West Virginia
Historical Society

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April, 2003

Wheeling's Athenaeum 1854-1868 by Edward L. Phillips

Edward L Phillips is a native of Texas who has lived in the Wheeling area for eleven years. He holds a degree in history and political science from the University of Texas, and he has a special interest in American history with emphasis upon the era of the Revolution. Currently he owns the War Games Company in Triadelphia, West Virginia, that sells toy soldiers. He is an active member of the Wheeling Area Historical Society.

This is the story of a building in downtown Wheeling that played an interesting and important role during the American Civil War era. The Athenaeum was constructed in 1854 on the southeast comer of Market Street and John Street (now Sixteenth Street), just south of the Custom House (Independence Hall), which was also under construction at the same time. It was a three story brick building (no basement) built with the latest technology of the time. The roof and floor beams were of cast iron and manufactured in New Jersey. According to its owners, the purpose of the building was to be used in conjunction with the B & 0 Railroad, whose station was just a couple blocks away. However, the third (top) floor of the building was specially constructed to be used as a theater. It had its own iron staircase on the northeast end so that the audience could go directly to the theater. The theater itself had a large stage, dressing rooms for the actors, seating on the floor and the parquette, and a balcony. It also had the latest heating so that the building would be comfortable the year around. According to one of the newspaper reviewers, the stage and theater were the best between the Allegheny Mountains and Chicago.

The first performance was on 11 January 1855. The actors for this and other shows belonged to a traveling company, while special actors were brought in usually for a week or two to perform special shows. Most of the performances were plays which were known by the public and were in a shortened version. The evening's entertainment usually consisted of a major play followed with a song or dance and then concluded with a shorter comic play. Shakespeare in popularized and abbreviated versions was one of the favorite playwrights, and over the years he got his share of performances. However, the most common play during the period of the theater was the "beautiful and always favorite" Ingomar, the Barbarian. The theater season usually ran for two to three months in the spring and again at the end of the year (usually September through early January). In April 1856 the managers tried to attract a better class of audience. They were now having omnibuses waiting at the conclusion to take ladies and their gentlemen home. It was also about this time that police were beginning to be stationed in the theater. The price of admission was 50 cents for the parquette and dress circle and 25 cents for the balcony.

On 8 May 1856 Miss Maggie Mitchell, described as the "most accomplished Proteau actress of the age," made her first appearance. The newspaper could not say enough good about her and her performances. It also seems that during this time the theater was drawing large audiences and was making money for the current manager, a Mr. Hanchett. Miss Mitchell was so popular that she came back for an extended stay in the fall as well. The beginning of probably the most popular and exciting show for the Athenaeum was on 24 November 1856. This was the day that Uncle Tom's Cabin was performed for the first time in Wheeling. Unlike other performances, it ran for seven days with a special matinee on a Saturday just for school children and women who were unable to attend during the evening. It played every night to full houses, with many people going more than once. This was followed with the "great American tragic actress" Miss Eliza Logan. She also drew large audiences, and besides playing tragic roles, it seems that one of her specialties was chanting "The Marsellaise (sic) Hymn," which seemed to draw long and loud applause.

On 5 January 1857 Mr. Edwin Booth came to the Athenaeum. He was probably the most famous actor of the time. He was here for five performances doing mostly Shakespeare, but one night he decided to do Cardinal Richelieu. The newspaper the next day devoted an entire column on its editorial page criticizing Booth's performance. The gist of it was that he should stick to what he does best - Shakespeare. After this the theater came upon hard times. There were no performances from December 1857 until December 1858. In fact, the only use of the Athenaeum seems to have been for meetings of church or school groups, and then only very rarely. The theater opened again during May and June 1859, and then closed again until a very short run in mid 1861. After this the coming of the Civil War brought a new and drastic change for the building.

As the war developed, fifty secessionist prisoners, who had been confined at Camp Carlile, were moved to the Athenaeum building and confined on the second floor. The large room there was converted to have a kitchen at one end with a large dining table running the entire length, while fifty bunks lined the northern wall. Beginning in small numbers, the first prisoners were mainly those who had refused to take the Oath or who had been arrested as a result of a grudge against them. These prisoners were retained at the Athenaeum only for a day or two until they could be sent to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio. By December 1861 the prisoners were now numbering some days close to a hundred, and a Major Darr of General Rosencrans's staff was assigned as Provost Marshal to be in charge of the prison. It is also during this time that the title of "Lincoln's Bastille" was first used by some of the rebel prisoners. In January 1862 the theater (now known as the Gayety Theatre) was reopened. However, it was very short lived and closed in February. The first escape took place on 1 April 1862 when a George Deering cut a hole through the floor of the second floor, lowered himself down on a makeshift rope and just walked out the front door as there was no guard on duty. This was the first of many escapes from the prison, although the official records state only two or three were successful.

