Centreville Day: Who Is Mrs. Spindle, Anyway?

Centreville Day: Who Is Mrs. Spindle, Anyway?

And why are pirates roaming around at Centreville Day?

Mrs. Spindle has become something of a Centreville Day mascot, but the Friends of Historic Centreville, who organize the event, have no idea who she really is. Her photograph was taken in March of 1862, days after the Confederate Army had left Centreville. The Union Army claimed the town. Travelling with them was photographer George Barnard who worked in Mathew Brady’s studio.

He took many photographs of Centreville and its environs, particularly sites related to the Battle of Manassas which had occurred a few months ago. Among Barnard’s photos is a picture of a Centreville family and their wagon piled high with household belongings.

Made into a carte de visite entitled “Departure from the Old Homestead, Centreville.” On the back of the card were lines from a poem by Oliver Goldsmith: “And trembling, shrinking from the spoilers hand/Far, far away, thy children leave the land.” In a later publication of the photograph the little family is described as Union sympathizers seeking sanctuary in the north.

Whether their sympathies were for the North or the South, for the Friends of Historic Centreville, the plain woman with a pipe clenched in her teeth and a determined look on her face represents the people of Centreville: working people who persevered in the face of sometimes overwhelming challenges, such as occupying armies. The buildings in the background resemble the Spindle house, located west of town, which was used by the Union Army as a hospital and photographed repeatedly by Barnard, hence the sobriquet “Mrs. Spindle.”

The pirates are from an earlier period, when Centreville was known as Newgate. A crossroads town built on the trade of travelers, Newgate boasted no seas to sail but it did have a number of taverns, beginning with the Newgate Inn built in the 1760s, Mount Gilead in 1785 (then named House at the Sign of the Black Horse), and Wapping in 1789. Wapping was owned by George Ralls, whom historian Eugenia Smith believed was Captain George Ralls, master of a schooner in the Virginia Navy during the Revolutionary War. He sailed as a “privateer,” a kind of quasi-legal piracy where Ralls could attack British merchant ships and claim whatever cargo they carried to be divided among himself, his crew, and the Virginia Navy. Unfortunately for Ralls, he wasn’t a very good pirate, and after being captured twice, he was invited to leave the Navy. He then moved to Newgate and opened Wapping, the name of an infamous slum on the London waterfront and perhaps a tip of the hat to Ralls’ piratical past. He lived the remainder of his life here and helped to transform Newgate into the new town of Centreville.