire basement and first floor at that time being enveloped, and that it would be but a few minutes before the whole building would fall, she rushed to the third story and brought 15 children down to the second floor, leading them to the veranda roof, where they were taken down a ladder, several of them dropping into the outstretched arms of the older boys of the institution.”

As described in “Feed My Lambs: A History of Presbyterian Homes & Family Services, Inc., 1903-2003,” by Mary Jo Shannon, “Boys in nearby Paxton Cottage rushed to bring a ladder to rescue the frightened children. Some of the smallest girls jumped and were caught by the older boys.

“Tom Bowles, a sixteen-year-old crippled boy who lived on the first floor of Shelton Cottage because he could not manage stairs on his crutches, caught five or six of the girls before he collapsed, exhausted.”

The little girls who died that fall morning were Ruby and Lucile Moorefield, sisters from Lynchburg; Mamie Reynolds of Bath County; Marie Hickman of Campbell County; and Mary Poole of McDowell County, W. Va.

Beneath the exceedingly morbid headline, “Five Children are Cremated in Nursery,” the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal reported that Ruby Moorefield had initially been rescued but, upon learning that her younger sister, Lucile, was still trapped inside ran back into the inferno and “lost her life.”

Wanda Carpenter photo - graves of girls killed in pres home fire
Five little graves. Photo by Wanda Carpenter, Presbyterian Cemetery.

A funeral for the girls was held two days later at Westminster Presbyterian Church. The Washington Post reported that the church was “crowded” and “the bodies were held in five little white caskets.”

The girls are buried at Presbyterian Cemetery on Grace Street in Lynchburg.

As for the cause of the fire, Charlotte’s Evening Chronicle reported that there “seems to be no doubt but the fire was started in the furnace from which the building was heated.”

The Baltimore Sun said a coroner’s inquest, held the day after the blaze, “threw no light on the cause of the fire, but the verdict included a statement fully exonerating the Home authorities from blame.”

The Bryan, Texas, Eagle, reported that the building “caught fire in a manner that made the rescue impossible.”

Despite that dire description, 24 of the 29 girls were helped to safety, many by the aforementioned Mrs. Priest and possibly Sue Gamewell, another Shelton Cottage matron.

They did this without the benefit of a fire escape and neither escaped unscathed.

According to accounts in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun, Gamewell, a widow in her late 40s according to 1910 U.S. Census, “contracted pneumonia while escaping from the fire in her night attire.”

As reported in the Evening Chronicle, Mrs. Priest — who was likely 20- or 21-year-old Ohio native Edna Preas, according to the 1910 census — had numerous injuries, including a dislocated shoulder, sprained back and a scalp wound.

“Mrs. Priest, after seeing the children in the main part of the building out safely, was compelled to jump,” the newspaper said, adding, “She will recover.”

There was even talk of nominating Mrs. Priest for a Carnegie medal for heroism. (Either she wasn’t nominated or didn’t win, as she’s not listed among the honorees for 1909 or 1910.)

Despite that, the Baltimore Sun had this to say about the bravery displayed by the women:

“Dr. R.H. Fleming, the superintendent, was away at the time of the fire, and there were no men about except some distance away in the farmhouses. When they arrived at the burning structure it was too late to save the little tots.

“The women could not have save[d] them, as they barely succeeded in saving 24 of the other girls.”

All I have to say to that is, “Really, guys? The lady saved 15 girls and then jumped out a second-story window, probably in her nightgown. Obviously, your editor was not a woman.” 

And special thanks to Wayne Fitzgerald for posting an article about the Presbyterian Home fire last October.

Presbyterian Cemetery ‘Sunday Stroll’ is April 2

On Sunday, April 2, Lynchburg’s Presbyterian Cemetery will host its first “Sunday Stroll” of 2017. The hour-long, guided tour, “Lynchburg During the Civil War,” will begin at 2 p.m. The cost is $5.

The tour will focus on what life was like in Lynchburg during the Civil War. It also will highlight local Civil War soldiers — more than 200 of which are buried at Presbyterian Cemetery — along with mourning traditions and more.

Augustus Winfield Scott 1843-1905
This weeping angel atop the grave of Augustus Winfield Scott is one of many exquisite monuments that can be found at the historic burial ground.

Presbyterian Cemetery was founded in 1823 on land purchased from Edward Lynch, son of the city’s founder, John Lynch.

Notable people buried there include, among others, Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland Jr. (Civil War), Max Guggenheimer Jr. (local “merchant prince”), Otway Anna Carter Owen (great-niece of George Washington) and Emma Serena Dillard Stovall (the folk artist known as “Queena” Stovall).

