November 02, 2005 News & Features » Cover Story


Fiery politics. A city in turmoil. An outspoken mayor. And no, it's not who you think. 

The story of Richmond's forgotten mayor.

Add one final entry: forgotten man.

The go-to tomes of local history barely footnote him. Virginius Dabney's "Richmond" names Keiley just once. Marie Tyler-McGraw's "At the Falls: Richmond, Virginia, and Its People" doesn't bother.

If ever there were a player of his own place and times, it was Keiley. His was a highly visible, often turbulent life and career. Yet the very events through which he might have crafted a legacy overwhelmed any mark he made.

When Virginians choose their next governor Nov. 8, pundits will wax on about history being made. As for Mayor L. Douglas Wilder … well, his name is seldom uttered without mentioning his "firsts." But history is fickle, and in 100 years, names can fade into oblivion. Like Anthony M. Keiley.

In the spring of 1870, Richmond was a mess.

It was five years after the Civil War. The city was pulling itself together after the devastating evacuation fire of 1865 that destroyed 900 buildings downtown. Officials faced the delicate and daunting task of the emancipation of 23,000 blacks, just less than half the city's population.

On top of that, the city had two mayors. One man who claimed the office was George Chahoon, a radical New Yorker who had served as the federally appointed mayor during Reconstruction. The other was Henry K. Ellyson, a conservative and publisher of the Richmond Dispatch newspaper.

The General Assembly and Gov. Gilbert Walker had empowered City Council to elect a new mayor. They chose Ellyson. They also elected a new police chief, John Poe, known to be anti-black.

But Mayor Chahoon wasn't going anywhere. When Mayor-elect Ellyson notified him that he would assume office March 17, the mayor and his administration refused to vacate City Hall and the city's police stations.

As for the new police chief, Poe was blocked from entering headquarters. Undeterred, he set up his own operation on Main Street near Shockoe Bottom and deputized citizens to serve as officers.

Mayor Chahoon appealed to the governor for help. But the governor stood behind the officials selected by City Council.

Then Poe made a move. He marched to the police department's third-precinct house in Jackson Ward and cut off those inside from food, water and gaslight. When he threatened to open fire, dozens of black policemen who had been stationed outside dispersed.

Even when Mayor Chahoon won a court injunction against Ellyson, he refused to give up, supported by Poe and the police force.

City Council, backing Ellyson, took the case to the Virginia Court of Appeals. The judges' decision was to be made April 27. The court met on the north side of the State Capitol's third floor, down the hall from the governor's office. Although the courtroom and visitor's gallery could comfortably hold 300, some 400 people had squeezed in by 11 a.m. Then tragedy struck.

After a few judges took their seats, there was a deafening cracking noise. The gallery collapsed. As it hit the floor, the room swayed briefly, then came a second crash. The chamber dropped 40 feet into the House of Delegates chamber below.

Some people were crushed or suffocated. Others clung by their fingernails to window frames and doorways as "arose such a wail of agony as mortal ears never heard before," one survivor recounted. Judge Joseph Christian wrote his family that night: "To add to the horrors of the scene a midnight darkness [caused by the dust of tons of plaster] settled over the dreadful chasm."

The result: 62 people died and 310 were injured. The victims, black and white, bleeding, groaning and shrieking desperately, were untangled from the heap of splintered beams, smashed furniture and heavy plaster. They were carried across the highly shined, polished marble floors of the rotunda to the Senate Chamber on the Capitol's south side. By the time that room was filled, shocked family and friends were rushing to Capitol Square just as the dead and maimed were being placed under the trees.

"That dreadful lime dust had covered them all and they looked alike in their horrible coating of lime and blood. They hardly looked like human beings but more like bloody ghosts…," Christian wrote. "Strong men wept like women and women who could not weep were silent in agony and despair."

The dual mayors, Chahoon and Ellyson, were among those hurt.

Richmond was in shock. The next day businesses closed and buildings were draped in black. Gov. Walker presided over a mournful meeting in the square. Among those who made remarks was former Confederate officer A.M. Keiley, a journalist and a member of the House of Delegates.

The House of Delegates assembled on the Capitol portico May 29 and resolved to demolish the 88-year-old building. Fortunately, they had second thoughts.

That same day, across Capitol Street in City Hall (which would later be torn down as a result of concern over the soundness of all public buildings), the Court of Appeals confirmed Ellyson as mayor and Poe as police chief temporarily.

It also called for another election.

But Richmond hadn't seen the end of its troubles. The worst floods since the 18th century drowned Shockoe Bottom Sept. 30. Whites mourned the death of Gen. Robert E. Lee Oct. 12. And a deadly Christmas morning fire at the Spotswood Hotel, which for decades was the city's social center, killed a dozen people.

It was under these extraordinary circumstances — and an order from the court — that Keiley came to hold the office of mayor.

In the new election, Chahoon apparently captured the vote in Jefferson Ward, with its large black population. But the ballot boxes from that ward were stolen, and election officials, dominated by pro-Conservative forces, counted only the returns in hand. They anointed Ellyson as mayor. But he refused to serve under such a cloud.

So a new slate of mayoral candidates ran in 1871: Keiley, the Conservative Party candidate, and G.W. Smith, a radical.

Keiley won, perhaps signifying that the city was ready for calmer times.

Keiley was born in Paterson, N.J., in 1833, the son of Irish immigrants. It's not clear why, but the family moved to Virginia, where Keiley grew up in Petersburg. His father taught school and was a humanitarian, selling his own books occasionally to buy food and fuel for the needy. His mother reared the six children.

The family was religious. Keiley was an altar boy at Petersburg's Saint Joseph's Catholic Church. One of his sisters would become a nun at the cloistered Monte Maria convent on Church Hill. A brother, Benjamin, became a priest who rose to the post of Bishop of Savannah.

Keiley enrolled at Randolph-Macon College, located in Mecklenburg County before the school moved to Ashland.

In 1854, in his early 20s, Keiley became co-publisher of Petersburg's South Side Democrat. The newspaper later became the Press, for which Keiley briefly served as editor starting in 1859. He quit after arguing with the owner about whether Virginia should secede from the Union. Keiley was against secession.

In 1859, at age 26, he was admitted to the bar and practiced law in Petersburg. But he didn't stay long. Just days after Fort Sumter in April 1861, Keiley joined the Confederate army. There, he was promoted to lieutenant in the Petersburg-based Company E, 12th Virginia Infantry Regiment known as the "Petersburg Riflemen." He was wounded July 1862 at Malvern Hill (and thought dead), but recovered to see action at Gettysburg. Soon after Gettysburg, he was discharged from the military when he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. He returned to newspaper work in Petersburg. He was 32.

In June 1864, however, he was pulled back into action to help defend Petersburg from approaching Union troops. The Confederates were outnumbered and Keiley was taken prisoner. After being imprisoned in Point Lookout, Md., and Elmira, N.Y., he returned south a few months later as a nurse accompanying 1,400 ill prisoners by train. Eventually he was freed in a prisoner exchange and went back to Petersburg.

Always the journalist, Keiley had written a journal in prison. He'd kept it hidden from authorities by sewing it into his clothing, causing "great fear and perpetual bodily discomfort for many days," he wrote. He later expanded on the diary, publishing it in Richmond under the title, "Prisoner of War, or five months Among the Yankees." In 1866, a second edition was published under the more vainglorious title, "In Vinculis; or, The Prisoner of War." The Latin is translated "in chains." It was an early attempt to bolster the Southern view of the Civil War, a movement that would escalate over the next 40 years into the cult of "The Lost Cause."

Keiley hadn't seen the end of his days in prison. In 1865, writing for the News in Petersburg, he criticized the federal occupation with such zeal that the paper was shut down. He was arrested and sent to Castle Thunder in Richmond, a tobacco factory turned prison located in Shockoe Bottom at Cary and 18th streets.

During the war, few prisoners had escaped the solid brick building with barred windows. Keiley's fellow prisoners were mostly looters and others troublemakers from the evacuation of the city in April 1865. (Two prisoners, who had already been discharged, were Mary and Molly Bell, young women from Southwest Virginia who had masqueraded in Confederate male attire and served in the army for two years.)

Keiley was released July 3. The next day he was back at it in Petersburg, establishing the Index, the forerunner of today's daily Progress-Index. However, his name didn't appear in print and he toned down his opinions of the Northern occupation. Later that year Keiley and a number of partners established the Norfolk Virginian (an ancestor of the Virginian-Pilot, the parent publication of Style Weekly), and in 1867 the Richmond Daily Enquirer.

Also in late 1865, Keiley married Rebecca Davis, the daughter of a prominent Peterburg couple. Although Davis was Jewish, the two received a dispensation from church law that forbade Catholics from marrying Jews. They would rear their children as Catholics.

