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.
Hughes bought and sold land in Washington County with many disputes resulting. He always lost when things went to court. He died a pauper and the commissioners of the poor had to pay for his coffin. His book was published in several places with one being in German and published in Abingdon. This information is the only indication that I have be able to find that shows the effects of his delusions. There was no local paper in Abingdon at the time.
Thanks for commenting and giving us a little more information on Hughes!
Nimrod Hughes had descendants with his wife, Agnes, including a daughter Elizabeth, through whom he had an eldest grandson, Nimrod Hughes Daughtry, who was in possession of Hughes’ papers at the time of his own death. Nimrod Daughtry’s son William, a medical doctor who also served as a state medical commissioner, postmaster, and as a lieutenant of artillery during the Civil War, caused them to be preserved with his library. From an examination of his correspondence, it appears Hughes was truly convinced of his visions or at least represented that to be the case to those closest to him. He moderated his point of view to allow for the simultaneous commencements of hostilities in the War of 1812 between America and Great Britain and Napoleon’s invasion of the Russian Empire within only days of the date of his published predictions constituting the calamity about which he had received the “visions.” His papers also show he reflected extensively on whether he imagined what he preached rather than received visions and rejected that possibility based upon the occurrence of the two wars and other happenings of the same time. In contrast to obituaries published following his death on September 4, 1845 that suggested he had no “special education,” he had been educated at the College of Hampden Sydney, Virginia.