While not famous, the four Stephens children also are buried at Presbyterian. Their graves are overlooked by an exquisite statue, one of many beautiful monuments at the cemetery. I wrote about them a few months ago.

For full disclosure purposes, I’m a member of the Friends Board at Presbyterian Cemetery.

More terrible things discovered by accident

One day, while perusing the Internet when I should have been doing paying work, I happened upon a website that lists people executed in the U.S. from 1607 to 1976.

If you read my blog regularly, you know I’m drawn to morbid subjects. I can’t help it.

A few months ago, I wrote about “The ‘terrible death’ of Conrad Cramer,” a boy who was trampled to death by a mule. More recently, I investigated a church “stampede” that happened in Lynchburg, Va., in 1878. Eight women were killed, one of which leaped from a window to her death.

Seriously, though, what drives me isn’t entirely morbid curiosity but a desire to tell little-known stories from history. Some of them just happen to be gruesome.

The execution website includes slaves as well as free people. While browsing the section on Louisiana — you can search by state and other criteria — I found lots of people put to death for the crime of “slave revolt.”

The preferred method of execution for this crime in Louisiana, between 1730 and 1754 at least, appears to have been something called “break on wheel.” I’d never heard of this, so I did what all good, amateur historians do: I Googled it.

The breaking wheel, as it was called, was a torture device used to execute people. As one might expect, it used a wheel — think wagon wheel — to which the condemned was strapped. Then, the executed person was bludgeoned to death. Bones were broken, sometimes it took days, and sometimes breaking on the wheel was followed up with the person being drawn and quartered.

There were all kinds of variations.

At least one website claimed the French term “coup de grâce” comes from the breaking wheel. Translated as “blows of mercy,” it refers to when an executioner lands a fatal blow to make the execution go quicker and thus, more mercifully.

In short, death by the breaking wheel sounds terrible and you can read more about it here. There also are pictures.

Numerous Central Virginians were on this execution list, too, including six slaves who were hanged in 1863 for murdering their master. Their names were Armstead, George, Seaton, Bet, Jane and Sarah. Their owner was Gen. Terisha Washington Dillard, an Amherst County lawyer and farmer.

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H.J. Stephens (1824-1882) lithograph, “Blow for Blow,” dated 1863. Library of Congress.

The U.S. Civil War Soldiers Index on FamilySearch lists a Terisha W. Dillard, who served as a colonel in the 90th Regiment (Amherst County), Virginia Militia during the Civil War. Perhaps one of those ranks, general or colonel, was a 19th-century typo. I guess it’s not all that important, but I get bogged down in stuff like that sometimes.

Dillard and his family lived at Islington, a James River plantation near the Stapleton community in Amherst County.

As reported in the May 13, 1863, edition of The Daily Virginian (the Lynchburg newspaper) the murder took place on May 9, while Dillard was supervising work on an island near his home.

According to the book “More Passages: A New History of Amherst County, Virginia,” by Sherrie S. McLeRoy and William P. McLeRoy, the island was called Buffalo Island. It was located in the James River, across from Islington.

Doug Harvey, director of the Lynchburg Museum System, said some plantation owners had gardens on islands in the James River. The well-known Cabell family, for example, owned several islands for this purpose, he said. The Cabells owned Point of Honor, a grand home in Lynchburg’s Daniel’s Hill neighborhood that overlooks the river.

Dillard’s murder was reported in several newspapers, including The Richmond Sentinel, the Alexandria Gazette and The Abingdon Virginian. Here’s what The Daily Virginian had to say about it:

Brutal Murder — Gen. Terisha W. Dillard, of Amherst Co., was brutally murdered by some of his servants, on Saturday last. We learn that he was superintending some work he was having done on an island in the James River, near his residence, in which six hands were employed — four women and two men — when the fiendish purpose of his murder was executed.

He was caught and held by the men, and the women inflicted the fatal blows. His body, we are informed, was horribly cut and mangled, presenting a shocking spectacle of mutilation. After the diabolic deed had been performed, the remains were covered up in the sand, but soon two of the women made confessions of the crime, and with the two men, were arrested. The others are yet at large.

Gen. Dillard was a gentleman of high standing, and much esteemed. At one time, he was director of one of the banks of this city.

The news of Dillard’s grisly murder even made it to Winchester, Tenn., where the Daily Bulletin reported it this way:

Horrible Murder in Amherst, Va. — The distressing intelligence that General Terisha W. Dillard was brutally murdered by two of his own slaves on Saturday evening last reached us yesterday. No particulars of this foul deed have been received, other than the fact that one of the murderers had been arrested and confessed his crime, and the other had made his escape.

