"The Kingfish" was doing a little celebrating at The Jefferson Hotel.
It was a Friday night – March 10, 1944 – in a suite on the sixth floor.
State Sen. Aubrey Gardner Weaver had earned his nickname: He was the powerful Senate Finance Committee chairman. The next day would be the finale of the General Assembly session. His wife, back home in Front Royal, was due to deliver a baby any day.
Weaver, 61, had invited friends and associates to his suite for poker and drinks. But around 11:30 p.m., smoke began to fill the corridors of the Jefferson’s east wing, primarily on the fifth and sixth floors.
Panic ensued. Guests used knotted bedsheets and any means available to escape the smoke and flames.
Within an hour, Weaver lay dead. So did five others – including Lillian Price, the recently widowed former first lady of Virginia.
“Chaos and mayhem ruled the night,” said Paul N. Herbert, author of “The Jefferson Hotel: The History of a Richmond Landmark.”
An RTD reporter on the scene noted that a not fully dressed Dr. J. Fulmer Bright, a physician and former Richmond mayor, had rushed from his nearby home to the hotel upon hearing of the fire.
“My God,” Bright said upon arrival. “I know almost everybody in this hotel. ... It is terrible, terrible, terrible.”
Later, Bright saw a man on the lobby floor being attended to by several soldiers and civilians. He looked upon the ashen-white face.
"My God," he said, "that’s Senator Weaver, and I think he’s done for.”
Almost 76 years have passed since that deadly 1944 blaze – enough time for the hotel to be quickly repaired, shamefully fall into long-term disrepair, undergo a multimillion-dollar renovation in the 1980s, and reopen in 1986 with all the luster of its early glory days.
The Jefferson Hotel had been a sight to behold when it opened with great fanfare on Oct. 31, 1895, as one of the pre-eminent hotels in the South. It was financed by Richmond entrepreneur Lewis Ginter, and no expense was spared. The hotel featured twin clock towers, two roof gardens, Turkish baths, a ladies’ billiards room and a Palm Court replete with a life-size statue of Thomas Jefferson flanked by two alligator pools.
“Everything about it – its richness, its marble – was elegant, stunning and, to many, straight out of fantasy,” Herbert wrote. “Residents of Richmond witnessed no civic event that generated as much excitement as the opening of the Jefferson Hotel.”
The hotel complex occupied most of the city block bordered by Franklin, Main, Jefferson and Adams streets. In Richmond, it was considered a symbol of the city’s re-emergence as a regional power three decades after the end of the Civil War.
Six years after it opened, disaster struck. As in 1944, the 1901 blaze broke out on a Friday night in March. The hotel was nearly full, with about 300 guests, including North Carolina tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds. The fire started in a fourth-floor blanket room in the southeast corner of the hotel – the section closest to the intersection of Main and Jefferson. By the end of the night, the entire section facing Main Street was gutted.
The Franklin Street side, which was spared major damage, reopened a year later. The full hotel resumed business in May 1907, just in time to serve travelers headed to the 300th Anniversary Jamestown Exposition.
By the early 1940s, the hotel – whose guest list over the years would include Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Frank Sinatra and Elvis, among other notables – had taken on a wartime aura. Certainly, it remained one of the premier hotels in Richmond, but its guest list mirrored the extremes of a nation at war.
Well-heeled travelers and industrialists accustomed to five-star luxury might find themselves lodged on the same floor as rank-and-file military personnel housed there by government contract during World War II.
State politicians in town for the General Assembly session shared hallways with British nobility accompanied by servants laden with countless trunks and other pieces of luggage. A number of long-term guests with deep pockets simply lived there.
This was the Jefferson Hotel in March 1944.
For most of the evening, March 10 had been an uneventful Friday night.
In a suite on the top floor, the politicians were having their card game. Down the hall, Mrs. Price had retired for the night in Room 600 – her husband, former Gov. James Hubert Price, had died about four months earlier.
Across the hallway, a couple of women from New Jersey were preparing for bed. Not far away, in a room strewn with liquor and beer bottles, an Army lieutenant was entertaining a woman outfitted in a leopard-skin coat.
Sometime between 11:30 and midnight, a soldier staying at the hotel noticed flames on the second-floor landing of a stairway in the east wing. He called to a bellboy, who later told police that he first called the night desk clerk, then teamed up with the soldier to hose down the flames until they appeared to be out.
A few minutes later, the bellboy returned to the landing and, according to RTD reports, found the fire “had started again and was advancing up the steps to the third floor.”
The first call to the fire department came in at 11:59 p.m. Firefighters arrived quickly, only to find that all of the fire hose in the hotel’s standpipes was rotten and that no water pressure could be exerted as far as the sixth floor. Adequate pressure was achieved after city fire hoses were connected to nearby hydrants.
On the hotel’s top two floors, terror and confusion reigned.
“Numerous scantily clad men and women poured down the steps into the lobby where they were given first aid or comfort by Red Cross workers, members of the police and fire auxiliaries and OCD auxiliaries,” the RTD reported, referring to the Office of Civilian Defense. “Others made their way by fire escape, and a few even tied together bed sheets to slide down to floors below.”
An RTD reporter who lived at the Jefferson wrote a deadline account of his actions and recollections that night.