The Davises, Rebecca's parents, must have turned heads when they moved to Richmond in 1866 and into the house at 707 E. Franklin St. — where Robert E. Lee and his family had lived during the war. The newlyweds moved directly across the street and later into the former Lee house.

Keiley continued to serve in the General Assembly, where he represented the city of Richmond and Henrico County. Then he became mayor.

In January 1871, Richmond Catholics met at St. Peter's Cathedral (which would later move to Sacred Heart on Monroe Park in 1906) to protest the seizure of lands owned by the papacy as part of the unification of Italy.

They vehemently denounced the invasion of Rome and particularly the confiscation of papal territories by Victor Emmanuel in his successful efforts to unify the Italian peninsula and Sicily into a modern nation. All of this was seen as a direct attack on the papacy. Often outspoken, Keiley delivered a speech at the meeting, calling Victor Emmanuel's forces "socialists and infidels." Those words would come back to haunt him.

Yet as Richmond mayor, Keiley's term from 1871 to 1876 was relatively low-key. He headed local response efforts to the horrendous Chicago fire in October 1871 — a payback for Chicago's help after the State Capitol disaster. In 1873 he devised a plan to help residents suffering financially after a national financial collapse in the Panic of 1873.

There were high notes, too. Symbolic of the country's increasing industrialization and Richmond's re-entry into the national economy, Keiley presided over ceremonies for a Chesapeake and Ohio freight train, marking the city's first direct-rail link with the West.

But the city had little money. Richmond was pulling out of Reconstruction. Along with the national financial collapse, there were few benchmarks to Keiley's term. He even had time to write, publishing "Memoranda of the History of the Catholic Church in Richmond, Va.," one of the first histories of local Roman Catholics.

After his term as mayor, Keiley served as Richmond's city attorney from 1876 to 1885. And he continued to be a sought-after speaker as the cult of "The Lost Cause" continued to define the post-Civil War decades. In 1879 he gave the dedication remarks at a Confederate cemetery near Baltimore. His speech, "Our Fallen Heroes," was published and widely read.

In 1880 he became active in Richmond's relief efforts for famine victims in Ireland and for 12 years he served as president of the National Irish Catholic Benevolent Union. (As mayor, he had been quite politic, in 1874 even speaking at a Richmond banquet saluting the 54th anniversary of Queen Victoria's reign, a friendly gesture to the English that few with Irish blood would have made.)

In 1881 Keiley served as chairman of the Democratic State Committee, keeping his name prominent in political circles. Clearly, at age 48, he aspired to bigger things.

Democrat Grover Cleveland was inaugurated president in March 1885. Keiley, who was well-entrenched in state Democratic politics and a visible leader in Catholic causes nationwide, was well positioned for recognition beyond Richmond.

There were other connections too. Keiley's brother John was a prominent player in the Democratic circles of Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Keiley family was well-known to influential Catholic bishops — especially Archbishop James Gibbons of Baltimore (formerly Bishop of Richmond).

Keiley's name was submitted to the Cleveland administration for a diplomatic post, and on March 30, Cleveland nominated Keiley, 52, to the highly visible position of ambassador to Italy with its embassy in Rome. The Senate confirmed him April 2.

But there was a glitch. Keiley, along with his wife and two daughters, prepared to set sail from New York to Europe April 12, when the New York Herald published the anti-Victor Emmanuel remarks Keiley had made at St. Peter's Cathedral in Richmond.

By April 20 the New York Evening Post had amplified the story, and reported that the Italian government wouldn't receive Keiley. Many Italians also thought that Keiley had neither the family lineage nor the wealth that was expected of an American ambassador to Rome. How could he match the high style of New Yorker William Waldorf Astor, who was leaving the post?

Richmonders were out of the loop, and on April 22, thrilled at their former mayor's new assignment, they gave Keiley a farewell banquet. In his remarks, Keiley called Italian King Humbert, "The mightiest of the young monarchs of Christendom."

Six days later, the Italian embassy in Washington, D.C., sent official word to the U.S. State Department: Keiley would not be welcome. He resigned April 28, having never seen Rome.