By mid 1862 large numbers of prisoners began to arrive in Wheeling on a regular basis. They now included many prisoners of war among their numbers. It was the policy to keep these prisoners at the Athenaeum for as short a time as possible, and the majority were moved to Columbus the next day after their arrival. The prisoners usually arrived either via the B & 0 Railroad or by steamer on the Ohio River. They then marched from the Athenaeum across the suspension bridge, across the Island, across the Bridgeport covered bridge, and then via railroad to Columbus. The sight became almost a daily affair, but still drew crowds along city streets.

Another sight that was beginning to be seen more frequently was the punishment of soldiers who had been assigned as provost guards. Here are two such examples: one guard caught drunk on duty was forced to wear a sign, "This is a Drunkard," on his back during his guard duty for five days; another was forced to wear a barrel fitted upon his body with his head sticking out the top with a sign, " Skulked from Duty." It must have been a very amusing sight and added to the entertainment of the citizens.

By late 1863 more and more Union prisoners - those who had been sentenced by court martial - were arriving at the Athenaeum. This meant that the Confederate prisoners had to be moved out as quickly as possible to Camp Chase in order to make room. On 30 September 1863 the third floor or theater was taken over by the military. In fact, the government took over the entire building with the intention of turning it into a permanent military prison. Individual cells were constructed upon the stage and the dressing rooms were converted into cells for individual confinement. The north side underneath the dress circle was converted into a prison for females while the south side was converted into a hospital. A fence twenty feet high was erected around the vacant lot behind the building to give the prisoners some room to exercise. The first death occurred in the prison hospital on 24 November when a 21 year-old soldier named Judson Mazingo died of scarlet fever. Also, in order to complete the prison a new bake house and a new building to hold fuel were constructed in the vacant lot. The prison was now self contained.

The usual method of controlling the prisoners was to attach a ball and chain to one of their legs. This was usually done when the men were turned out of the prison to do some chore, although often it was part of their punishment and is mentioned in their court martial sentence. The ball usually weighed about twenty pounds and the chain was six feet long. In December 1863 a prisoner was branded with the letter D on his left hip for desertion, and this was the only time it was done here. Many of the prisoners who wore the ball and chain were assigned duties outside the prison complex. A guard was assigned to accompany them. They were used to clean the street and other such work around other government buildings. One prisoner who was a bricklayer was assigned to repair the sidewalks downtown. He was an Irishman noted for his good humor as well as his excellent work. He named his ball and chain "Phoebe" in honor of his wife, and so addressed it everywhere he went.

The prison hospital had become so crowded that it could not operate effectively, so on 31 March 1864 the forty-five patients were moved to the Catholic Hospital in north Wheeling. It was here that ill and wounded prisoners henceforth were treated, and the former hospital in the prison was taken over to handle more prisoners.

The Athenaeum building was inspected at least twice a year by federal inspectors sent out from Washington. Each time the prison received a good rating, and the inspectors could not find anything to complain about, except one time when they thought it might be a good idea if the windows on the second and third floors were allowed to be opened. These windows had been nailed shut after a couple escapes.

In 1865 the prison was ordered closed by the Provost Marshal, and so the last prisoners were sent back to their regiments for discharge on 27 September 1865. The owners of the building filed suit against the government for damages which they claimed had occurred while in the government's possession. However, the suit was dismissed as the government claimed that in reality it had improved the value of the building, and while it was a prison it was paying more rent to the owners than they had received in previous years. In March 1867 Butterfield & Company opened a malt storage business in the lower floor. They did this by adding a full-length cellar to the building. Mr. Fairfax, the city architect, had a small office in an attached building on the back side.

About 12:30 in the morning of 10 October 1868 the Athenaeum caught fire and the building came to its end. Local fire units responded, but as only one fire engine was capable of putting water on the roof and third floor, the fire soon got out of control and the building was allowed to burn itself out. The firemen instead concentrated on preventing the fire from spreading to other buildings. The loss to the owners was estimated to be $150,000, and it was the largest fire in Wheeling up to that time. As an almost direct result of this fire, Wheeling in 1870 organized a city fire department and purchased more steam fire engines. However, the building was not quite done. The day after the fire two small boys were playing among the ruins when one of them pulled on a piece of metal sheeting which then fell on him, and he had to be carried home. Thus, the Athenaeum had a life of only fourteen years, but it saw much of the cultural and Civil War history of Wheeling during this short period. Its site is now a small park in front of West Virginia Northern Community College, and it is remembered by almost no one.


Principal sources for this article on the Athenaeum are from the following: Issues of the Wheeling Intelligencer for the years 1854-1868. The Wheeling Daily Register for the years 1863-1868.

The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.

The records of the Athenaeum prison in the National Archives, Washington D.C. (DVVVA Volumes 91 through 102).

West Virginia Historical Society

West Virginia History Center

West Virginia Archives and History