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The Metropolitan Police Department, District of Columbia:
Law, Crime and Policing in the District 1790 - 1900

Introduction: Law enforcement in the District of Columbia has a long and fascinating history. What follows is a brief summary of the District’s efforts to transform a small constabulary into and effective Metropolitan Police Department and control crime during its first hundred years. This summary is drawn largely from Richard Sylvester’s 1894, District of Columbia Police, A Retrospective of the Police Organization of the Cities of Washington and Georgetown and the District of Columbia with Biographical Sketches. Sylvester as Chief Clerk of the Metropolitan Police, and a trained journalist was fortunate to have access to police records and the recollection of serving police officers. Richard Sylvester knowledge and competence served his Department well and he was made Chief of Police serving the longest tenure, 1898 -1915. Sylvester’s work is important and candid, for Sylvester notes problems as well as triumphs and this is particularly valuable since at the time was writing, there were still officers on the force, who had entered on duty, in 1862 with the creation of the new Metropolitan Police. Sylvester’s work preserves for historians, and genealogist the names, and biographies of hundreds of early officers plus many unique photos. In addition, I have transcribed Washington D.C. newspaper accounts from National Intelligencer, Critic – Record, Washington Bee and other District papers regarding early policing practices, court actions, jail conditions and criminals. Please remember that many of the historical documents and quoted excerpts posted here were created during the nineteenth century and reflect prevalent attitudes and language used at the time. Modern works consulted are listed in the bibliography.

This article is respectfully dedicated to the Metropolitan Police Department, District of Columbia, Police Officers past and present.


John G. Sharp Concord, Ca.

April 2, 2010


Beginnings: When the District of Columbia, was founded on July 16, 1790, it was a federal district as specified by in the United States Constitution. The U.S. Congress retained ultimate authority over the District of Columbia, though it delegated limited local rule to the municipal government. The early limits on local rule meant that Congress, not the District government had final jurisdiction over all things legal and the enforcement powers of the District government remained narrow and restricted to what the Congress thought appropriate. Since the land forming the original District came from the states of Virginia and Maryland, when the District of Columbia came into being by necessity and with Congressional approval, it relied on neighboring States, for its legal precedents especially statutes and law enforcement. The District legal system was for the most part modeled on that of Maryland. The first peace officers in the new District of Columbia were county constables appointed by Prince Georges County Maryland and for Georgetown, constables appointed by Montgomery County Maryland.


The Constables 1802 -1842:

In 1802, Congress granted the city, a charter, which gave general policing authority to the District Mayor and city Corporation. The city quickly established a night watch or patrols. Mayor Robert Brant (1802 -1812) on September 20, 1803 created the first Superintendent of Police at a salary of $ 150 per annum, and four constables one for each of the District’s (then) four wards. The early constables worked part-time largely and although conceived as a night watch to make rounds, looking for sign of fire or criminal activity. They rarely ventured out at night. Constables were instructed to look for signs or meetings of “disorderly persons” any such individuals who were apprehended on the streets after 10 o’clock were to be jailed till a magistrate decided their fate, usually a fine. In the case of slaves however the fines were against the slave owner. The owner could have the fine remitted, minus fifty cents, for having a slave whipped by a constable at a public whipping post. Constables could earn supplemental income by the act of October 19, 1818, which allowed fifty cents for each whipping inflicted on a slave who had been adjudged guilty of violating an act of the corporation. Control of the District’s large and growing African American population was specifically mentioned in a growing body of law, opinion and regulations. See the District of Columbia Slave Code .


A shelter and meeting house for constables and place to keep prisoners became a necessity. By 1813 a watch house with jail was built in each ward of the city these were to confine,” vagrants, free negro’s etc.” The lockups or watch houses were primitive structures usually made of plank or log construction. These buildings were small ten or twelve feet and had but one entrance a door with iron bars on the top panel, to admit, a very limited amount of light an air for those unfortunate enough to be incarcerated. These early jails were not always secure, as in the case of enslaved prisoner, James AKA John Grant AKA Abraham Shorter, who escaped from Washington City Jail, 4 May 1804 (Washington Federalist, August 15, 1804) and Major Robert Bailey confined for debt in 1818 with the help of a fellow prisoner, a stone mason, removed some stone from the walls, and made his escape (City of Washington Gazette, August 7, 1818).


During the day, District constables inspected flour, the licenses of “hawkers and peddlers” they also inspected taverns and “tippling houses. “ Licenses for dogs became a requirement in 1820 and the Constables were ordered to enforce this new measure. Vagrant hogs and livestock which according to visitors wandered about freely were also to be rounded up and sold if found creating a public nuisance. The city constabulary increased over time as the population grew and the city expanded into sixth ward and by 1830 there were two constables allotted to each ward. Each constable salary was fixed at $50 per year.


