Friday, May 25, 2012

Noah E. Sedgwick Part II - Sedgwick's Ghost

Officer Noah Sedgwick

Ghost stories ran rampant among the 19th Century police officers, both white and black. Every precinct boasted its ghosts—but none became more publicized more than the ghost of the Ninth Precinct, known as “Sedgwick’s Ghost.”

It was five minutes past midnight on a pleasant evening in September, 1895. Private Sedgwick had nearly completed his nightly beat. As he neared the corner of 10th and D Streets, N.E., he heard the sound of shuffling. He assumed that it was his relieving officer and in a moment of mischief, Sedgwick decided to play a little joke on the man. He picked up a cobblestone and, just as he was about to throw it, he saw the ghost for the first time.
I saw that the thing was dressed in white and had no head.
A stunned Sedgwick dropped the stone.
… and as I did so there was a gust of wind and an awful groan, and the ghost fell against the fence, knocking down three panels. I looked and the ghost was gone, but there were the three boards to prove that it had been there.
The next time I saw it near the Twelfth street colored church. I thought it was a stray cow, and as I went close I saw that it was a headless man, and then it disappeared.
He saw the ghost for a third time on Sunday, November 22, at 2:20 a.m., according to a statement he was required to make:
I was walking along the commons at Fourteenth and Warren streets, when suddenly I saw a figure crouching by a tree box near a lighted naphtha lamp. I could see it as plain as I see you now. It looked like a man, and didn’t seem to be in white. I was not afraid, for I thought it was a man. I started to go up close, but it kept ahead of me. When I would stop it would stop. I could not get closer than twenty feet, no matter how fast I walked. At last I called to it:

“Charley,” said I, “stop, I want to see you.”

It didn’t answer, but commenced to get white and to move away.

“Stop,” said I again.

It would not stop, so I drew my revolver and fired. I was cool and collected, and shot straight at it. The spook disappeared instantly. I could see the smoke from my revolver, but the ghost was gone.
Because firing his pistol without reason was in violation of police code, Sedgwick was required to write a statement, and there was reason to believe he would be called before the trial board. Sedgwick worried about one more trial, but he stood by his actions and told the press that if he were called to trial, he would have no trouble finding a dozen witnesses had also seen the Ninth district ghost.

Officer Lewis Gee stepped up to say that he had seen the ghost just a week earlier at the corner of Eleventh and C streets northeast, just a half block away from the precinct house.

Station-keeper W. H. Burkhart also corroborated Sedgwick’s story: One evening, Burkhart had spotted the creature—headless, robed in white, with short arms, it was leaning against a tree box and moaning eerily. When Burkhart approached, it vanished “as if by magic.”

“Sedgwick’s ghost” was the talk of the station house and certainly increased newspaper sales for a few days. Some of the officers believed Sedgwick. They decided that the ghost was the spirit of Joseph Beam, who had murdered his stepdaughter Annie Leahy the previous December and had been hanged for it. Others believed it may have been the ghost of Annie herself.

On November 24th, two nights after Sedgwick had fired on the ghost, an unnamed Post reporter decided to take a walk with Sedgwick on his beat. Accompanying them was a new night Inspector, Lieutenant Francis E. Cross, who was skeptical, to say the least.

The reporter described the scene as “desolate.” The streets were, for the most part, unpaved and unlit, and houses were few and far between. As they walked, they passed the occasional alley church holding evening services; the “quavering” voices of both preachers and congregation drifted and faded into the dark night. Was it any wonder, asked the writer, in the racist prose of the times, that Sedgwick, “himself a colored man” saw ghosts—“and when such reliable men as Officer Gee and Station-keeper Burkhardt” also claimed to have seen them.

The writer indulged in several more lines of hyperbole (“It was just such a night as ghosts are said to like. The wind was roaring and groaning, and the shaking of the branches of the leafless trees sounded like the rattle of dry bones.”). Then he returned to the subject of his walk with Sedgwick and the Inspector—the modern reader marvels that a reporter could have remembered such conversations with any accuracy, lacking any kind of recording device and it being too dark to take notes:

“Well, Sedge, have they been around tonight?” asked Inspector Cross.

Sedgwick said no, but it was still early. Then, catching the smile on Cross’s face, he said:
Lieutenant, you may not believe what I said that I have seen, but as sure as I stand here, as sure as there is a judgment day coming, I’ve seen that headless ghost. It was over here again last night. There’s a dog over yonder that often comes out and walks with me for company, and gets some of my lunch. Well, last night, I was walking along and I heard the dog come up behind me and sniffed at my pocket.
“Hello, Jack,” says I. And then I happened to think that I didn’t want the dog with me that night, and I turned around to drive him away, when, what do you think? It was a ghost in the form of a dog. Just that quick it got as big as a horse and as white as the driven snow. Then it changed into a man without any head, and says, “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!!—just like that—and disappears right through the fence.
Sedgwick reportedly went on to say that he was going to order a set of silver bullets—to the tune of $3 a set.
You can’t kill a ghost, you know, but my grandmother and my mother used to tell me that with silver bullets you could lay the spooks so that they wouldn’t bother you no more.
Cross, still amused, told him, “While you are out shooting as spooks be careful that you don’t shoot me or any one else. I would advise you to shoot in the air.”