General Dillard was a lawyer of prominence and a gentleman of fine talents and popular manners, and the announcement of his untimely and cruel death will fall with crashing force upon his numerous family connections and a number of friends. — Lynchburg Republican, 12th

As usual, newspaper accounts varied, with some papers reporting two suspects and others six, and the number of male and female suspects differing as well. According to the MeLeRoys, some people even thought Dillard’s wife was involved, too. “One local legend,” they wrote, “says the murder was inspired by Dillard’s cruel nature [and] that even his wife Mary Elizabeth was implicated in the plot.”

When the slaves were hanged a few weeks later, the number also differs at five as opposed to the six listed on the executions website. On June 22, 1863, the Richmond Daily Dispatch reported, “The negroes of General Dillard, five in number, convicted of his murder, were hung at Amherst County Court House, Va.”

As described by the McLeRoys, the slaves were hanged at the aptly named “Gallows Field,” which was located “near the modern Amherst Junior High School.” Though it was rumored that Mrs. Dillard was hanged as well, the McLeRoys found no evidence of that.

Notes: For readability purposes, I corrected some misspellings/punctuation issues in the newspaper articles. And thanks to Doug Harvey and the Lynchburg Museum System and Chuck Bradner with Jones Memorial Library for their help with this article.

The Lynchburg Zoo

The Lynchburg Zoo

If you walk to the center of Lynchburg’s Miller Park today, between the Aviary and what’s called the “fireman’s fountain,” you’ll find a flowerbed. The contents of this flowerbed aren’t remarkable — one small tree, a few clumps of hostas, other common plants — but what is noteworthy is its border.

At first glance, the rectangle of flagstone slabs, connected with heavy, iron staples, looks like overkill. After all, it’s only corralling foliage and mulch. But what a lot of people don’t know is that in its previous life this flowerbed was a bear pit.

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The old bear pit at Miller Park.

Yes, you read that correctly. There were once bears at Miller Park, along with deer, monkeys, snakes, birds, alligators, wolves and other wildlife. During the early part of the 20th century, the City of Lynchburg operated a zoo at what was once known as “City Park” and later named for local philanthropist Samuel Miller.

It’s difficult to say exactly when the zoo opened. There is, however, mention of it in the Nov. 22, 1899, edition of the Lynchburg News.

A story headlined “Bears for the Park” reports that “two fine bears” just arrived in Lynchburg aboard a Norfolk & Western freight train. The bears were acquired by the city from C.N. Otey, said to be a “well-to-do business man of Wytheville.”

The article further explains that prior to that time Otey had kept the bears as pets.

Why Otey relinquished the bears isn’t stated, but the 1900 U.S. Census might offer a clue. At the time, the 42-year-old Otey was a bartender and married father of six. Otey’s brother and father-in-law also live in the house.

That said, one can imagine Otey’s wife of 15 years, Ella, thinking something had to go. So Lynchburg got two bears.

In “The History of Lynchburg, Virginia, 1786-1946,” author Philip Lightfoot Scruggs writes that the zoo “was initiated through a buck deer being given to E.C. Hamner, chairman of City Council’s committee on parks.” The year isn’t mentioned.

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Cover of an early 20th century Lynchburg annual report. (Lynchburg Museum System)

Over the years, the City of Lynchburg’s Committee on Parks reported annual expenses and other statistics related to the zoo. For example, the city’s 1900 Annual Report lists the following expenses were incurred in 1899:

Food for animals — $414.48
Addition to green-house and monkey house — $156.08
Bear pit — $942.20
Fencing — $189.11
Parot [sic] house — $125.14
Winter quarters for monkeys and birds — $110.60
Animals and birds bought — $129.68
Eagle house — $83.85

The Committee on Parks reported in 1902 that former Lynchburg citizen Randolph Guggenheimer, then a resident of New York, had donated money to build the Aviary. Hamner said the building would cost $2,500 “without the heating and painting,” and would “enable us to take better care of the small animals and birds during the winter, and also enables visitors to see them.”

In his book, Scruggs describes the Aviary as “especially interesting” and said its “most fearsome” feature “was a great rattlesnake which so impressed younger visitors that they were likely to think of the aviary as a snake house.”