First Hanging in the District: The first case for murder was tried the same year when James Mc Girk, an Irish immigrant bricklayer was tried in April 1802 in the Federal Circuit Court for the murder of his wife. McGirk was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. After various appeals including an attempt to gain a presidential pardon McGirk was hung from a gallows on October 10, 1802. The temporary gallows was erected at the foot of Capitol Hill. Large crowds attended the day of his execution and after the first attempt to hang Mc Girk, failed, a second try was made, and a new rope placed around his neck. McGirk then jumped from the gallows and snapped his neck. The crowd rapidly gathered around his corpse to gain bits of the hangman rope which were widely believed to cure head ache and tooth ache. Washington Federalist, April 14, 1802 and November 23, 1802. The last hanging open to the general public was that of Charles Guiteau, hanged on June 30, 1882, before a crowd of 4,000. Guiteau had shot President James A. Garfield twice in the back on July 2, 1881.


Imprisonment for Debt: Another aspect of early Washington DC was the prevalence of imprisonment for debt. All over American debt was considered a serious crime, and consequently law enforcement officials were legally bound to arrest and secure debtors in the city prison. Merchants and landlords due money could for a small fee, go to court and gain a court order to place the alleged debtor in prison until he or she satisfied the creditor. City constables typically were paid a fee for serving the process papers, and were responsible for escorting the alleged debtor, to the city prison. An 1802, report by the Marshall depicts city jail as grim place, the number of individuals confined for debt far out numbered those in the prison for criminal activities. The amount of those in jail concerned President Thomas Jefferson enough to make inquiries as to their number and condition. Like a character out Charles Dickens Bleak House or Pickwick Papers, jailed debtor Charles Neal, (See list of Debtors in Washington County Jail, 1802.) remained in jail for a debt of $ 1, 68. Neal’s prospects were not good, District Marshall, Daniel Brent, informed the President that after a few days in the Washington County Jail indebtedness actually increased as charges were accessed for room and provisions per diem, consequently Mr. Neal and others were even more indebted then when they entered the jail.

The Force in 1836, the District Constables, consisted of twelve officers and two clerks. The Constables were: F.B. Poston and John Dewdney, first ward, John Waters and J.W. Dexter second ward, R. R, Burr, J.M, Wright, and Horatio R. Merryman, third ward, T, J. Barnett and R. Barrett, forth ward, John Magar fifth , Ignatius Howe, sixth ward. A seventh ward position was created and filed with W.H. McLean, to look after “the Island.’ There were also two clerks assigned to the market and the fish wharf at 3rd Street Southeast.


The District constabulary remained small for a city of its size; in 1830, the total population of the Washington, was: 39, 834. The night watch and foot patrols were rarely seen except in periods of purported slave unrest, such as the Nat Turner Rebellion, of 1831, and the so called, “Snow Riot,” of 1835. Such alarms let to periodic demands for increases in night patrols and the passage of Draconian laws, to restrict the rights of blacks, free and enslaved to meet or assemble.


The District of Columbia, Auxiliary Guard 1842 -1862:

John Goddard

[Captain John H. Goddard, leader of the Auxilary Guard ( image circa 1865)]

 In early in 1842 during the Administration of President John Tyler, members of his own Whig party, in opposition to some of his policies marched passed the White House, in a loud and unruly procession. Someone in the march splattered black paint on the White House and an intoxicated printer, threw a rock at the striking the President. The rock thrower was promptly arrested and Tyler sent a note requesting his release. But Congress alarmed that such events had occurred decided that the District of Columbia needed a more organized and effective law enforcement group to ensure peace and harmony.

Congress authorized the creation of the Auxiliary Guard under the direction of a captain to be appointed by the District Mayor. Mayor, William W. Seaton 1840 -1850, appointed John H. Goddard, a successful businessman, and member of the Board of Aldermen, to lead the new Auxiliary Guard. Goddard was to have a salary set at $ 1,000 per annum and the rank of Captain. In addition he was allowed fifteen officers with salaries ten at $ 30 per month and five officers at $ 35 per month. The new Auxiliary Guard were uniformed with brass buttons with A.G. embossed on them they wore grey caps with the same letters on them and were armed with a large hickory stick with an iron spearhead. The weapon could be thrown but was more commonly used to pry open doors or threaten malefactors (The Star, January 3, 1859). Goddard finest hour was in 1848 when he led a force that detained and stopped armed rioters, members of the American or “Know Nothing Party” wrecking an election. About 1500 people had converged at the scene despite pleas from the Mayor the crowd anger only increased. Finally a section of Marines from the Navy Yard arrived and with the Police told the crowd to disperse. Shots were fired one Marine was hit in the face and the order was given to fire into the crowd six persons were killed and a number severely wounded. For his action Captain Goddard was award a medal by the city. That same year, Goddard, led a detachment of the Guard, which intervened to halt the destruction of the offices of newspaper National Era edited by abolitionist Gamaliel Bailey. The paper had been attacked by pro-slavery mobs bend on destroying the building. .


The Auxiliary Guard was the first to engage in active night time patrols. The Guard went on duty each night at 9 in the evening. They assembled at one of the Watch Towers and received their instructions. Each night, those on watch were to strike a bell in the Preservation Fire Company, Fire House at 9, 10 and 12 in the evening and again at 4 the next morning. The Guard was directed to be on the lookout for robberies, and incendiary fires. They were also responsible for strict enforcement of liquor licenses and Sunday closing ordnances. There is some anecdotal evidence that the presence of the Guard led to a gradual decline in crime. Crimes by juveniles on the other hand appear to have increased. Mayor William Seaton, five years after the Guard was established reflected: “ I believe there is no place of equal population in which there is so little of riot, breach of the peace or serious crime as in this city; I apprehend that there is scarcely one which is more disturbed by rowdy and disorderly boys.” An example of the type of youthful crime that led to citizen alarm and newspaper outcry was reported in the Daily National Intelligence of November 21, 1839.

Washington, November 20, Joseph N. Pearson, James Skidmore and James Ellis were indicted and tried for riotous attack upon a Washington Fire Company, on 1 October 1839, when that company had arrived at Georgetown to render assistance during an alarm of fire, Mr. W. L. Brent was counsel for the defendants. The Jury found Person not guilty and James Skidmore and James Ellis guilty recommending however, to the mercy of the Court. His honor Judge Dunlop, in passing sentence upon these boys, dwelt upon the heinousness of offense and the necessity of restraining such conduct by severe punishment – justly remarking that if the fire companies, who kindly came forward to assist neighbors in distress were not properly protected by the law against riotous and disorderly persons, it would be in vain hereafter to look to firemen for assistance. In consideration, however of the youth of the defendants, their being orphans, and especially of the recommendation to mercy by the Jury the Court would sentence each of the defendants to pay a fine of $ 5, and give security in $ 100 for twelve months. Security being given, the defendants were both discharged.

These young men were fortunate the Jury recommended mercy as the District had no separate juvenile facility and young offenders were placed in the jail with the general population in unsafe and squalid conditions. For conditions in the city jail see below.

The Auxiliary Guard & African American Community: The Districts black community, had reason to distrust the Guard. The legal system disenfranchised blacks. In the District as in other municipalities North and South blacks could not vote or hold any public office nor were blacks allowed to serve on juries, or give testimony against whites. Each evening, the 10 o’clock bell was the signal for all the African Americans free or enslaved to be off the streets unless they had a special pass. The punishment for any infraction of this rule was arrest, fine and or flogging with “ten lashes well laid on” The District of Columbia whipping post was located in the Guard House and sometime administers in the jail near the North East corner of Judiciary Square. Everywhere in America laws protecting slave-owners property and their right to reclaim escape slaves prevailed. As in many cities a duty and responsibility of law enforcement was to help recapture runaway slaves. Consequently the Auxiliary Guard spent considerable time assisting slaveholders track and recapture their escaped slaves. They were also responsible for the apprehension of any person black or white assisting their flight. Thomas Smallwood a free Blackman, who worked at the Washington Navy Yard, helped many slaves escape to the North. Smallwood later wrote of his encounter with the Guard and Goddard.

My house was surrounded early on the night proceeding the morning I was to start with my family, by the watch, and Goddard, their Captain at their head. I was seated in the front door when a police man with whom I was acquainted came to me and said, "Thomas I have been instructed in consequence of information that you intend starting for Canada with some slaves to come and search your house, I invited him to do so, after doing so he left the inside of the house but did not leave the premises until searching the house a second and third time, the last of which the blackguard Goddard came in and said, "Smallwood, I understand you are going off to Canada and intend to take slaves with you." He then proceeded to examine those in the house as to whether they were chattels or free negroes; there were ten or twelve persons present in the house at the time preparing to leave for Canada the next morning, and take a final leave of such beautiful scenes of republican freedom. It is true that I had another slave woman concealed in my house and for whom I for sometime had been trying to make a way of escape, but I had no intention of taking this woman or any other slaves with me, for I had made arrangements with confidential friends to take and keep her until a way of escape could be made. But to get her out of the house unperceived was a matter of great importance. However, that was speedily accomplished by some females, who took her through a back door into the garden, and concealed her in some corn.

Narrative of Thomas Smallwood (Colored Man), James Stephens: Toronto, 1851.33.

Smallwood was both daring and exceptionally lucky in managing to elude the Goddard and the Guard as the vast majority of black escapees were caught and returned to slavery. Slave caught and not reclaimed were sold by the City Marshall who was obligated to sell runaways after a certain prescribed period as in this advertisement by Marshall, Trench Ringgold in the Daily National Intelligencer dated May 26, 1828.


For Sale

Will be sold at the Jail of Washington county, in the District of Columbia, on Tuesday the 24th of June next, for his jail fees and other expenses, a negro man by the names John Blackston; he is 5 feet 6 inches high, about 45 yrs of age, has a large scar above the left eye an I much pitted with the small pox, had on when committed , old fur hat, old blue jacket, linen trousers, and coarse shoes; says he is free by Comm. Bailey.

Sale to commence at 12’ o’clock. Terms of sale cash

Trench Ringgold

Marshall D.C

For more on how the Auxiliary Guard was viewed by the black community, see Bryan Prince’s A Shadow on the Household: One Enslaved Family's Incredible Struggle for Freedom One Incredible Family’s struggle for Freedom ( Emblem Editions 2010.38-39). Prince’s history, chronicles the story of John Weems, a freeman and Weens heroic efforts to help his family escape the Auxiliary Guard and of slavery.

