RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – Countless Richmonders march by it each day, some never stop to look. Beneath the hulking granite behemoth known as Old City Hall lies a 119-year-old mystery wrapped in seven inches of warped wrought iron.
In this city which reveres the past, one little landmark has slipped through the cracks.
Richmond in the 1890’s was a bustling hub attracting businessmen from across the south. One frequent visitor? Colonel JM Winstead from Greensboro.
He was a popular and prominent banker who some said carried himself like a preacher.
On the morning of August 23, 1894 the 70-year-old man climbed the steps at City Hall.
“He went up to the observation deck and opened the window and went outside to the granite balcony outside,” Richmond historian and author Selden Richardson said.
Winstead was there seemingly to take in the commanding sights. What happens next has been intriguing historians, like Selden Richardson, for more than a century.
“This was a mind-boggling event they could not possibly understand how this could have happened,” Selden said.
Winstead tumbles from the clock tower as horrified witnesses below watched the man plummet 94 feet.
It’s over in an instant.
A mangled Winstead is impaled on the fence.
The force of his fall bent the spike along the fence surrounding the Old City Hall forever.
“I think there is an air of mystery surrounding the death of Col. WInstead,” Winstead said. “People were shocked then as they are now.”
Questions linger to this day.
The gruesome scene on the sidewalk caused a sensation in pages of Richmond’s daily newspapers, but a wave of panic washed over Greensboro. Customers swarmed Winstead’s bank causing the first bank run in the city’s history.“The depositors assumed that he killed himself because the bank was in trouble. So they all went down to the bank to get their money out,” Schlosser said.
But no financial foul play was ever found, each cent was accounted for.
For years, loved ones contended Winstead’s demise was an accident. They claimed he fell reaching for his hat carried away by a gust.
“You’d have to spend many, many hours to try to find an answer and I don’t know if you could,” Linda Evans with Greensboro’s Historical Museum said. She said she understands why his widow and friends in the city protected his memory.
“It is just one of those wonderful, sad complex history mysteries,” Evans said. “I still have a lot of questions.”
Why would a man who seemed to have so much end his life? No note was ever left but his shoes were found near the ledge.
“Nothing came out later to tell you why he did it,” Jim Schlosser said. “He was intent on getting up there for reasons other than sightseeing. No I don’t think he was pushed I think he committed suicide.”
Witnesses said he deliberately jumped.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that this was simply a case of self-destruction,” Selden Richardson said. “I think the idea that he was pushed is an example of people grasping for straws trying to explain the unexplainable.”
Winstead carried that answer with him to the grave at Green Hill cemetery just blocks from his home. Today, the late banker’s gravestone is barely legible. The elements are wearing away evidence he even existed or ever walked the streets of Greensboro.
“I think he vanished because he really had nothing to leave behind,” Evans said. “I doubt if anyone remembers Col. Winstead anymore. Here at the Historical Museum he is pretty much a footnote.”
Two hundred miles away in Virginia there remains one physical reminder of the North Carolinian that is standing the test of time. The lone, bent tine outside Old City Hall. A curious oddity frozen in time. It was damaged the moment Col. Winstead met his fate.
“It’s really like no other place I know of in Richmond,” Historian Selden Richardson said.
“It’s poignant,” Evans said. “No, I don’t think the spike should have been fixed. Because then you lose the story all together.”