Wildwood: A Prisoner’s Paradise

“I still have hope that I will yet outlive this misfortune of being a prisoner but I am not made of iron.”

Samuel J. Gibson, Union soldier and Prisoner of War

The prison was getting more crowded every day, a fact Alfred keenly observed as he sat wondering when or where his next meal would come from, how his family was faring, how long he would be held here. It ignited his ire once again. How could they possibly believe that he was capable of treason? He was as loyal to his country as any northerner, he just happened to be loyal to his state as well. If these soldiers and commanders only knew the legacy of his family, the fact that his very own father had been among the founding members of this country. If they would only listen to him, he’d convince them that he never agreed with secession. But they wouldn’t, and so he was stuck in this strange theater prison.

What kept him going was the thought that soon he would be back home. He’d finish his plans and fulfill his dream of starting a prosperous town in that western Virginian wilderness he called home. The town he named after his father would flourish and grow, and everyone would know the great man who was John James Beckley. He just had to make it back home.

This is the story of a young apprentice and presidential comrade, a third-floor theater turned Union prison, and a house still perched atop a knoll in the middle of a wild wood. 

Colony of Virginia

John James Beckley was eleven years old when his parents sent him from his London home, across the Atlantic to be an indentured servant in the Colony of Virginia. Sold to John Norton & Son, Beckley was apprenticed as a scribe to John Clayton. Young John Beckley continued his education during his indenture and had the opportunity to meet many influential residents of the colony. After his master Clayton died, Beckley decided to remain in Virginia, and soon this general assistant scribe improved his position rising to the status of a lawyer. In 1783, Beckley was elected mayor of Richmond. With education and his new position came wealth, and John began his land speculation scheme. He began accumulating land in the wilderness of the western part of Virginia, land he would some day pass along to his son. 

In 1789, sponsored by James Madison, Beckley was appointed as the first clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. Three years later, he was appointed the first Librarian of Congress, but his contributions were not exhausted yet. John James Beckley was in the midst of American politics when a political rivalry erupted among the Federalists. John James Beckley and James Madison were chief among those who disagreed with Federalist ideas, and, along with Thomas Jefferson, they formed the Anti-federalist Party (also known as the Republicans or Democratic-Republicans). Thus, Beckley is often credited with setting the standards for the First Party System. 

Thomas Jefferson

John James Beckley would contribute one more time to American politics before his death in 1807. He became what would be known today as a campaign manager for Thomas Jefferson. He dispersed thousands of hand-written tickets campaigning for the election. In fact, it was due largely to his efforts that Thomas Jefferson was elected as the third president of the United States in 1800. And thus he accumulated another claim to fame; John James Beckley was the first American professional campaign manager. 

John James Beckley married his wife Maria Prince in 1790. They had only one son live to adulthood, Alfred, born in 1802. Alfred was only five years old when his father John passed away, but he grew up hearing the stories of his father’s rise from apprenticeship to lawyer to politician. It was due to his father’s influence and connections that family friends, James Monroe, and William Henry Harrison appointed Alfred to West Point in 1819. He graduated four years later and spent 13 years serving as an artillery officer in several states from Florida to New York. 

Alfred Beckley

In 1835, Alfred sought to collect the land that once belonged to his father. Suffering through long tedious legal battles, Alfred was finally granted 56,679 acres in Fayette County, Virginia (current day Raleigh County, West Virginia.) Beckley resigned his officer’s commission in 1836 and decided to move his wife and three children to the wilderness of western Virginia. He built a double log cabin for his growing family on a grassy knoll and he named his house Wildwood. Additionally, he built a grist mill along the Piney Creek, for the many families he believed would eventually settle in the area.

His family did continue to grow filling up Wildwood; he had six sons and one daughter with his first wife Amelia Neville Craig who passed away shortly after giving birth to his daughter Emma Jane. Emma also passed away at the age of three. Beckley remarried Jane B. Rapp and had three more children, two sons and his beloved daughter Maria Elizabeth. Maria lived her entire life at Wildwood, but sadly, it was a life cut short; she died in her mid-twenties.

When the Civil War erupted, Alfred Beckley returned to military service, and along with at least five of his sons fought for the Confederate State of America. Alfred was never a proponent of secession, but he felt a duty and loyalty to his home state of Virginia. In 1861, Beckley was in charge of the 12th Brigade of the Virginia militia, a troop soon after condemned for their lack of motivation. Beckley resigned his commission in early 1862, and he returned home to Union-occupied territory. His family feared for his life as Union officers in the area were determined to prove Beckley’s connection to the Confederacy.

Alfred’s wife took matters into her own hands and put every paper she could find linking her husband to the south in a trunk and buried it deep in the cemetery near her house. Nevertheless, the commanding officer, one Rutherford B. Hayes, caught wind of the location of the trunk and dug it up. Beckley surrendered and was arrested despite his claims of being pro-union. Beckley was sent to a unique Union prison in Wheeling, West Virginia. 

In 1853, The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad reached Wheeling, Virginia, a town on the verge of major growth. As the railroad came, many structures were erected in the Wheeling area. One such building was a warehouse built on what was then the corner of Market Street and John Street. The bottom floors of this warehouse were used in conjunction with the railroad, but the top floor was a theater known as the Athenaeum. The theater had a large stage, dressing rooms, and balconies making it, according to a newspaper reviewer, the best theater between the Allegheny Mountains and Chicago. 

Actors first took to the stage in January 11, 1855. Many famous productions were performed on this stage, and many renowned actors traveled to perform here, among them Miss Maggie Mitchell and Mr. Edwin Booth. In November 1856, one production was so popular that it ran for seven days straight with a matinee performance on Saturday for women and children. It was Uncle Tom’s Cabin and it played every night to a full house. 

from Wheeling Daily Intelligencer
Actor Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth

The coming of the Civil War brought changes for the building, as it was commandeered by the United States government to be used as a Union prison for Confederate spies, captured soldiers, and citizens who had refused to take an Oath of allegiance to the United States. Prisoners were taken to the second floor, but soon the third-floor theater was commandeered as well. Cells were constructed on the stage and dressing rooms were converted to house prisoners as well. The prison was often crowded leading to many prisoner stays cut short. They were often transferred to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio. 

It was here, in the Athenaeum, that Alfred Beckley was imprisoned despite his family history and despite his assertions that he was not a secession supporter. He tried to convince the Union commanders that he had broken all ties with the South, but it was to no avail. Beckley like many of his fellow prisoners was sent to Camp Chase in Ohio, before being released on June 18, 1862. The Athenaeum prison was ordered closed in 1865, and the theater never recovered after the military possession during the Civil War. On October 10, 1868, the Athenaeum caught fire and was completly destroyed. The loss was said to equal $150,000, making it the largest fire in Wheeling up to that point. After a short 14 year life, the Athenaeum faded into obscurity. Today Wheeling residents sit in a small park on the site of the once-famous theater prison, unaware of the history long gone.

After his release, Alfred Beckley traveled back to his wilderness reprieve in the town that he named Beckley in honor of his father. He would serve many positions there all in an effort to grow his small town. He lived the rest of his life at Wildwood, passing away on his 86th birthday in 1888. 

His legacy was not lost as time went by for the town of Beckley did indeed grow. Today it is the county seat of Raleigh County, and one of the biggest cities in the state of West Virginia. The remnants of Alfred’s grist mill can still be found along Piney Creek for those who dare to search. And, his beloved home of Wildwood still stands where Beckley planted roots on a knoll in the middle of town.

Today, the house is full of wonderful artifacts that tell the story of the Beckley family. John James Beckley’s table from his law office sits in the center of a room across from the parlor. It is said that it was on this desk that John James Beckley signed his name to the Bill of Rights and other important documents from the founding of this country. 

John Beckley signature on the Bill of Rights

A large piano sits in the parlor of Wildwood. It was bought in New York for Maria, Alfred’s youngest child and most beloved daughter. It was brought to the state by train and to Wildwood by ox-cart. Another piano was bought for Alfred’s granddaughter. These two pianos were the first in the county. Kitchen-ware used by the family slave is still set atop the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Alfred’s first wife, Amelia’s wedding dress is on display at the house, as well as a large bookcase and books all original to Wildwood. And lastly, the trunk that was once buried in the cemetery to hide crucial incriminating documents now sits as the centerpiece in an upstairs bedroom ready to tell the tale it bears. 

Wildwood today welcomes dozens of visitors to its doors. It is run as a museum by the city of Beckley and the Raleigh County Historical Society. Visitors can experience life as settlers in a seemingly vast wilderness during the decades preceding and following the American Civil War. 

As it once was, so Wildwood still stands – resilient, immune to the progress of time. Open the doors of this beautiful log structure covered in white clapboard and you will hear the tales of men and women who lived extraordinary lives. From one indentured eleven-year-old boy to a Civil War General and a theater turned prison, all of these stories are linked together in this one house. A 184 -year-old home that is dying to tell you its story. 

There is much more to learn at Wildwood of the house and the Beckley family. For all explorers and history buffs alike, take a trip to southern West Virginia to visit the beautiful Wildwood house.

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2 thoughts on “Wildwood: A Prisoner’s Paradise

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  1. Thank you for posting this. Would you know if Alfred Beckley also owned or operated a trading post? I seem to remember mention of a ledger for such and I am curious to know if it still exists and is accessible. It would be interesting to know what my ancestors purchased in the store. And a distant cousin, John Lilly Sr. was the person who built Wildwood.


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