Thursday, December 16, 2021

HGB Ep. 414 - Haunted Petersburg, Virginia

Moment in Oddity - The Highest Court in the Land (Suggested by: John Michaels)

If you were asked what is the highest court in the United States, your answer would probably be the Supreme Court, but you would be wrong. There is a court that sits even higher than the Supreme Court. It happens to be in the same building. And that term "higher" actually refers to location. You see, the highest court in the land is a basketball court that sits on the fourth floor of the SCOTUS building. Meaning that it is located above the courtroom. Courthouse workers decided in the 1940s that they needed a recreational area to blow off steam, so they decided to take over a store room on the fourth floor and they installed wooden backboards and baskets and a weight room and full service gym were also included. Employee clerks, off-duty police officers and Supreme Court Justices have used the less-than-regulation size court including Byron White and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Sandra Day O’Connor even used the gym for yoga classes. No one can use the basketball court when court is in session, of course. One can only imagine that the justices don't want to hear dribbling balls and squeaking shoes as they are making some of the most important decisions for America. A basketball court being the highest court in the land, certainly is odd!

This Month in History - Dissolving Bathing Suits Hoax (Suggested by: John Michaels)

In the month of December, on the 4th, in 1930, newspapers reported a story about dissolving bathing suits that turned out to be a hoax. The name of the journalist who first wrote the story was changed to protect his identity. The story read, "The newest and naughtiest fad of the ultra-smart young set on the Riviera is magic bathing suits which dissolve in water. The bathing suits meet all the legal requirements until they come in touch with water. Then they mysteriously disappear. The costumes are used only for moonlight bathing. Made of a tissue which melts in water, they are selling at a premium." When the journalist's editor cabled him to ask that he ship several suits because the head of a bathing-suit manufacturing company that advertised in the paper wanted some of the suits, the journalist soon discovered he had been duped. There were no such suits. But to save face, he wired back that the suits couldn't be shipped because the salt sea air would dissolve them. The editor replied, "Put them in a tin box and have it hermetically sealed." The journalist pulverized some cereal and put it in a tin box and the editor was convinced they couldn't be shipped. Vanishing bathing suit stories would continue to pop up through the years all the way up into the 2000s.

Petersburg, Virginia

Petersburg, Virginia is about 21 miles south of Richmond. Not many people know that this city has been thought of as the graveyard of the Confederacy. Anyone who has seen the movie Cold Mountain is familiar with the horrific scene of Union soldiers being slaughtered in a pit that is surrounded by the Confederates. That really happened. And Petersburg was the scene. The town still carries the residual energy from that moment in history. Join us as we explore the history and hauntings of Petersburg, Virginia!

Native Americans had been in the area where Petersburg, Virginia would be established since 6500 BC. The Appamatuck were there when Europeans first showed up. Rapids and waterfalls create an area on rivers called fall lines that are used as heads of navigation. The Atlantic Seaboard has a fall line and many cities were founded along this, including Petersburg. This was founded at the fall line of the Appomattox River by Colonel Abraham Wood. Fort Henry was built first and brought settlers and traders to the area in the mid-1600s. Peter Jones was the Colonel's son-in-law and he opened a trading post he called Peter's Point. The name of the city would be inspired by this name and the man who founded Richmond, Colonel William Byrd II, came up with the name Petersburgh. The Battle of Blanford would be fought here during the Revolutionary War and the Virginia militia took up the planks of the Pocahontas bridge to stop the British. Petersburg was eventually captured by the British. In 1784, the Virginia legislature chartered the town of Petersburg. In 1850, it became a city. The city was first an important port and then the railroad came through creating a transportation hub. Petersburg soon became the second largest city in Virginia.