"The staircase was seething with people in all kinds of clothing making their way downstairs," he wrote. "There were men wearing pajamas and heavy overcoats, no shoes or socks; women with coats, no shoes, their hats on at strange angles, clutching at belongings picked up in their panic."
Near the hotel's grand staircase and lobby, "the scene was indescribable," the reporter wrote. "People in undress were scattered all over the place, lying on the floor, huddled together in strange groups."
Firefighters were credited with acts of bravery, using ladders to rescue three people from the sixth floor and one from the fifth.
Jay W. Johns, former president of the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce, was one of six men at the card table in Weaver’s suite. Initially, they were warned not to go into the corridor because of the dense smoke there. Johns fled toward a window, lost track of his companions and eventually opted for the hallway, only to find himself nearly blinded by the smoke.
“With my coat over my nose, I began to grope in the dark toward the staircase, which I knew was in the center of the building,” Johns told the RTD. When he neared that point, he yelled out, and a man with a flashlight – later identified as a fireman – came and led him safely to an elevator, Johns said.
Weaver, the state senator, wasn’t so fortunate. He was trying to find his way to a stairway when the hallway lights went out and he became disoriented, according to a lawsuit filed by his estate.
A private from Richmond Army Air Base found Weaver and carried him to the lobby, where the private and a lieutenant labored for an hour in hopes of resuscitating him. Bright, the physician and former Richmond mayor who lived a few blocks away, had arrived at the Jefferson and recognized the senator – and was among doctors to pronounce him dead. Witnesses said Weaver probably died of a heart attack.
The two New Jersey women in Room 601, Dorothy Gann and Jean Manfredi, had come to Richmond to spend some time with Gann’s brother, a sailor stationed at Camp Peary in York County. Alarmed by the thickening smoke, they frantically called the hotel operator, kept their door closed and huddled into their bathroom – the least combustible place – to wait for help.
The operator reported receiving two calls from Room 601, where “a woman was screaming that she was smothering to death,” according to Herbert’s book.
In his deadline account, the RTD reporter who lived at the Jefferson recalled this moment as he was talking to the hotel operator in the lobby: "My God," she said, "that is Room 601 calling again. Pleading for help. Two women say they are trapped and that unless help gets to them, they will be killed. Already smoke is coming into their room."
By the time firefighters reached the room, they found the women’s bodies in the bathroom – one in the bathtub filled with water, the other crumpled in a corner. They had died of asphyxiation.
Had it not been for the heroism of some of the soldiers and sailors staying at the hotel, others might have perished as well.
“J. Winston Ross, a Camp Peary sailor, who occupied another room on the sixth floor, died from burns and suffocation he received when he insisted on remaining to help fight the blaze on his floor,” the RTD reported.
The sixth fatality was Ruth Andrews, a woman from Durham, N.C., who had an address on Monument Avenue.
The more fortunate included state Sen. Harry C. Stuart of Russell County, one of the other men in Weaver's suite: He suffered smoke inhalation. According to former state chamber leader Johns, Sen. John S. Battle of Charlottesville, a future governor, had left the suite just before the fire.
State Sen. S. Floyd Landreth of Galax and his wife, who were in the room next to Mrs. Price, were rescued after flames had destroyed their room door, the RTD reported.
Del. Edmund T. DeJarnette of Hanover suffered a burned forehead and right foot. Del. Delamater Davis of Norfolk, who suffered burns to his feet, said he and his wife used wet towels over their faces to keep from inhaling smoke.
“A British soldier and sailor did heroic work," Davis told the RTD two days later. "They broke into our room calling, ‘Where are you?’ and they helped us out.”
The tragedy cast a heavy shadow over the last day of the General Assembly session.
The Senate "sped without debate" through its calendar of several dozen measures, and its session, though "expected to continue far into the night, was compressed into barely two hours," the RTD reported.
Weaver's desk was draped in black. Flanking it were those of Morton G. Goode of Dinwiddie County and Garland Gray of Sussex County – both close friends of Weaver who had fled their rooms at the Jefferson the night before (Gray via a hotel fire escape).
Could the Jefferson Hotel fire have been prevented?
The cause was officially listed as unknown. The city fire chief speculated that someone had dropped a lighted cigarette in a hand truck containing linen and papers.
City inspectors determined that the blaze spread rapidly up the stairwell because of numerous coats of paint applied to walls, ceilings and woodwork. Also, they said, “the [wooden] stairway well could not have been constructed under the present City Building Code,” but it was permissible under previous building codes. The replacement stairway was made fireproof.
The property damage was not extensive. It was generally confined to the fifth and sixth floors in a small section of the hotel’s east wing.
“Indeed, the Saturday night dance given by the Junior League of Richmond for soldiers was held on schedule,” Herbert wrote of the day after.
But the human toll was significant: six dead, 23 injured.
Lawsuits inevitably followed, seeking compensation from the hotel’s owner, Jefferson Realty Corp. Twenty-three personal injury suits were filed, and several death suits were settled out of court. One of them, a $15,000 lawsuit filed by Weaver’s estate, cited 16 counts of negligence. It was settled for an amount reported in the range of $10,000 to $12,000 (roughly $145,000 to $174,000 in 2020 dollars).
Among other changes resulting from the fire, the hotel management took one notable step to ensure the psychic comfort of its future guests: It changed the room numbers in the east wing.