Meanwhile the two white policemen, Officer Lewis Gee and Station keeper W. H. Burkhart stood by their stories, and endured ribbing from their colleagues. Over the next week or two, thrill-seeking youth from elsewhere in the city explored Sedgwick’s beat by bicycle in the hopes of seeing the ghost. No one saw a thing.

Had Sedgwick seen anything? If so, were his eyes playing tricks on him in the darkness—or were his fellow officers playing tricks?

That is the most likely scenario--and lest that seem unlikely, consider the great detective Alan Pinkerton, who in his 1878 memoirs, Criminal Reminiscences and Detective Sketches, describes playing a cruel joke on a superstitious Irish officer named O'Grady, on guard duty in a cemetery overnight.

After Sedgwick fired his gun, the ghost was never seen again. But by the time the newspapers were done with Sedgwick, he had been reduced in the public eye from Brave Cop to Timid and stereotypical Superstitious Negro.

Sedgwick's "ghost" must have boosted readership, because in December, the Post published a lengthy feature cataloging supernatural goings-on across the city. Of interest in the Sedgwick case is the ghost that two veteran cops—Tom Lynch and Bernard McCormick, then with the Eighth precinct—stepped forward to report: They had seen a woman robed in white, with skin like alabaster and strange glowing eyes.

Here’s how Officer McCormick told the tale:
One raw misty night, after the ghost scare had run on for some time, Lynch and I were on a side street. It was away past midnight. Lynch was stretched out on a cord of wood that had been stacked in the road, and I was standing by the side of the pile, keeping a lookout for the night inspector.

Suddenly, I saw the ghost. There is was flitting along the other side of the street looking for all the world as if it had just come out of the grave. I gives Lynch a rap with my night stick, and says in a whisper:

“Tom, the ghost is here.”
Lynch hops up as if he had been bitten by a Jersey skeeter. You see, he thought it was the night inspector.

When Lunch jumped up, that kind of scared the ghost. The thing jumped back and didn’t know what to do. It turned its face, and such a face I never saw. It was only half way across the street from us, but I could see that it had the face of death. The ghost puts its hands down at its sides and draws back its white robe a little. And I saw that it had small white feet, like a woman. Then it gave a shriek that ended in a mocking laugh, that seemed to freeze the very marrow in my bones.

I tell you, it makes a fellow feel a little shaky when a ghost gets across the street from him and gives him the ice house laugh. The ghost seemed to be as badly scared as we were, so I says to Lynch, “Tom, let’s find out about this blamed thing, right now.”

“All right,” says my partner, and then we darts across the street right at the spook.

The thing never moved, and we grabbed it. Well, what do you think. It wasn’t no ghost at all. Just a woman. She was a little gone mentally, and the saddest looking woman I ever saw, and I’ve seen lots of ‘em a-lookin’ so sorrowful and a-making a fellow feel sorry for the misfortunes of mortals. This woman’s eyes were sunk away back in her head, and were as black as night itself. And her face was dead white, except around her eyes. And her hair was very long and all loose. She had on a night gown and was barefooted. She didn’t do anything but shriek kind o’ frightened like and then laugh in her awful way.

Tom and me took her over to the station, and the Sergeant said it wasn’t no use holding her, ‘cause it’s mighty hard to make a disorderly conduct cause against any one that’s crazy. So we went back to Le Droit Park and scouted around until we found out who were her relatives, and then we turned her over to them. They said that as a rule, she wasn’t very bad, only sometimes she was worse than others, and that they would take care of her. So that was the end of the ghost out in the Eighth.”
As an interesting side note, McCormick had recently been transferred from the Eighth to the Ninth Precinct.

Could creating a ghost to spook Sedgwick have been inspired by his tale?

Oh, no! the reader might be tempted to cry. They wouldn’t have done anything so mean, would they?

One wonders. Over on Brown Street in Georgetown, a few years later, “ghosts” rained rocks, bricks and even rotting vegetables for several nights in a row over the terrified black inhabitants of a certain alley. Police patrolled the area but did not seem to do anything more than stand around and declare they were mystified. Some residents blamed the supernatural; others blamed “pranksters;” but one thing is for sure, the incident nearly caused the “depopulation” of the black neighborhood which was, in the eyes of many white Georgetowners, an eyesore.

To be continued..

© Cecily Hilleary, 2010

Picture credits:  "Jim Crow," courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA 

Noah Sedgwick, engraving from the Washington Bee, Oct. 12, 1895

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

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