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Bawdy side of Civil War-era Richmond

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Bawdy side of Civil War-era Richmond

Tours show the bawdy side of Civil War times in Richmond.


POSTED September 27, 2013 1:25 a.m.

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Before the Civil War began, Ann Thomas was well enough known that her house would be used to give directions — “the grocery store opposite Ann Thomas.”

What she did was an open secret, until events brought her “house of ill-fame” into the Daily Dispatch in 1862.

Thomas was one of the “Harlots and Hooligans” profiled in a trio of tours conducted by Richmond National Battlefield Park rangers recently in downtown Richmond. Mike Gorman, Bert Dunkerly and Ashley Luskey led more than 70 people on three separate routes that highlighted different stories and different dens of iniquity from Seventh Street to 17th Street.

As capital of the Confederacy, Richmond had attracted criminals as well as politicians to its crowded streets.

Richmond’s righteous side and bawdy side coexisted within a few blocks of the oasis of the state Capitol, said Gorman, who began his tour there.

The Mayor’s Court in City Hall at the edge of Capitol Square produced just as much news as the battlefield, Gorman said.

“When we think about Civil War Richmond, I bet you our minds do not run to Ann Thomas, operating a bawdy house down off Shockoe Slip. I bet you your mind does not run to daylight shootouts in the streets. . . .

“If you were living here at the time, this would have been your story of the Civil War. . It was not hidden. This is what the Mayor’s Court was dealing with every day, scores of prostitutes, criminals marching in there to be tried in this oasis of order.”

In the 1860 census, Gorman found Ann E. Thomas, 45, listed with a $15,000 estate at a location on Cary between 14th and 15th streets. She was a well-to-do woman whose trade was ignored as long as it didn’t cause trouble.

In 1862, the murder of a Confederate officer, Capt. J.O. Withmell, in the alley by someone from the Ann Thomas house brought the wrath of the law. The mayor ordered that everyone in the house be arrested “as persons of evil name, fame, and reputation.” Thomas was convicted of keeping an “ill-governed and disorderly house,” fined $50 and sent to jail for three months.

In November 1863, a murder took place in her parlor. The bragging of John Gordon, a Northern deserter, enraged Peter Reynolds, a Southern soldier who hit him in the head with a spittoon. Another Southerner, Martin Riddles, stabbed Gordon.

The final story about her in 1864 is sad, Gorman said. Two drunken men, after an altercation at a confectionary store, visited Ann Thomas’ house and a fight broke out “in the course of which she was dreadfully beaten about her face and eyes,” the Daily Dispatch reported. “Ann was in court yesterday, but was unable to give any intelligible testimony, and the Mayor therefore continued the investigation of the assault upon her till this morning.”

The daylight shooting happened in front of the new visitor entrance to the state Capitol.

H.E. Dixon, clerk of the Confederate House of Representatives, was murdered by B.J. Ford, whom he’d recently dismissed as journal clerk of the House. Ford had written Dixon to say that unless he was reinstated, he would kill Dixon.

Ford saw his former boss leaving a restaurant at 10th and Bank streets and asked if he was armed. When Dixon said yes, Ford started shooting rapidly. Dixon got off one shot from a Derringer.

“The trial dragged on for weeks,” Gorman said, to hear testimony from about 50 witnesses. After Ford was convicted of murder, he said he had only desired a duel and it was too late to honorably retreat.

Ford appealed and the verdict was thrown out. When the new trial was set, his lawyer asked for continuance after continuance until the trial finally was scheduled in July 1865. By that time, Richmond had surrendered and the trial was never held.

“This is incredible stuff. You can see these people alive, shooting. All of a sudden now, these are people we recognize,” Gorman said.

“These people of the past weren’t saints. Some of them were sinners. A lot of them were just like us. When we commemorate the war, I think it’s our duty to take it all, or else we’re not commemorating the past at all, we’re just looking for the past we want to see.”

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