Sylvester reports during first two weeks in operation forty six people were arrested., twenty eight of them Black, and 18 white, of these 11 were punished 9 of these sent to the District Workhouse and two enslaved men flogged.. Those apprehended by the Guard for criminal offenses, were jailed and quickly brought before the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia. Typical of the charges and sentences are reported in the Daily National Intelligencer during this era is the following:

January 19, 1838

John Leland, convicted of sealing sundry articles of jewelry, above the value of $5, the property of William Huseman, of the City of Washington. Prisoner sentenced to be imprisoned in the Penitentiary at hard labor, for the space of two years. The same prisoner having been convicted of sealing sundry articles of wearing apparel, the property of John Dix and William Dant, was further sentenced to be imprisoned in the Penitentiary, at hard labor for a period of two-years.

June 28, 1838

Joseph Lafontaine indicted for altering a two dollar –note of the Franklin Bank of Delaware, so as to change its appearance to twenty dollars, and sentenced to be imprisoned in the penitentiary for the space on one years commencing 21 July next.

Julia Jackson, free colored women, found guilty of stealing one bonnet, of the value of $1, 50. One bombazine frock, of the value of $3. One pink satin frock value of $4, and various other articles of Ana Lee. The same prisoner was also found guilty of stealing one bonnet, of the value of $1,one cloak of the value of 50 cents, and sundry things of Eliza Leatherbury. Jackson was sentenced to be imprisoned in the penitentiary for the space of one year, for the first offence and for her second offense.

October 29, 1839

Nicholas Fagan, indicted and found guilty of an assault and battery on William Frazier, Fagan was sentenced to a fine of ten dollars.

George Bowen, free negro, indicted and found guilty of keeping a house of ill fame in the city of Washington, was sentenced to pay a fine of twenty five dollars, and to give security for his good behavior, for twelve months, and to stand committed till the security be given.

Ann Sheckels, indicted and found guilty of keeping a house of ill fame in the City of Washington, was sentenced to a pay a fine of fifty dollars, to give security in two hundred dollars for her good behavior and to stand committed until security is given.

Ann Foy, alias Ann O’Neal, indicted for stealing two dozen eggs, one handkerchief, an apron, a basket, the property of Sarah Walker. Evidence was adduced to show that the prisoner was at the time of her committing this offense (in the Centre Market of this City) in a state of mental insanity. The jury found O’Neal not guilty.

Two Famous Murder Cases: During the 1850's, scholars note that crime in the District of Columbia was on the rise. In the spring of 1856 two Washington Navy Yard Blacksmith Department employees became tragically caught up in one of the cities more celebrated murders. On May 15th 1856, John Rufus Nally, age 20, laborer and Daniel W. Jarboe, age 22, blacksmith were returning to the navy yard to from their lunch. Witnesses later testified Jarboe was much agitated and was carrying a five shot pistol as he escorted his pregnant 18 year old sister, Sarah Jane to meet to confront John Nally near 9th street. There he questioned Nally over his alleged failure to marry his sister. The story of the crime and the trial was dramatic and widely covered in the local and national newspapers.

Daniel Jarboe's subsequent explanation, that he shot John R. Nally, to avenge his wronged sister and satisfy her honor resulted in his acquittal. The verdict was a popular one and Daniel Jarboe returned to work at the Yard and continue as a blacksmith. Jarboe's defense was one of the first in the United States to successfully use the state of mind of the accused as a mitigating factor in the formation of intent.

Marriage Certificate of Sarah Jarboe submitted by A Friend of Free Genealogy

Death Certificate of Sarah Jarboe submitted by A Friend of Free Genealogy

This defense became settled law three years later after the District’s most notable murder. That case was the 1859 murder of Philip Barton Key by Congressman, Daniel Sickles. Philip Barton Key April 5, 1818 – February 27, 1859, was a United States Attorney, for the District of Columbia. Key was shot and killed by the man whom he cuckolded, Daniel Sickles. Sickles defended himself by adopting the defense used by Jarboe that of “temporary insanity.” The notoriety of these cases, especially, that of Key, because of the social status of the two men, gave great prominence to temporary insanity as a defense in the United States. Both cases reflect the wide prevalence of firearms, the readiness to use them and the contemporary opinion that condoned violence to uphold family honor

The Metropolitan Police 1862 -1900

Richard Sylvester

[Richard Sylvester, Chief of Police, who served the longest tenure as Chief, 1898 -1915. Sylvester wrote the now classic 1894, District of Columbia Police, A Retrospective of the Police Organization of the Cities of Washington and Georgetown and the District of Columbia with Biographical Sketches He had earlier served as Chief Clerk of the Metropolitan Police, and was a trained journalist.  Engraving of Chief Richard Sylvester, from the Sunday Morning Globe Washington D.C. dated September 22, 1901 . ]

The brawling and rioting of the 1840’s and 1850’s finally led American cities to establish police departments: Boston, in 1837; New York in 1845, and Philadelphia, 1854. For Washington D.C. though the Civil War served as a catalyst. The Metropolitan Police System was authorized by President Abraham Lincoln who appointed Zanas C. Robbins, a prominent Washington DC businessman, its first Police Commissioner. The President urged Robbins to visit the City of New York and study their police system and methods. After conducting a review of the New York Police force Robbins, returned to Washington and began to put in place many of the ideas and practices he thought applicable to the District. William B. Webb Sept. 1861 - Nov. 1864 was appointed the first Chief of Police. Shortly thereafter, qualifications for membership in the Metropolitan Police force were published and henceforth all applicants would have to:

  • Able to read and write the English language.

