Since the apocalypse of 2012 was a no-show, I decided to bring a little doomsday out from the archives to celebrate the start of the New Year. Fretting over the Mayan calendar was the apocalypse du jour of 2012, but back in 1812, the doomsday prophecies of Nimrod Hughes created quite the stir in Southwest Virginia.
Nimrod Hughes came to our attention here in Local Records Services during the processing of the Roanoke County chancery causes. In an estate dispute, Fanny R. Johnston, etc. vs. Executor of Nathaniel Burwell, etc., 1880-044, Nathaniel Burwell stands accused of selling and hiring out slaves inherited by his wife Lucy from her father, Charles Carter. According to their marriage contract, any profits from a sale were to remain with Lucy Burwell’s dower, but Nathaniel Burwell allegedly sold the slaves for his own benefit to purchase some land. The outcome of the case hinged on the date the land was purchased, and here is where Nimrod Hughes comes into the story. Many of those deposed in the chancery cause remembered the date of purchase because it occurred on 4 June 1812—the day Hughes declared would see the destruction of mankind.
Confined to Abingdon prison on 4 June 1808 for a crime he “detested” and claimed to be completely innocent of, Nimrod Hughes spent the ten months and nine days of his imprisonment receiving “extraordinary visions” and “miraculous revelations” from God. After his release, Hughes released a pamphlet issuing a “solemn warning to all the dwellers upon earth” for he had seen the “commencement of that terrific and destructive storm… saw the gathering tempest, and heard its dreadful roarings.” Residents of Washington County deposed in the Roanoke County chancery suit claimed the declarations of Nimrod Hughes, “notorious as a pretended prophet,” “excited a good deal of apprehension… with the ignorant part of the community… but was the subject of derision with the better informed.” Regardless of their feelings toward the prophecies, those deposed all remembered where they were on the day the world was supposed to end.
Fortunately for all Virginians, 4 June 1812 “chanced to be a particularly fine and bright one” and passed with no signs of a destructive tempest. But Nimrod Hughes would not be completely defeated: he claimed that the outbreak of the War of 1812 and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia that same month were clear signs that his prophecy had not been so very wide of its mark.
The Roanoke County Chancery Causes, 1839-1918, as well as a copy of the pamphlet, Solemn warning to all the dwellers upon earth…, issued by Nimrod Hughes (Call Number BT875.H8 1811), are open for research and available at the Library of Virginia.
-Bari Helms, Local Records Archivist
Editors’ note: The Roanoke County chancery causes, 1839-1913, are now available to view online on the Chancery Records Index.