Before the Civil War, the city of Petersburg had the highest proportion of free blacks in any Southern city and one of the oldest black settlements was on nearby Pocahontas Island. During the Civil War, the city hosted a battle and was under siege as a key location for the Union to capture the Confederate States. General Ulysses S. Grant targeted Petersburg during the Overland Campaign to cut off Richmond as Petersburg was considered the backdoor to Richmond. General Robert E. Lee arrived on June 9, 1864 and the 292-day siege of the city commenced. This was not a typical siege which usually left a city surrounded and cut off from supplies. Technically it was more of a campaign of trench warfare, with the trenches expanding and growing as the battles continued. The Federal forces were larger than the Confederates throughout the siege. 

A troop of the United States Colored Troops fought for the Union. General Lee countered by offering slaves their freedom if they agreed to fight and work for the Confederacy and this was backed up when the Confederate Congress passed legislation to enlist black soldiers. If the black men agreed to fight and their owner agreed to them enlisting, they were free men. This military policy was signed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis and read, "No slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his own consent and with the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring, as far as he may, the rights of a freedman."

The Battle of the Crater took place during this siege and is the one made famous in the movie Cold Mountain. An engineer with the Union devised a plan that they all believed would work. He thought that if they could dig a mine under the Confederate forces, they could get inside the fort known as Elliot's Salient and plant explosives. And so digging on the mine started and it was going fairly well with the Union even devising an ingenious way of pulling fresh air into the mine. Fire at one end drew air up an exhaust shaft while the open end drew in fresh air. This is called the chimney effect. When finished, the mine was in the T shape and the Union filled it with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder in kegs. This fire power was directly under the Confederate stronghold. The explosives were armed on July 28, 1864. Major General Ambrose Burnside was one of the main men in charge of the operation and he would be leading the Union in the assault after the explosion. He wanted to lead with a black regiment, but General Meade and General Grant both told him not to do this. Historians are not sure if it was because they lacked belief in the black troops' abilities or they didn't want bad press in the North when the regiments were wiped out. Whatever the case, Burnside put a white brigade at the forefront lead by General James Ledlie who would be drunk through the battle and leave his men without any direction. This was a fiasco in the making. 

The first problem was that the explosives didn't blow when set off. A few Union soldiers had to crawl into the mine and restart the fuse. When it did blow, it created a crater still visible today. Hence the name, Battle of the Crater. In that first blast, 278 Confederate soldiers were killed. The plan had worked perfectly. Now the Union forces could rain down hell fire on the stunned Confederates...only they didn't. Ledlie's men just stayed in the trenches for 10 minutes without any direction. They also hadn't prepared foot bridges to help them across the trenches on the landscape. When the Union finally arrived at the crater they thought it would be a great idea to use the crater as a giant trench from which to take cover and shoot. Only that was the worst idea on the planet at the time. They left themselves completely vulnerable as the Confederates surrounded them and blasted away. The Confederates described it as a "turkey shoot."

Clearly, Burnside should have called back the troops and cut his losses, but he sent in more men. He would be relieved of his command for the final time because of this fiasco. Some other Union troops managed to repel some of the Confederates before finally giving up the fight in a bad defeat. The Union lost 3,798 men to the Confederates 1,491. Many of the Union losses were to the United States Colored Troops. General Meade was also found to be at fault, but he didn't suffer the blow to his reputation that Burnside did. The movie Cold Mountain opens with this battle and is pretty accurate other than the fact that the explosion took place in the dark hours of the early morning. Despite this victory for the Confederates, at the end of the Siege of Petersburg, the Confederates would count their dead at 30,000.

When Petersburg finally fell, Richmond could no longer be defended. And the Civil War was in essence, finished. After the war, Petersburg and Richmond would become the two largest tobacco towns in the world. Cotton and flour mills were built, as well as iron foundries. It's a beautiful mid-sized city today that managed to build back during reconstruction, electing many black Republicans to office. The city later was dominated by Democrats that pushed Jim Crow laws into place disenfranchising their black citizens. The Civil Rights Movement was strong here though because in the 1960s, 40% of Petersburg's population was black. Economic decline came with cigarette factories shutting down and racial tensions flared over the decades through to the 1990s. Petersburg is one of those cities left scarred by its history. And there are many hauntings in Petersburg that date back to the Civil War. Here are a few of the haunted spots:

The Stewart-Hinton House

Robert Stewart, Jr. was a Scottish immigrant and tobacco merchant and he had the Stewart House built in 1798 for himself and his wife, who was the niece of Peterson Goodwyn, a United States Congressman from Petersburg. The house was built in the Georgian architectural style with Federalist detailing. There is a hipped roof with wooden shingles, Flemish-bond brickwork with glazed headers, a modillion cornice and water table. A water table is when the bricks at the bottom of the structure stick out beyond the structure, almost like a step. The interior has an unsupported staircase that features a carved walnut balustrade with a ram's horn and there is a double-pile parlor with two fireplaces with marble hearths. The rooms on the first level are twelve feet high and the floors were made from heart of pine. The Stewarts lived in the house until 1815. Over the next forty years, the house traded hands through several owners. There was Dr. John Gilliam, Frenchman Richard Furt, financier D’Arcy Paul, Dr. William Jones Dupuy and tobacco manufacturer E. J. Hudson. During renovations, two thousand domestic artifacts were found. The haunting here belongs to a Confederate soldier. He is seen peering out of a front window.

Centre Hill

Centre Hill was built in 1823 by Robert Bolling IV, an officer during the Revolutionary War. It's a charming two-story brick house with a long front veranda supported by six Greek Ionic order columns. The home features elements of Federal, Greek Revival and Colonial Revival architecture. In the 1840s, an extensive renovation added a tunnel for slaves to carry food in and out of the house. An east wing was added to the house in 1850. It has played host to two presidents. Abraham Lincoln visited Union General George Hartsuff here in April of 1865, shortly after Petersburg fell, and President William Howard Taft lunched at the mansion in 1909. Centre Hill remained in private hands until 1936. The home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and it was deeded to the city of Petersburg at that time. Today, the mansion serves as a museum. The basement features memorabilia and photos on Petersburg's history, some antique furniture from the oldest black church in America and a stuffed bird exhibit featuring Australian birds. The mansion was featured on the series Turn and the series Mercy Street.

There are a few hauntings that take place here. There is a melodeon in the library - that is a type of button accordion - and it plays on its own on occasion. The apparition of a woman is seen on the second floor. Neighbors claim to see a lady in white looking out the window. And there was a residual haunting that occurred until the museum was opened. This happened every January 24th at 7:30pm. The door would open and an entire regiment of soldiers would march into the house. The group would go up the stairs and gather in a room and then a quarter of an hour later, the soldiers would descend the stairs and head out the door with a slam. The way the story reads about this, it sounds like this is only auditory, not visual. The boots are heard as well as the swords in scabbards rattling. There are those that claim the bricked in tunnel is haunted as well.

Central State Hospital

Central State Hospital was established to take care of blacks with mental health issues after a man named Dr. Frances Stribling pointed out at a meeting held in Philadelphia that there were no provisions on state levels to care for them. Private institutions cost more than slave owners were willing to pay to have a slave committed. And more and more slaves were thought to be mentally ill because a doctor named Samuel Cartwright had convinced people that there was a mental illness called Drapetomania, which was defined as a mental illness that caused slaves to flee captivity and seek freedom. The Freedmen's Bureau at Howard's Grove established Central State in 1866 in a former Confederate hospital to meet the need. The Commonwealth of Virginia took control of it in 1870. The place was pretty bad with holes dug for toilets and lighting was by candles. Patients killed each other or died and overcrowding was rampant. 