  • Citizen of the United States.

  • A resident of the District for two years preceding their appointment.

  • Never convicted of a crime.

  • At least five feet six inches in height

  • Not over forty five years of age or under twenty five years of age at the time of their appointment.

  • Good health and sound mind.

  • Good moral character.

The Size of the New Force: The new force began with one hundred and fifty officers and ten police sergeants. The Superintendent of Police was paid $1,500 annually with sergeants earning $600 and patrolmen $480.A trial period of not less then thirty days and not more then sixty was mandated to test applicant adaptability and loyalty. Loyalty, especially to the Union, was foremost on the mind of many in the first year of the Civil War. The new police uniforms were navy blue coats with rolling collars. The coats had police buttons and each officer was to wear a badge. The police uniforms typically had a leather pocket sewed into the front of the officer’s coat for revolvers. Officers appear to have bought their pistols and each carried strong wooden clubs their primary weapon to subdue the unruly. .

The Civil War The population of Washington increased dramatically during the war years and criminal activity accelerated at an alarming rate. For the new police the biggest challenge was the principal unruly subjects during the war years were Union soldiers. Many young soldiers coming from Northern cities were unfamiliar with the District and resent the openly pro southern sentiments vocalized by many of its residents. Union regiments returning from the battle or field duty were prone to nightly carousing. Heavy drinking in local saloons and taverns invariably led to fights and sometimes violent brawls. Police officers who were often called to break up such fights were frequently met by active and violent resistance and the refusal of Army officers and noncommissioned officers to arrest men in their units. Eventually the District was able to work out arrangements, where soldiers who were arrested would be turned over the military Provost Marshal. Still tension remained between military and civilian authorities. The war years were particularly difficult for the new force. Richard Sylvester recounts just how bad military - police relations, became and also provides a glimpse of the racism found in some Union regiments. :

September 4, 1862, about forty soldiers, the most of whom belonged to the 61st Pennsylvania regiment, became involved in a desperate encounter, near the corner of Seventh and M Streets, over a dispute with a peddler, who was knocked down and beaten by the soldiers. They followed up the assault by attacking persons whom they met. Officer Cook, who was on duty in that vicinity, found himself incapable of quelling the trouble alone, and communicated to officers C. Noonan and Robert Johnson on the neighboring beats. They quickly responded and on arrival upon the scene of the conflict, found the soldiers drunk and as riotous as ever, determined upon a war of extermination against the black. The police attempted to expostulate with the crowd, with a degree of success, but two or three soldiers pulled them about, drew their pistols and threatened to shoot, while the others were armed with bayonets and stones. Their patience exhausted Crook and Johnson endeavored to arrest one of the rioters, who tried to get away, when Johnson struck with his baton. The mob now greatly exasperated attacked the police with stone and Noonan expecting to frighten the soldiers fired his pistol in the air. The officers now becoming hard pressed and not desiring to cause bloodshed took to their heels. They were chased two or three squares and were badly bruised by the brick and stones showered upon them. The provost guard made their appearance about this time with the aide of Kelly, Mc Devitt, and others, succeeded in arresting about twenty – five or thirty of the principals in the riot, and dispersed the remainder. Stores were closedown windows and doors shut, so threatening was the affair for awhile.


Richard Sylvester District of Columbia Police p.245

City Crime: During the war, the city’s murder rate spiked, as did robbery and assault. In 1863 there were 24,000 arrests, which were three and half times the number in Brooklyn, a city, with more then twice the population. Prostitutes grew in numbers many entering in the city with the large influx of soldiers. By the autumn of 1862; the United States Army Provost Marshal, reported, that there were 450 officially registered bawdy houses in the District. Estimates of the number of prostitutes varied from a high of 15,000 to a lower estimate of around 5000. The largest number of houses of ill fame were located in what is today the Federal Triangle such establishments were given such monikers as “the Haystack”, the “Blue Goose”, “Fort Sumter”, :the Cottage by the Sea” and “Madame Russell’s Bake Oven”. In an 1864 report the US Army Provost Marshall actually rated these establishments with twenty one houses rated as first class. This Provost’s rating system was based on a sliding scale of excellence and expenditure with some DC bawdy houses as miserable as to rate below one star.

Some idea of the number and types of activity the new force dealt with can be gained from a listing of those charged before the Criminal Court in the Evening Union during the week of July 3, 1863.

Before Judge Fisher the following cases were disposed of:

In the case of Bushrod Reed, Patrick Keating, William Truxell, and Thomas Britt, indicted for assault and battery, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

Samuel Uber, Indicted for assault and battery, was convicted the sentenced to pay a fine of five dollars.

