Richmond’s crime wave…of 1862

150 years ago, Richmond’s influx of money and political influence as the Confederate capital attracted all kinds of ne’er-do-wells, and crime was a major problem for the city.

First off, thanks to all for allowing me to take a little break from the column for my wedding and subsequent honeymoon. We got back in Richmond a few days ago, and I’m happy to be back home. During our trip, we spent a week in Iceland and a week in England, and we made an effort to do a lot of historical things and tried to learn a lot about the histories of each country. It was a reminder of how relatively young and fragile our democracy was in the United States at the time of the Civil War; we’d only been a country for about 75 years! By comparison, England had already had three civil wars before our country even existed. The trip was a good reminder and provided a new, interesting framework with which to view our Civil War.

We arrived home to Richmond to find that the dominant local news story had been a recent crime wave in the downtown and VCU areas that saw Richmond’s 36th homicide this year and several armed robberies. In a city that’s experienced a lower crime rate for the past several years, the recent news definitely raises resident’s discomfort levels. As I sat down to write this, I thought it could be interesting to look back on crime in Richmond in October of 1862.

During the war, crime was rampant. Richmond’s influx of money and political influence as the Confederate capital attracted all kinds of ne’er-do-wells. Con-men, prostitutes, gamblers, and more all found opportunity to thrive in Richmond. Add the shifting population of deserters, stragglers, and soldiers looking for trouble and you’ve got a recipe for criminal activity.

Here’s a look at some minor criminal cases reviewed 150 years ago by the Mayor’s Court on October 6th, 1862 according to the Richmond Dispatch:

  • James Williams, a soldier, charged with drunkenness, sleeping in the street, and resisting the watchmen, was ordered to be sent to his captain.
  • John Connore, a soldier, from Louisiana, charged with trespassing on the Columbian Hotel, was sent to Capt. Alexander.
  • Michael Gallaher, for unlawfully taking $2 from Wm. Walker, and drawing a pistol on Mr. Flinn at the Columbian Hotel, was remanded for examination before the Hustings Court, to-day week.
  • Meriwether Quarles, charged with stealing $445 from John H. Scribner, was also remanded for examination before the Hustings Court. The accused is a beardless boy, a member of Capt. Robinson’s cavalry company. He confessed at the watch-house that he had stolen the money from Scribner’s bed. The greater part of the money has been recovered.

Minor crime not worrisome enough for you? If you’re looking for something a little more in line with what we’re hearing in the recent news stories, here’s a story of some “thievish scoundrels” committing armed robbery in a familiar neighborhood:

Robberies on Church Hill. – Nearly every night, on Church Hill, some thievish scoundrels waylay and rob persons passing in the public streets. Sunday night, it is said, about 10 o’clock, a man was knocked down and robbed of his watch, on or near Clay and 27th streets, and again on Monday night the same party were seen on Marshall street, in the same neighborhood, armed with knives and pistols. After stealing from a marketmen the amount for which he had sold his produce, they fired their pistols and cut with their knives at some persons, who hearing the alarm had pursued them. The gang is composed of quite young men, and an effort is now being made to detect the guilty ones, and bring them to justice. Church Hill has heretofore been noted for the quiet and peace that reigned in its vicinity. Richmond Dispatch, 10/8/1862

What were the mayor and City Hall doing to prevent these crimes? It sounds like they might have been a little overwhelmed themselves:

Robbery at the City Hall. – The Recorder’s Court did not adjourn yesterday until 7? o’clock, after which the office was closed as usual. Later in the day the police had occasion to enter the Temple of Justice, and found everything in confusion. Thieves had entered and prized open the three trunks heretofore deposited there waiting recognition by their owners, broken open the large general plunder box in the corner, and carried off the most valuable contents of all four. A rich haul was evidently made, as money was said to be in one of the trunks and Colt’s pistols, knives, dirks, faro tools, and other costly articles, filled up the plunder box. No clue was found to the perpetrator. Richmond Dispatch, 11/1/1862

The Richmond newspapers during the war are full of accounts of criminal activity, and this represents just a small sampling from the fall of 1862. We’ll be sure to revisit Richmond’s crime problem as the war goes on. In addition, we’ll take a look at some of Richmond’s famous prisons. We’ve already talked about Belle Isle, but there were several others for both Union POWs and regular criminals that are worth exploring.

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, blogger, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry. He can also be found DJing around RVA as his alter-ego Robot E. Lee.

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