A new location was sought and in 1885 the City of Petersburg built a new facility on the former Mayfield Plantation. This was designed with the Kirkbride Plan and built from red brick with gray granite trim. The original Mayfield Cottage left over from the plantation was used for storage. Later, the East and West buildings were added. In 1896, another building was added specifically for the treatment of epilepsy. A chapel built in the Gothic Revival style was added in 1904. Two more buildings were added in 1915, one for male patients and the other for female. In 1929, a building for girls who were delinquent or mentally slow was added and the following year, an actual medical hospital was built. So by the 1940s, this was a large property treating people of color for pretty much everything. Like many similar sites, there were also gardens here and places to ply a trade. Sadly, the original Kirkbride building no longer stands. No one knows when it was demolished as no record was ever made. The chapel also collapsed in 2017 after falling into bad disrepair. The hospital was desegregated in the 1960s. And amazingly, the hospital was open until the Coronavirus pandemic.

While the new property was an upgrade from the primitive original, things here were as bad as at any asylum with even more emphasis on sterilization of patients. Eugenics had gained real popularity in the late nineteenth century and this increased in the United States in the early 1900s. There was a real focus on dwindling the black population. For people who don't know, eugenics is a theory or set of beliefs that unwanted genetic traits could be pushed out of the gene pool by not allowing people with those traits to mate. Early supporters of the movement in America were the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Institution, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and President Woodrow Wilson. The sterilization of patients at this hospital continued up until 1980 with 1700 patients being sterilized without their consent. 

Reasons people were admitted to Central State:
Not getting along with an employee/employer
Talking back to a police officer
Typhoid fever
On the wrong side of the street
Being too old with no place to go (as in the case of the first admission, Edith Smith)

The property is believed to be haunted. Staff, police officers and locals claim that unexplained things happen there. They hear disembodied wailing, crying, moaning and screaming. Objects move on their own and the lights flicker on and off. Apparitions haven't been seen very often and if they are, they appear to be shadow figures.

Petersburg National Battlefield

Petersburg National Battlefield is located off Virginia Route 36 east of Petersburg and was established in July of 1926. It covers over 9300 acres. The park incorporates several areas that include the Five Forks Battlefield, where the Waterloo of the Confederacy took place, City Point Unit, which was Grant's headquarters during the siege, Poplar Grove National Cemetery and the restored entrance to the mine from the Battle of the Crater. Fort Stedman Battlefield is here as well. The Battle of Fort Stedman was the last attempt by the Confederates to break the siege. By March of 1865, General Lee's men were outnumbered and very weak. Food and supplies were running out where the Confederates were gathered at Colquitt's Salient. General Lee went to Major General John Gordon and asked him what he thought they should do. His first suggestion was surrender, which Lee was not about to do. So Gordon planned a pre-dawn suprise attack on the Union at Fort Stedman. The fort was not as fortified and relatively close. 

The attack began in the early morning and was a surprise. There was early victory for the Confederates and they captured Brigadier General Napoleon McLaughlen. General Gordon apparently said that the initial success met his "most sanguine expectations." The garrisons of Fort Stedman had been defeated as were Batteries 10, 11 and 12. Major General John G. Parke heard about the assault on Fort Stedman and he ordered Brigadier General John Hartranft to take his men and close the gap while he took his troops up on a ridge east of the fort. And then the Union punished the Confederates with crossfire and shelling. They suffered heavy casualties and Fort Stedman was recaptured by the Union. The battle only lasted four hours. The next battle was the Battle of Five Forks and it was final defeat for the Confederates and the siege was over.

Near where Fort Stedman once stood, visitors sometimes see a line of Union soldiers standing, ready for battle. Perhaps they are reflecting a time right before they hit the Rebel lines. When visitors look away and then look back, the soldiers have disappeared revealing that this was not some kind of re-enactment. There are other hauntings at the park as well. A park supervisor would hear the sound of a military band. This would happen every day at 5:30am. The sound comes from where the Union would have camped, so he assumed it was a Union band. A ghost brigade is also seen marching along White Oak Road. It is thought that these are a regiment that was killed by friendly fire. One group was coming to relieve another that was exhausted and they mistook their fellow soldiers as enemies. The regiment appears on the anniversary of their deaths.

Petersburg has an important history when it comes to the Civil War, black history and Civil Rights. Are these locations in Petersburg, Virginia haunted? That is for you to decide!

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