David Barnett, indicted for larceny of $428 from Adams Express Company, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year in the Albany Penitentiary. In a similar case a null prose, was entered. The Sentence is the lightest one Judge Fisher could impose, and was only done in view of the previous good character of Barnett.

Guarding the Presidents and Dignitaries Because of its presence in the federal city, the Metropolitan Police Department has played a unique role in history-making events of our nation. In 1865, when President Lincoln was assassinated, the young MPDC assisted the War Department's intensive investigations to locate the assassin, John Wilkes Booth. In 1881, the force was again involved in national tragedy when President James A. Garfield was shot at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Depot on B Street. An MPDC private seized the assassin before he escaped from the scene. Happier events such as the presidential and mayoral inaugurations, national parades, and the annual Metropolitan Police Department Parade gave the police an opportunity to show their professionalism and pride. Guarding the nation’s capitol made for some unique problems. Foreign governments and ministries are considered sovereign and their delegations and employees enjoy immunity from normal prosecutions. Even in 1892, Richard Sylvester complained of reckless embassy employees nearly running down hapless Washingtonians with their speeding carriages racing down Pennsylvania Avenue

Crowded Jails: Police arrests of civilians by the end of the war for minor crime were so frequent, that the city jails were full to overflowing. Imprisonment in the county jail, has been described as in itself a terrible punishment (Constance L. Green, Washington A History of the Capitol 1800-1950 p252.). At times ten men occupied a cell, eight by ten feet. The jail toilets consisted of one bucket in the corner. The Secretary of the Interior, described facility as little better then the black hole of Calcutta. Under a banner headline “Crowded Conditions of the Jail”, the Evening Union for October 10, 1865 informed its readers that there were now 249 prisoners in the jail. 45 of whom are females. Of this number 196 are awaiting trial for offenses the punishment of which is confinement in the penitentiary There are seven charged with murder, 124 grand larceny, 14 burglary, 11 highway robbery, 19 horse stealing, 4 picking pockets, 1 each for fraud, forgery, swindling, passing counterfeit money and poisoning; 8 assault and battery, 7 bawdy house [proprietors], 2 awaiting requisitions, 3 selling liquor with out license to soldiers, 3 in default of security to keep the peace.

Expansion of Police Duties. In 1862, the dramatic increase in population, let to breakdowns of the city’s primitive sewage and water systems. Faced with large outbreaks of smallpox and cholera the Congress mandated, that the Metropolitan Police, include sanitary inspections in their rounds and that they look specifically for what was euphemistically called the “abatement of nuisances” that is large deposits of animal and human waste and haft buried animal carcasses located in the vicinity of hospitals, schools and residences. Police Officers were instructed to inspect and cite violators. To help clear the streets the city paid large numbers of escaped slave’s “contrabands” to move the offal out in wagons each day and by the end of the war, the problem much reduced.

Early Police Officers Killed in the Line of Duty:

Officer Francis M. Doyle December 29, 1871 was shot in the right chest while trying to wrestle a revolver away from Mrs. Shea, who lived at the house where officers were trying to execute a search warrant to recover a stolen watch. Officer Doyle dies on the scene and Mrs. Shea was acquitted of murder, ruled an accidental shooting. Officer Doyle was the first officer killed in the line of duty from the Metropolitan Police Department, since it's beginning in 1861.

Officer John H. Fowler September 9,1884 while acting as a guard of a chain-gang, a prisoner John Langster escaped. Officer Fowler discovered Mr. Langster hiding in an outhouse and attempted to apprehend him. A fight ensued in which Officer Fowler was shot with his own gun and died in the street. John Langster was captured by Officer Boland, at 311 D Street, NE and charged with murder, and hanged.

Officer Americus N. Crippen, November 5, 1889, while on patrol near 11th street while outside a pool hall, George Bush shot a Mr. Massey three times and walked away. Officer Crippen heard the shots and ran to the scene in time to see George Bush fleeing up Eleventh Street. Officer Crippen was too fast for Bush, causing him to flee inside a saloon. Bush reloaded his revolver and fled upstairs with Officer Crippen in hot pursuit. As Bush reached the landing, he turned and shot Officer Crippen in the right chest. Although mortally wounded, Officer Crippen, found Bush, hiding in a room, and shot him twice. Tragically Officer Crippen died as result of his wounds, Mr. Massey, and his George Bush and all died from their wounds.

Sergeant Frederick M. Passau, , killed, while conducting a house search in upper Georgetown, on May 17, 1899, for a wanted double murderer. The suspect, Humphrey Taylor, hid in an attic while Passau passed by. Passau was shot twice in the back and killed. After hours in a barricade situation, Taylor finally surrendered.


Murder of Police Officer John Leach

Daily National Intelligencer

2 December 1862

Murder - On Sunday evening ,Mr. John Leach, of the Metropolitan police, endeavored to quell a disturbance in an alley between four and a half and Sixth Streets and while in the performance of this duty he was stabbed in the left side, which wound proving fatal. Coroner Woodward yesterday held and inquest over the body, and the jury rendered a verdict of death at the hands of John Little, aided and abetted by Wm. Swayne and Geo. Spates. They were committed to prison.


