A Journal of Strength, Health, and Self Cultivation
Gilbert Hunt, shown here in his old age, was a man of “Herculean” strength who possessed a heart of gold. Public domain image.
In A Bicentennial Tribute, a recent article I wrote about the catastrophic fire at the Richmond Theatre in 1811, one of the heroes of the story was Gilbert Hunt. In this post, more tribute is given to this hero, for he was truly a remarkable man.
Gilbert Hunt was born a slave in King William County, Virginia around 1780. But, despite not having freedom for many years, he built a solid reputation among those who knew him through honesty, courage, hard work, and a willingness to help people in need.
As a young man, Gilbert was said to have been almost a Hercules, for he possessed a huge frame and a powerful set of muscles. Mr. Hunt attributed his extraordinary strength to his industrious work as a blacksmith. For hours a day during his working life, the ring of Gilbert’s anvil could be heard outside of his shop as he swung his heavy hammer to mend metal.
Gilbert grew up in the Piping Tree, a cavern that was located along the Parmunkey River and which was owned by his master. At this tavern, the young slave helped to run the business, and it was here that he first established his commitment to hard and productive work.
Gilbert continued to live and work at Piping Tree until his master’s youngest daughter got married. At this time, the lad was sent to Richmond to work under the newlywed’s husband, from whom he learned the carriage-making trade. After working four or five years under him, however, Gilbert’s new master died, and he was sold for a second and last time.
On December 26, 1811, not long after Gilbert was acquired by his final purchaser, a horrific fire broke out at the nearby Richmond Theatre during a record-crowd performance. As detailed in A Bicentennial Tribute, Hunt rushed from his blacksmith shop to the burning scene, and through his courage and with his stupendous strength he helped to save many lives.
When the War of 1812 broke out, Gilbert was put to work in his master’s shop as a blacksmith for the U.S. Army. And, fully determined to defend his country from enemy attack, he worked several hours a day for 18 straight months preparing guns and cannons for defense. Recalling later in life his service work for the Army, the strongman recorded in his writings,
“I ironed off carriages for the cannon, mounting one every two days. We then had four forges going constantly. I was also busily engaged in making pick axes [and] shoeing horses for the army, and such other work as was needed. We worked day and night, not even stopping to rest on the Sabbath day. I was also engaged in making grappling hooks for boarding the vessels down at Norfolk. During all this time, my master gave me complete control of the whole shop.”
One day during the War, an express team spread the word across Richmond that a British attack was imminent. Fearful for the well-being of himself and his family, Gilbert’s master asked him to go to the country side and find a safe haven for them. The blacksmith gladly did so, and he then helped his master and his family make the sudden move.
After his master’s family was safe and out of reach of enemy troops, Gilbert returned to his shop and he once again helped to prepare defense equipment for his country. He also took care of his master’s home with an ironclad loyalty while the family was away. Such loyalty grew from respect and love of his master. In fact, so fond was Gilbert of his owner he later wrote,
“During my absence of the family, my master’s residence and all its contents were left entirely in my charge, and had the British come upon us, no American would have fought more bravely for the defense of his own home and fireside than I would have done for the defense of my master’s property; for he never treated me like a servant, but rather like a member of his own household.”
About 12 years after fire burned the Richmond Theatre to the ground, Gilbert once again rushed from his home and saved several people from a blazing inferno. On this night, the blacksmith had been resting at his home when, around 10 o’clock, a fire alarm sounded. The blacksmith, now a member of the local fire unit, responded to the alarm without delay.
Responding to the loud sound of the alarm, Gilbert discovered that a nearby penitentiary was ablaze. When he got there, the fire was burning furiously and all means of escape were blocked. To make matters worse, there was no water available, and strong winds threatened to quickly spread the fire across the entire building within minutes.
As the trapped and horrified prisoners echoed cries for help, Gilbert and the Fire-Unit Captain, a man whom the blacksmith declared to be “one of bravest firemen who ever lived,” quickly came up with a way to free them. Their plan was to cut through a wall of the penitentiary, but no ladder was available and time was rapidly running out.
Thinking quickly, the Captain asked his strong partner to function as a human ladder. He then stood atop of Gilbert’s mighty shoulders and started to cut through a wall as the fire was getting dangerously close.
Once a hole was cut, the Captain, still firmly held up by Gilbert, grabbed the prisoners one by one and handed them down to soldiers below who were present to prevent escape. During this entire ordeal, Gilbert maintained his composure, and he never once wobbled. Had it not been for his immense strength, such stableness would have been impossible, and the Captain and a prisoner undoubtedly would have tumbled down together before a full rescue could be achieved.
As the last prisoner was about to climb out of the hole in the wall for rescue, he rushed back into the burning building to get his Bible. The Captain urged the prisoner to forget his Bible and save himself. But the devoted man refused; only when he had his Bible firmly in hand would he allow himself to be rescued.
The day after the fire at the penitentiary, Gilbert was given the daunting task of making hand cuffs for each of the rescued prisoners. He found it most disheartening that he had to restrain the very same men whose lives he had helped save the day before.
By the time of his death in 1863, Gilbert Hunt was held in high esteem by people of all races throughout Virginia and the other Southern states. His courage and philanthropy had earned him respect of a highest kind, the kind that stays permanently in person’s heart. This was evident when Gilbert’s funeral was held. Hundreds of mourners packed several squares around the Richmond burial site, and each had come to show honor for a man who had consistently showed the noblest side of humanity.
Gilbert was survived by Matilda, his wife of many years. Mrs. Hunt passed away in 1871, and she was buried at an old African church where she had been a long-time member. It was said that before her death and after her husband passed away, Matilda would not leave the hearthstone where she and Gilbert had spent together many happy moments of their married life.
I should point out that Gilbert Hunt did not spend his entire life as a slave. In his middle years, he purchased his freedom for a sum of $800. Once free, he then opened his own blacksmith shop. On the door of his shop hung a sign made of sheet metal. Painted on this sign rather humbly and inconspicuously was the following:
But, even though the letters on Gilbert’s sign did not stand out boldly, each day passer-byes could hear the ringing of the blacksmith’s anvil until near the end of his days.
For the interested, more can be learned about Gilbert Hunt and the Richmond Theatre fire of 1811 here: