Monday, November 14, 2016

The History of Libby Prison War Museum, Chicago, Illinois. (1889-1897)

The Libby Prison was located in a three-story brick warehouse on two levels on Tobacco Row at the waterfront of the James River in Richmond, Virginia. Prior to use as a jail, the warehouse had been leased by Capt. Luther Libby and his son George W. Libby. They operated a ship chandlery (a retail dealer who specializes in providing supplies and/or equipment for ships) and grocery (liquor) business.
Libby Prison, Richmond, Virginia
The Confederate government started to use the facility like a hospital and prison in 1861, reserving it for Union officers in 1862 because of the influx of prisoners. It contained eight low-ceilinged rooms, each 103 by 42 feet. The second and third floors were used to house prisoners. Windows were barred and open to the elements, increasing the discomfort. Lack of sanitation and overcrowding caused diseases. From 700 prisoners in 1862, the facility had a total of 1,000 by 1863. Mortality rates were high in 1863 and 1864, aggravated by shortages of food and supplies. Because of the high death toll, Libby Prison is generally regarded as second in notoriety to Andersonville Prison in Georgia.

In 1864, the Confederacy moved Union prisoners to Macon, Georgia. The Confederate Army then used the prison for military criminals. After the occupation of Richmond in 1865, Union authorities used the prison for the detention of former Confederate officers. They reportedly improved conditions over those for Union officers or prisoners of war on both sides generally during the war. In 1880, the building was purchased by Southern Fertilizer Company. 
Libby Prison, Richmond, Virginia
Nine years later, it was bought by Charles F. Gunther who had it disassembled and brought to Chicago where it was reassembled as the Libby Prison War Museum. The contract for hauling the material was given to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company, which kept box cars on side-tracks of the old York River Line near the building. As soon as a carload was ready, it was sealed and sent on its way to Chicago an amazing total of 132 twenty-ton cars.

In the meanwhile massive stone walls of native artesian stone, quarried within the city limits of Chicago, had been erected on the block of Wabash Avenue, between 14th and 16th Streets, which had been selected as the famous old prison's new home. These stones formed part of the wall of the third Chicago Coliseum (1513 S. Wabash, Chicago, Illinois) and probably is the basis for the false story that that structure is built from Libby Prison remains.

The enterprise was incorporated as the Libby Prison Museum Association, "Great Libby Prison War Museum", on February 4, 1888, with a capitalization of $400,000, to which was added the extensive Civil War collection of Charles F. Gunther, a wealthy candy manufacturer. Among his items are reportedly the Lincoln death bed and various bloodied garments worn the night of Lincoln's assassination. The cost of dismantling and moving was in excess of $200,000 and was completed in September of 1889.

Although the Museum was in Chicago during the year of the Chicago World's Fair (the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition), it had no connection with the Fair and was never considered as a Fair attraction. It was quite some distance from the Exposition Grounds. At its height of popularity in the early 1890s, the museum hosted Civil War tours run by ex-civil war veterans. 
Libby Prison War Museum Exhibit of Civil War shot and shell.
The Museum was highly profitable and continued so until 1897. When the second Chicago Coliseum[1] burned down in December of 1897, Gunther decided to build a new Coliseum on the site of the Libby Prison, since attendance at the museum was beginning to wane. The museum was disbanded and the third Chicago Coliseum (on Wabash Avenue, between 14th and 16th Streets) was erected on the site.

Many of the bricks were disposed of as souvenirs and given to builders. A large number went to the Chicago Historical Society, along with the collection and other parts of the building. The Chicago Historical Society constructed the north wall of their Civil War Room from these bricks. This building is located at North Avenue and Clark St., Chicago, and is currently known as the Chicago History Museum.
The third Chicago Coliseum, on Wabash Avenue between 14th and 16th Streets, was erected on the site.
The beams, timbers, and most of the wood were sold to an Indiana farmer named Davis and he used these to build a massive barn on his farm at Hamlet (La Porte County) Indiana. The barn still stands and is owned by his daughters, Miss Ella J. Davis and Mrs. Charles Dowdell of Chicago. Most of the timbers still show the stenciled words "Second Floor M; or "Third Floor E.," together with the pathetic names and initials carved by the men while in prison. 

With the exception of the above-mentioned relics, all that is known to remain of the old prison are a door and keys in the Confederate Museum in Richmond, Virginia; some miscellaneous items in several institutions in Vermont and Massachusetts; and its major records in the National Archives in Washington D.C., with some minor records in Vermont. The Chicago Coliseum was demolished in 1983.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] On December 24, 1897, around 6:00 PM, during the Manufacturers' Carnival and Winter Fair a fire broke out and swept through the second Chicago Coliseum building (63rd Street & Stony Island Avenue). The building was completely destroyed, primarily when one of the 14 arches supporting the roof fell over to bring down all the other arches like a row of dominoes. The fire consumed the building within twenty minutes. This massive structure, one of the greatest indoor facilities of the nineteenth century, had a lifespan of only 19 months.

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