Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

"Business Is Dangerous in the Extreme": The Use of Innovation to Manage Risk and the Failure of Henry Heth in the Early Virginia Coal Industry

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

"Business Is Dangerous in the Extreme": The Use of Innovation to Manage Risk and the Failure of Henry Heth in the Early Virginia Coal Industry

Article excerpt

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In the gloomy, humid hours just before sunset on 2 May 1807, a horsedrawn carriage ambled along a winding deserted road. It stretched southwest from the Midlothian Turnpike, the main westward road leading out of Richmond, and led to the house of the mine manager of the Black Heath Coal Pits in Chesterfield County. In 1807, the Black Heath mines were the largest and most productive bituminous coal fields in eastern North America and in the sole possession of Henry Heth, the man sitting in the carriage as it was maneuvered along the track by his faithful slave and driver.1 As the two men approached a low bend in the road bordered by high mounds of coal just on the outskirts of the pits, an unseen assailant, or possibly assailants, hurled huge chunks of coal down upon the unsuspecting travelers.2 With amazing accuracy, a salvo from the assailant struck the driver on the head, knocking him unconscious and dislodging him from his perch in the carriage driver's seat. In short order, the passenger was also struck in the head, as well as his neck and shoulders, causing severe cuts, bruises, and a concussion.

Unfortunately for the driver (and his passenger), he fell forward into the back haunches of the carriage horse, tangling himself up in the reins and spooking the beast. The horse fled recklessly down the track, kicking the driver numerous times about the body and head, severely wounding him and leaving him in a coma. As the carriage careened down the track out of control, a wheel got caught in a rut a few hundred feet from the spot of the attack and overturned the carriage. It rolled several times before coming to rest diagonally across the road. The passenger, after discovering that the driver and horse were incapacitated, pulled a small pistol from his pocket, fired a shot in the direction of the coal mounds, and then scurried away on foot into some nearby bushes as quickly as his wounds would allow. Maneuvering through the underbrush under pursuit for several hours, Heth finally managed to elude his attacker and escape to the safety of the mine manager's house, located a few miles away from the site of the attack.

Distressed at finding his boss, Harry Heth, in such a perilously disheveled condition on his doorstep in the middle of the night, the mine manager quickly sounded the alarm. An odd assortment of enslaved and free workers gathered under his charge. Placing several men under arms to ensure the defense of the house, the manager sent his most trusted laborer to summon a doctor for Heth. Although the manager desperately wanted to catch the assailant, Heth refused to be left alone. By the time the doctor arrived, it was so dark that it was impossible to pursue the attacker.

Heth suffered severe blows to the head. He waxed in and out of consciousness for several days. The true identity and whereabouts of the assailant (or assailants, as some suspected) were never completely ascertained. Suspicion immediately fell upon a hired slave named Moles. He came to work at Heth's mine a month before the incident. In that short time, Moles had several altercations with Harry Heth. Even more damning, Moles's owner Archibald McRae was a known enemy of Heth, partly because of the details of Moles s employment contract.

Surprisingly, both Moles and Archibald McRae remained obstinately hostile toward Heth after falling under suspicion for the attack. Upon hearing that his slave was under suspicion, McRae pressed Heth in several letters to remain circumspect in his accusations until concrete evidence emerged that could prove guilt. According to McRae, there are "probably a lot of people in Heth's neighborhood who might want to hurt him." If Heth was certain that "it was his man, [and] he should be set upon," then McRae agreed that Moles should be "tried as a ruffian and assassin." When Heth found evidence of Moles's guilt, McRae maintained a belief that he was innocent, firmly asserting that Moles could never engage in such an act on his own accord, and that he was being manipulated. …

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