Illustration by Victoria Borges
Richmond’s First Mayor, William Foushee
The ratification of Richmond’s charter as a city occurred on May 6, 1782, and on July 2, the first municipal election among white men of property put forth 12 representatives to serve as the “Body Corporate.” The next day, they selected physician William Foushee as mayor.
Foushee was a descendant of French Huguenots who came to Virginia in 1699. John and Winifred Foushee settled in Northumberland County; William was born on Oct. 26, 1749.
He apprenticed in medicine in Norfolk and then attended the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He returned to practice in Norfolk, where he married Elizabeth Isabella Harmanson (or Harminson, depending on documentation). By 1777, the Foushees had moved to Richmond. He served as a physician and pharmacist to the Revolution’s soldiers.
In spring 1779, a combined group of British and German prisoners, mainly officers, arrived in Richmond. They came from Gen. John Burgoyne’s army, which had surrendered Oct. 17, 1777, at Saratoga, N.Y. Some 4,000 of them were first interned in Massachusetts, then a long, harrowing march had taken them to Charlottesville. According to a parole agreement, the captives could reside within a 100-mile radius of Charlottesville. After two years, many of these men were shoeless and penniless, and hadn’t received a change of clothing.
Thomas Jefferson entertained some of these British officers at Monticello, and the ranking Virginia gentlemen followed his lead. As pointed out by Harry M. Ward and Harold E. Greer Jr. in Richmond During the Revolution, the hope was that such gracious hospitality would encourage these individuals to drop out of the war. Foushee, a young man of means, joined the plan. His apparent courtesies to hated British officers ignited ire in the heart of one street tough, who assaulted the doctor. Like others of his kind, he’d grown a thumbnail long and hardened it over a candle to make it a weapon for eye-gouging and testicle-cutting.
A bystander, Lt. Thomas Anburey, related how Foushee’s attacker “flew at him, and in an instant had turned his eye out of the socket, and while [it] hung upon his cheek, the fellow was barbarous enough to endeavor to pluck it entirely out, but was prevented.”
Foushee must’ve recovered — eye, solicitous character and all else intact. He advertised that, despite the rising cost of everything, he still charged the same five shillings for a daytime doctor visit. He accepted payment in commodities, tobacco and cash — but, he added, “the indigent, or those whose circumstances may render it necessary to make an abatement, they will be attended to as formerly.”
Historian Samuel Mordecai described Foushee as “a gentleman of fine personal appearance and deportment, and a favorite physician with the ladies, who said his visits were restoratives without the aid of medicine …. This calm and sunshine which distinguished his medical character, could be changed to storm and thunder in his political one.”
According to the 1782 tax census, then-31-year-old Foushee owned six slaves, two cows, three horses and two vehicles. He and Elizabeth Foushee, 25, are listed as the parents of three children: John, 6; Nancy, 3; and Charlotte, 6 months. There would ultimately be four more: William Jr., Margaret, Elizabeth and Isabella. Mordecai said that Foushee’s Main Street residence (on the site of the 1936 Parcel Post building/Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals annex) “contained some rare attractions, which caused it to be a favorite resort of the beaux, who called it the home of the Graces,” referring to Foushee’s five daughters. Mordecai himself wrote poetry in appreciation for one of the girls, whom he did not marry. The girls married into the business community and aristocracy. Isabella wed Thomas Ritchie, the influential founder of the Richmond Enquirer.
Through Ritchie, Foushee became a member of the “Richmond junto.” The group of some 20 prominent men, interrelated by blood or matrimony, formed a pro-Jeffersonian shadow government after the Revolution that advocated state’s rights and attempted, sometimes successfully, to manipulate affairs.
Foushee was kept busy by his civic-mindedness and, perhaps, ambition. He was extraordinarily well-connected in a city, by 1800, of 6,000 people — a population that could fit comfortably in The Diamond baseball park today. He was a trustee for the Richmond Academy and a founding director in 1793 of the Bank of Richmond. In 1785, when George Washington declined the presidency of the James River Navigation Co. that built and ran the canal system, Foushee accepted; he held that position for 33 years. Foushee represented Richmond in the General Assembly in 1791 and from 1797 to 1799, and then served on the governor’s council of state, before returning to the assembly as a representative of Henrico County from 1806 to 1808.
In 1808, President Jefferson appointed Foushee as Richmond postmaster. When Foushee seemed to be on his deathbed, a Richmond office-seeker thinking him actually deceased journeyed to Washington to inquire about the vacant postmaster position. But the careerist returned to find Foushee alive and convalescing. In 1819, Foushee built a gristmill on the James River near today’s Texas Beach that was later owned by his son-in-law Ritchie, and ruined by an 1832 flood. Today, only parts of the walls remain.
The doctor died at home on Aug. 21, 1824. He is buried at Shockoe Hill Cemetery.