Baltimore's Bishop Gibbons, a longtime friend and advocate of Keiley, was relieved. He wrote a colleague: "I am glad that Mr. Keiley is not going Rome. He would be out of place there." The bishop acknowledged that he had promoted Keiley's efforts for an ambassadorship — but not in Italy, with its deep religious and political links with the Vatican. Besides, he felt Keiley had been too generous in praising the Italian government. This wouldn't sit well at the Vatican, still stinging from its real-estate, political and economic losses that resulted from Italy's unification.

Back in Richmond, Keiley's speech accepting his ambassadorship burned some bridges with residents. His remarks made parallels between Italy's unification and the reunification of the North and the South, which he blamed indelicately on the "acquiescence" of the people. Having lost a quarter of the white male population in the Civil War, white Southerners believed they had hardly acquiesced.

"Neither Southern nor Northern editors liked the spirit in which he, an American minister, paraded the fact that he was fresh from battle against the Union and had only submitted when he could no longer resist," the Richmond Whig wrote on June 25, 1885. The Baltimore Sun called Keiley's speech "indiscreet."

In New York, Keiley's wife and children waited in limbo. Would there be an appointment to another post? And if so, where? Many thought Keiley would be assigned to St. Petersburg, Russia.

In 1885 communication wasn't exactly efficient. Or perhaps the Cleveland administration was tone deaf. But on April 29, the day after Keiley resigned his Italian ambassadorship, the president nominated him as ambassador to Austria-Hungary.

Keiley and his family, accompanied by two servants, sailed for Europe May 7. They were joined by his brother, the Rev. Benjamin Keiley, who was on a mission to the Vatican. They never made it to Austria.

The court in Vienna immediately opposed Keiley's appointment. But this time, ironically, foreign opposition sent the American diplomatic establishment and the press to Keiley's defense.

The Austrian government found it unacceptable that Keiley's wife was Jewish. On May 27, 1885, the American secretary of state cabled Keiley (who had traveled as far as Paris) that the Austrian government was greatly opposed to his nomination.

The secretary of state, however, had written the Austrians to protest their opposition: "It is not within the power of the President nor of the Congress … to inquire into or decide upon the religious belief of any official, and the proposition to allow this or decide upon the religious belief of any official, and the proposition to allow this to be done by any foreign government is necessarily and a fortiori inadmissable."

So the Austrians tried another tactic. They suggested their opposition was due to "want of political tact evinced on his part on a former occasion." Importantly, the Kingdom of Italy, which had rejected Keiley, had recently joined Austria-Hungary and Germany in an alliance. The Austrians weren't interested in upsetting the Italians. Relations between the countries were already strained enough.

So the Keileys sailed back to New York Aug. 26. Rebecca Keiley stayed there while her husband returned to Washington to defend his position and attack anti-Semitism. "Austrians had given reasons, but they are not reputable — they are frivolous," he told the Richmond Dispatch. "They are an affront to our people — reasons which in the nineteenth century are an affront to the common sense of mankind."

Keiley, however, resigned Sept. 1. The Washington Post editorialized that Keiley "should be hustled out of sight as soon as possible."

The late James H. Bailey, a Petersburg historian, observed that Keiley's "Celtic love of speech-making had been his chief undoing."

But the loss for Keiley was a victory for religious rights. In December 1885, President Cleveland released the diplomatic correspondence between his administration and the Austrians that showed that it had taken a strong stand on religious rights. American Irish and Jewish groups nationwide were delighted.

Cleveland again turned to Keiley June 22, 1886. He appointed the former mayor as judge of the International Court of First Instance in Cairo, Egypt. The court included 30 judges who regulated activities between the Turkish sultan and European and United States interests living and working within territories subject to the Ottoman Turkish government. Eight years later, Keiley was promoted to the International Court of Appeals, a post he held until 1902.

Keiley's local ties faded. After all, for almost 20 years he lived and worked in the Middle East, an exotic part of the world that might have well have been the moon.

After Keiley retired in 1902 he and Rebecca moved to London. They received friends from Richmond. They enjoyed music and he played the violin, flute, and the piano. One visitor, Captain W. Gordon McCabe, wrote from London: "Keiley lives in a beautiful set of chambers and seems to have fallen under the glamour of London. He says he never expects to come back to America."

He didn't. On Jan. 27, 1905, while visiting Paris, another city he loved, a motorcar struck Keiley on the Place de la Concorde. Keiley died, becoming the city's first automobile fatality.

Keiley's name and image do not appear on any Richmond monuments. Perhaps the events surrounding his life were brighter than his place in them. Just as important, he stayed away too long. And he didn't come home to die. Richmonders expect that. S

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