Metal theft is running rampant these days, but in May, Brian Caldwell had an unusual chunk of steel lifted from his property: a 12-pound Hotchkiss shell, fired into the side of his Petersburg row house in 1865, where it had been sitting, unexploded, for 143 years. Thirty feet up the wall, it was a conversation piece, a tourist attraction, something to gawk at — and then one day it was gone, plucked from the wall by a relic hunter who wanted to add it to his personal collection.
Caldwell is a laid-back guy with a head of hair that looks like it was styled by field mice. A consulting optical engineer, he holds several patents and likes to get lost in the technical stuff. He's a particular guy, and along with his wife, Margaret Burns, a filmmaker, he has a soft spot for ailing 18th- and 19th-century structures.
"Some people take in stray dogs and cats," said Caldwell, talking over the phone after the theft. "We take in old buildings."
The West Bank Street row house was on the market for $16,000 in the winter of 2003, which was about the season when all hope in Petersburg had been completely exhausted. The building had a hole in the roof and looked crumbled and spent, like the last decaying tooth in a drunkard's mouth. "I knew if I didn't do something about it, it'd be on the ground in a year," Caldwell said, adding, "Yes, it was cool that there was this historic artifact buried in the side of it."
You couldn't exactly call the Hotchkiss an amenity: The thing looked like a big, threatening brass bullet, 6 inches long and 3 inches in diameter. More worrisome, it still carried its explosive charge. Caldwell's Hotchkiss was one of more than 60,000 shells of all shapes and sizes fired on the town by Union troops during the final siege of Petersburg. Relic hunters still find them buried in the dirt, on construction sites, in open fields, but eyeballing one in plain sight is about as a rare as running into Robert E. Lee in line for lottery tickets.
A day or two before the theft, a local contractor says that he told Timothy Clary about the Hotchkiss in the wall. That Saturday, it's alleged that Clary woke early, then hustled to Petersburg from his home in Chester with a 40-foot ladder strapped to his truck.
The time was 8:30 a.m. — a pretty quiet time of day in half-abandoned Old Town. Burns says she drifted by in her own truck at the very moment Clary was prying the shell from her home. She pulled over and, realizing what was happening, scratched out his license-plate number and grabbed for her phone.
In the ensuing hours, the cops made their way to Clary's Chester home, where they picked him up. Clary led the officers to a property on Flowerdew Hundred Road, where the shell was recovered. Caldwell and Burns drove up to identify their property, followed by a bomb squad interested in the same.
"I couldn't stop them," recalled Caldwell at the memory of what happened next. "This bomb-squad guy went out into the field. He dug a hole. He tried to disarm it." About the explosion, Caldwell said, "It was much, much bigger than I was expecting."
Impossibly, the Hotchkiss was still "live" as they say, the powder still dry after so many years in the weather. Generally speaking, the shells are 6 inches long and hollow, with 3/4-inch iron balls inside. They are designed to explode before impact, sending shrapnel in all directions for maximum destructive effect. By the time it was all over, Caldwell had the shattered remnants of his 143-year-old shell collected in a dog dish.
Local police had little choice in handling the matter. They've been edgy about vintage ordinance since February, when relic hunter Steven White — who, incidentally, was friends with Clary, according to The Progress-Index — made headlines for blowing himself up while at home trying to defuse another type of Civil War shell. The blast was heard for miles, and it sent pieces of shrapnel onto neighbors' porches a quarter-mile away. White didn't have a chance.
Upon his arrest Clary was charged with three felonies: destruction of property with intent, possession of explosives and grand larceny. Without their bomb, Burns and Caldwell felt the value of their building had been forever altered.
"As a separate artifact, it might not be worth very much," Caldwell said. A neighbor had shown him a price list, in fact, showing the Hotchkiss's value at around $200. But Caldwell felt the damage was much deeper. "As part of the lore of the town, how do you put a value on that? If you take the statue off the courthouse and sell it on eBay — how much is that worth? And where does that leave the city?"
Clary did not return calls and hung up on me at the first mention of the Hotchkiss theft. On July 17, he appeared in general district court, with Caldwell and Burns looking on. "Can you figure out what's going on in here?" Caldwell whispered in the courtroom as a steady stream of arraignments and prosecutions came before the bench.
After an hour, the case was called and the couple was coaxed into a small side room to negotiate with Clary's lawyer. A settlement was reached: The explosives charge and the destruction of property were dropped, but the larceny charge was not. The hearing was moved to circuit court and will be heard on Sept. 9.
Not long after, the building got a new bomb to go into the hole: Another local collector donated a defused Hotchkiss to the Bank Street building. Caldwell accepted it, though a bit reluctantly — explosive or not, he worries that a shell up there in the brick will forever make his building a target.