Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Capitol Disaster

On Wednesday April 27, 1870, 62 people were killed and 251 were wounded in a tragedy reported across the nation. The floors of the court room and clerk’s office of the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia, located in the Capitol building, collapsed taking a crowd of about 350 men with it to the floor 25 feet below.

In an effort to create more space in the crowded capitol building, a floor was erected over the hall where the House of Delegates met. It was in this second floor that the court of appeals was held. In doing this the architect, instead of inserting the floor-beams in the walls, rested them upon a slight ledge, or offset, projecting about four inches from the wall.  This frail ledge was made to support timbers measuring two feet by ten inches, assisted by a row of pillars in the hall below.  This was probably sufficient for ordinary use, but a few years previous to the disaster, in order to improve the appearance of the Hall of Delegates, the pillars were removed. Despite a definite concavity of the floor the space continued in use.capitol

So on the fateful day in April, a highly contested Richmond Mayoralty Case was to be heard. A large audience was packed into the courtroom to hear the proceedings. Only one judge was in his seat and the bells had just struck 11:00. Suddenly, a large girder broke in half, the floor sagged loosening the supports on the ledge and it all plunged down carrying everyone with it. The Fire Department and numerous volunteers spent hours digging through the debris and carrying the dead and wounded out under the trees for recognition and treatment. On the day following the catastrophe many of the dead were buried and businesses were closed.

If you would like to learn more about this, The Capitol Disaster (Special Collections F234.R5 C61) by the Hon. George L. Christian, a survivor, is full of first hand information.

A Letter from Somerset Maugham

Near the end of World War II, Roger K. Lewis, a captain in the Army Air forces, was stationed in the Philippines as a public relations officer. He had just finished reading The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham and wanted to tell the writer how impressed he was with the book. And having been a combat artist, he shared some of his thoughts about being an artist. He mailed it off to Maugham’s publisher (Doubleday), not knowing whether it would be forwarded to Maugham, or whether he would get a reply.

maughamSeveral weeks later, Lewis received a typewritten letter.

Thank you for writing such an interesting letter. I was glad to receive it.

Of course, if you are a painter, you have nothing to complain of. A writer

often runs short of material but a painter never can and as long as one can

express one’s self it doesn’t matter what the medium is, and in expressing

one’s self, one expresses at the same time whatever philosophy, life, experience,

thought and emotions have evolved in one, and I don’t see that one can expect to get

anything more out of life than something like that.

Yours always sincerely,

Somerset Maugham

Four years later, Lewis spotted a short item in an issue of Time magazine. It read: “Novelist Somerset Maugham, visiting friends in San Francisco…had something pleasant to remember. ‘The nicest compliment ever paid me’ he announced, ‘was a letter from a GI in the Pacific during the war, who wrote me that he had read an entire story of mine without having to look up a single word in the dictionary.’”Maugham2

“I’m sure he was referring to my letter,” Lewis said. He framed his letter and the Time article, and despite Maugham’s wishes that his letters be destroyed, Lewis passed it on to Boatwright Library in 1997. It hangs in the Galvin Rare Book Room along with one of Lewis’s combat sketches.