Baltimore Sun 2 December 1862 Four men named Wm. Lewayne, George Spates, John Morgan, and John Little, caused a disturbance last night in a notorious house in Marble alley, and officer Leach of the Metropolitan police, was called into arrest the offenders. In the melee, which ensued, Leach was mortally wounded in the abdomen by a butcher knife in the hands of Little, and is today at noon in a dying condition.  Lewayne , Morgan and Spates were arrested last night and Little gave himself up this morning.  All the parties to the assault have been committed to jail for a further hearing.


Baltimore Sun

3 December 1862

Officer Leach died yesterday afternoon from a wound inflicted upon him by John Little, in affray noticed yesterday. Little, acknowledges,  that he killed Leach, but says he did so, in self-defense. Leach was a valuable officer and much respected. The funeral will be attended by the whole police force.

Early African American Police Officers

Noah Sedgwick

[Police Officer, Noah E. Sedgwick. The engraving of Sedgwick is from the Washington Bee dated October 12, 1895. ]


In July, 1869, the Department swore in its first black officers, Charles C. Tillman and Calvin C. Caruthers. These appointments were largely made because black cops were thought would walk easier through the streets of black neighborhoods. Attitudes toward black police officers on the part of the white public and the District press in general were almost always hostile. White officers for the most part resented blacks on the force and often went out of there way to subject them to petty harassment and ridicule. On August 15, 1882, John Bailey, a black police officer, was castigated in Critic – Record for assuming a good deal of authority when he asked the reporters to move on and directed a mob of whites to disperse. The Critic reporter stated Officer Bailey was an “ignorant brute” and should not “allowed to remain on the force.” Despite the racism, of the public and their colleagues some African Americans, served and served with distinction. Even the normally hostile newspaper reporters of the Critic – Record, September 5, 1884, noted Officer Phillip Thompson‘s “courageous discharge of his duty” when in 1881, Thompson was blinded by kick to his head while breaking up violent altercation. Thompson died three years later as a result of his injuries

Cecily Hilleary’s has demonstrated this pattern of a lack of official support, combined with harassment by fellow officers hindered the careers and recruitment of Black police officers into the next decade. Hilleary examines the life and career of Officer Noah E. Sedgwick who had distinguished himself in the 1890’s in at least two sensational cases: In May, 1894, he made the newspapers by arresting the so-called “Candy Man,” pedophile Henry Windelberg. Windelberg attempted to lure two young girls away from Lincoln Park by promising them candy.

A year later, Sedgwick went unassisted to investigate the unreported death of an elderly woman at “Aunt” Hetty Green’s, a notorious “cook shop” (saloon) and brothel at the corner of 17th and B Streets, N.E. Here he was confronted with a large group of men holding a “wake” over the woman’s body. The men were drunk and disorderly, Sedgwick ordered them to disperse. A crowd quickly surrounded Sedgwick. Acting resolutely and with no backup, Officer Sedgwick, tried to arrest the instigator. As many as thirty men then attacked him. Sedgwick fought bravely. The Washington Post, recorded the only way he escaped with his life was with the “free use” of his nightstick. Sedgwick finally got away from his assailants though “cut, bruised and missing both a tooth and his police badge.” For more on the career of Officer Sedgwick, see, Cecily Hilleary’s excellent, Noah E. Sedgwick: A Black Cop in DC’s Gilded Age.

The Late Nineteen Century The majority of police officers in the nineteenth century were assigned to a particular precinct. Each precinct was headed by a precinct commander, usually a lieutenant, but day to day, they received orders and instructions from a sergeant who made watch bill gave assignments, and checked his men on their individual rounds or “beats.” Typically District police officers lived in the immediate neighborhood, they patrolled, hence they were familiar with the merchants, and citizens who lived in the area. Officers on watch, normally walked a given set of streets, they checked doors to insure locks were secure, and they kept an eye for fire or accidents. They were expected to take into custody homeless children , keep street walkers moving, ensure taverns, bars, and pool halls observed closing hours. All precinct houses also had wanted and reward posters and officers were expected to remember the names and faces of those wanted by the authorities. Police officers worked ten hours shifts, and were expected to move about on their appointed rounds. They also were constantly out in the elements, and frequently seen stamping their feet, and rubbing their hands to keep warm during Washington’s cold winters. Summer brought little relief for D.C. Summers are famous for high temperatures and topical humidity which officers suffered and endured in their woolen uniforms.

In 1881, the first women were appointed to serve as matrons, although these positions were solely for guarding female prisoners in the lockups and jails.

Police Routines


[Lieutenant Frank McCatheran, Commander Fifth Precinct. The engraving of Lt. McCatheran is from The Washington Times September20, 1903 ]

For many officers, their work, may have become routine, but it was rarely ever dull, occasionally, all officers experienced moments of real danger and sheer terror. One such was Sergeant Daniel Slattery who earned his promotion to sergeant by his courage. In 1878 in a fight with a gang of burglars near St. Patrick’s Church. There, Salttery, managed to capture one of his assailants, and broke up their heist. On another occasion that same year, chasing a suspect, Slattery fell through the second floor of the Odd Fellows Hall. On July 30, 1881 he arrested Samuel Smith who in the course of the arrest stabbed Slattery in the face.