In 1902, Hamner also reported that the zoo had the following animals in its collection: 13 monkeys, three bears, seven parrots, two ferrets, two cockatoos, 35 guinea pigs, 20 rabbits, five owls, four groundhogs, two caracaras, 60 pigeons, six fantail pigeons, two Australian doves, three silver pheasants, two falcons, three white turkey, four peafowl, six deer, one badger, one coati, three red foxes, three gray foxes, six raccoons, 50 squirrels, two gophers, one turtle, one wolf, five alligators, 100 goldfish and four guinea fowl.

Donations — “animals presented,” as stated in the 1902 report — also were noted. Among these were two cockatoos, donated by Louis Lazarus, and two alligators and a turtle, donated by W.B. Bigbie.

One can imagine the stories behind these donations. Perhaps, Bigbie brought two tiny alligators home from a trip to Florida in a shoebox, only to have them grow too big for the family bathtub. Something had to be done with them, so off they went to the zoo.

Deaths also were reported. In 1904, Park Superintendent R.C. Driver said the following animals had died or had been killed by dogs: “three monkeys, nine deer (killed by dogs), five raccoons, three black-snakes, one peafowl, sixteen rabbits (killed by dogs), thirty guinea pigs (killed by dogs), two ducks, one falcon, two American eagles, one buzzard, three groundhogs, two silver pheasants and one sea-dove.”

The zoo was a popular local attraction. In 1903, Hamner said the Aviary “has now become the main point of attraction and a source of enjoyment for both young and old.” He added, “As the zoological department is constantly growing, so the number of people who visit the park is increasing, and even in wet weather the crowds are large.”

Hamner also noted that the local Knights of Pythias built a squirrel enclosure for the zoo, where the children could “feed [the] animals from their own hands.” This, Hamner added, “can give the little ones much pleasure.”

Sometimes, however, this didn’t work out so well.

boy-bitten-august-30-1918
Lynchburg newspaper, Aug. 30, 1918.

In 1921, the zoo was closed. As reported in the publication The Playground in 1924, “In 1921, the city manager of Lynchburg, Virginia, abolished the zoo at Miller Park in order to supply recreation facilities which would serve a larger number of people and permit active participation in recreation activities.”

1922-annual-report-photo-of-elk-and-deer-paddock
Photo from 1922 Lynchburg annual report of what was formerly the zoo’s elk and deer paddock. (Lynchburg Museum System)

The Aviary eventually became a public library, among other things, and is currently operated by the city’s parks and recreation department as an events venue. At some point, the bear pit was filled with dirt and plants.

Because it’s been almost 100 years since the zoo closed, photos and personal accounts of the zoo are hard — perhaps impossible — to come by. Sometimes, I forget that people didn’t always walk around with cameras in their pockets.

Also, those who would remember going to the zoo, even in the early 1920s as young children, would be pushing 100 years old today.

There are secondhand accounts, though, if you ask around. For example, Doug Harvey, director of Lynchburg Museum System, remembers his aunt, Lillian Burnette Tweedy, talking about the zoo.

“[She] told us that she rode the street cars from Floyd Street to the park for a nickel to see the bears,” Harvey said. “This was about 1917.”

And Lynchburg native Don Bobbitt, posting on the Facebook group Living in Lynchburg, wrote the following:

I remember, as a child visiting an aunt, and she had a collection of those pictures you looked at through a viewer. I was fascinated by how amazing the old Miller Park was, with exotic flowers and plants and animals, and people dressed in their Sunday finest, walking around. There were dozens of them. But alas, she and her kids are long gone. Perhaps someone has a set of these?

Perhaps someone does. One can hope! And if I find copies, you’ll be the first to know!

Thanks to Doug Harvey, Wayne Fitzgerald and Don Bobbitt for your help with this article.

‘I did it’: The Mamie Feimster Murder

On Sept. 20, 1954, Lynchburg Police detectives J.E. Franklin and W.H. Phlegar were dispatched to 1006 Fourth St., the home of Mamie Feimster, a well-known madam in the city’s red light district.

When they arrived, a petite brunette named Lythia Brown Buckwalter met them at the door. She calmly handed the detectives a Smith & Wesson revolver and confessed.

As reported in the next morning’s Lynchburg News, the 36-year-old told them, “I did it.”

Once inside the house, detectives found the body of Mamie Chittum Feimster on the kitchen floor. The newspaper vividly reported that the 52-year-old woman was “sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood while a bowl of chicken broth cooled on the kitchen table.”

She’d been shot four times.

As reporter Vince Spezzano put it, “From the location of the wounds and the blood, the shooting appeared to follow these lines: Mamie Feimster was in the kitchen and had apparently just removed a bowl of chicken broth from a stove and set it on the table to cool.

“Then she was shot four times — once in the left forearm, again in the upper left arm, once in the back at the left chest and the final shot in the left forehead.”

The medical examiner would later call that last shot “the fatal slug.”

After seeing a blood trail in the stairwell, detectives found the body of a second victim, Tina Thompson, in an upstairs bedroom. Thompson, in her early-to-mid-20s at the time depending on the source, had been shot once.

According to Spezzano’s account, this is likely what happened:

Tina Thompson, in her bedroom, heard the shots and started down the stairs to investigate. Viewing the bizarre scene and the woman with the gun in her hand, she turned and began to run back up the stairs.

As she dashed terrified up several of the steps, a slug caught her in the right upper arm, broke the bone and turned into the right side of her chest, possibly entering her heart or rupturing major blood vessels.

Critically wounded, she lived for enough seconds more to stagger up the remaining stairs and into the bedroom to die on the floor.

Buckwalter was arrested and charged with the murders.

By the time newspapers arrived on Lynchburg doorsteps on the morning of Sept. 22, the case had begun to take on a mysterious air. The day after the murders, Feimster’s will — written three days before the murders on Sept. 17 — was filed at the Lynchburg courthouse.

The will begins as follows:

Be it remembered that I, Mamie Chittum Feimster, of 1006 4th Street, City of Lynchburg, State of Virginia, being of sound mind and memory, but knowing the uncertainty of this life, do make this my last will and testament, hereby revoking all wills and codicils to wills by me at any time heretofore made.

In the will, Feimster leaves everything, after payment of funeral expenses and debts, to her mother.

The Sept. 22 article also pointed to a motive. As Spezzano wrote, “Recently, [Buckwalter] had been having some difficulties with Mrs. Feimster, and possibly with the Thompson girl, and this apparently came to a head Monday.”

Later reports indicate something more sinister might have been happening. On Oct. 15, the day after Buckwalter’s trial began, an Associated Press story ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It described the case as follows:

A story of being cheated, beaten, drugged and kept in fear was told in Corporation Court [in Lynchburg] today at the murder trial of a slender brunette charged with killing two other women.

Further deepening the intrigue, the article went on to say that on the day of the murders Buckwalter met with Commonwealth’s Attorney Royston Jester III and an FBI agent named John Freese.

Among other things, Buckwalter told them she had wanted to break ties with Feimster but “could not get her luggage out” of the house.

In keeping with this, the Lynchburg News reported the following account of Buckwalter’s testimony at trial:

Pausing only briefly once or twice and in a steady, clear voice (except for one tearful moment) the petite brunette told the jury a story picturing Mamie’s house as a chamber of horrors where she was beaten, cheated of her share of earnings, kept in an intermittent stupor with liquor and narcotics, practically imprisoned and followed constantly when she did leave the house.

During her wretched description of existence at Mamie’s which culminated in shooting her alleged tormenters, Lythia said she bought the .38 revolver used in the killings intending to commit suicide.

She said she shot Mamie and Tina because she feared they had found out that she had seen the FBI agent and the Commonwealth’s Attorney and were going to “do something bad to me for ratting.”

Compelling as that sounds, the Commonwealth’s Attorney was having none of it. In cross examination, Jester grilled Buckwalter. Why hadn’t she sought help from law enforcement? Why hadn’t she secreted a letter out of the house, seeking help?

“It didn’t occur to me,” the defendant said, blaming fear and forced drug and alcohol use for the lapse.

Further, the detectives testified that no drugs were found in the home, and a pharmacist said that while he’d filled prescriptions for Feimster, none were for narcotics.

In his closing arguments, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Arthur B. Davies III, who was seeking the death penalty, called the defendant’s testimony “nonsense,” and according to the local newspaper, “attributed the shootings to her ‘malice and ill will which were entirely unjustified.’”

After deliberating for an hour and a half, an all-male jury found Buckwalter guilty of both voluntary manslaughter and second-degree murder. She was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

According to prison records — on microfilm at the Library of Virginia — Buckwalter was paroled in 1961, after serving seven years of her sentence.

Thank you to blog reader Bob Stephens for telling me about this story. A few weeks ago, in response to a story I posted about the “Bawdy Ladies” tour at Old City Cemetery, Stephens told me about being in the Feimster home shortly after the murders.

Stephens wrote that “after the Mamie Feimster shooting, I was allowed to go with a police officer friend of the family into her house on 4th St. It was very tacky, colorful and interesting. The inside was unexpected looking at the outside.”

‘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.

maria-wilson-marker
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.)

church-window
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!

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.

Langleys
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.