While the Department kept no record of ethnicity, many of the officers were of Irish heritage. Such was Frank F. McCathran . McCathran was born in 1841 in Southeast Washington. His father worked at the Washington Navy Yard, as a blacksmith. McCathran later joined him, at the Yard,and worked there for few years in the same trade. He was appointed to the force in 1868. In January 1876 he was promoted to Sergeant and stationed in Georgetown. He was later assigned to the Navy Yard 5th Precinct probably because of his knowledge of the area and close ties to the Yard workforce. In 1891 he was promoted to Lieutenant. Many early police officers served well beyond middle age indeed many were in their sixties and some seventy, for their was no mandatory retirement age.

Sylvester reminded his readers “a policemen’s lot was not a happy one.” He was particularly concerned with “the dolorous” provisions for officers who were killed or injured on the job. There was no retirement for government employees until 1920. Consequently officers too old or too ill to serve faced a bleak future. The Metropolitan Police Officers voluntarily set up their own Police Pension Fund for officers with over fifteen years service, but he amount was meager as there was simply insufficient capital to fund a viable pension system. The Department members also contributed to a voluntary fund to pay for medical and funeral expenses for officers in need.

Metropolitan Police Department From that modest beginning, the Metropolitan Police Department grew in size, function, and professionalism. At the end of the century, Metropolitan Police Department, Chief Clerk, and future Chief of Police Richard Sylvester, reported that a total of 449 officers served the population of Washington D.C which was enumerated in the 1892 special census as: 258, 431. The MPD force then consisted of nine precincts, and had its own medical staff of police surgeons. In addition the Department fielded its own mounted squad and patrolled the Potomac waterways with the patrol boat, “Joe Blackburn.” Police officers used photographs for the identification of criminals and used telegraphs and a newly installed phone systems to communicate between offices. The Telegraph and Telephone Department was responsible for 62 phones and had four fulltime operators and its own electrician These new phones installed in the 1880’s made it easier to apprehend criminals and to exchange and compare information with other jurisdictions. Sylvester recounted the new phones allowed reports of murder, robberies, fines, losses, cases of distress “all readily announced to Police Headquarters”. The Department size was increased by a sanitary inspection staff, Hack Inspection Department, to oversee horse cabs and their operators, and a Humane Department responsible for the safety and protection of children and juveniles. Paperwork had become such a burden that each precinct was assigned one clerk to handle the ever-growing number of reports and records.

Transformation As the force approach the end of the century the force could look back and see that since its modest origin in 1802, the Metropolitan Police had transformed from a small constabulary into a modern police organization. The force had survived the rigors of war, social disruption and change. The Districts’ police had served heroically and well for decades, and despite problems of manning and comparatively low pay continued to provide assistance and a security to greater Metropolitan Washington. Toward the end of the nineteen century there was still much left to accomplish, but, there were clear signs the public and the District business community, had finally come to recognize the need support their police officers. This dramatic change in public attitude, toward law enforcement signaled a new willingness to consider higher pay and benefits, for serving police officers and to take seriously the plight of disabled and retired officers. While many social factors can account for such changes, foremost among these is the determination, courage, and perseverance of generations of police officers to serve and protect their community.



Ernest B. Furgurson Freedom Rising Washington in the Civil War Alfred A. Knopf :New York 2004

Constance McLaughlin Green The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation's Capital. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.

____. Washington: A History of the Capital 1800 -1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962.

Stanley Harrold Subversives Antislavery in the Washington, D.C. 1828 -1865, Louisiana State University: Baton Rouge, 2003.

Cecily Hilleary “Noah E. Sedgwick :A Black Cop in DC’s Gilded Age accessed :

Daniel Walker Howe What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815 - 1848. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007.

District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department web page

Jefferson Morley "The Snow Riot." Washington Post ( February 6, 2005): W14.

Bryan Prince’s A Shadow on the Household: One Enslaved Family's Incredible Struggle for Freedom (Emblem Editions 2010.38-39).

Thomas Smallwood, Narrative of Thomas Smallwood (Colored Man), James Stephens: Toronto, 1851.33.

Richard Sylvester District of Columbia Police, A Retrospective of the Police Organization of the Cities of Washington and Georgetown and the District of Columbia with Biographical Sketches. Gibson Brothers: Washington DC 1894

Mary Tremian Slavery in the District of Columbia: The Policy of Congress and the Struggle for Abolition. New York: G.B. Putnam’s Sons, 1898.

J. Russell Young and James L. Feeney The Metropolitan Police Department:  An Official Illustrated History.  Washington D.C., Lawrence Publishing Co., 1908.

Slave Code of the District of Columbia 1860: The Code was the legal basis on which the slave system stood, the manuscript volume is shown with the published slave code arranged by topic, listing relevant sections of Maryland and District of Columbia laws as well as the applicable court decisions The Code is available on line from the Library of Congress


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