Thursday, May 24, 2012

Noah E. Sedgwick: Part III - A Career Destroyed

By now, the press had begun referring to Officer Sedgwick as “Silver Bullet.” In a lengthy article about ghosts published in the Post on Dec. 15th, Sedgwick’s credibility was further damaged when it was revealed that he was not only afraid of ghosts, but of the “Night Doctors.”
Sedgwick, who is a colored man, used to be a school teacher in the District, and is quite an intelligent man, although extremely superstitious. Some years ago, Sedgwick used to be in the Third police precinct, instead of the Ninth. One night as he was lined up in the station, receiving instructions from the sergeant, just before going out on the midnight watch, the sergeant noticed Sedgwick’s mouth was all covered with grease.
“Sedge, what’s the matter with your mouth?” asked the sergeant.
“Nothing sir,” was the reply.
“Why, there’s grease all around it.”
“That’s so the night doctors can’t slap a plaster on.”
“What do you mean?”
“My mother told me that if I would grease my mouth, the plasters that the night doctors clap on the mouths of their victims, so that they can’t holler when they are being carried off, wouldn’t stick. That’s all. I don’t want to be kotched by no night doctor.
By the early 19th Century, anatomy instruction had become a central component to medical study.  The only legal cadavers were those of condemned murderers, however, there were not enough of these to satisfy the growing demands of science.  Doctors thus turned to the so-called Resurrectionists--or body snatchers.  In act, body-snatching became so common in Washington that the newspapers are peppered with accounts,and terrified family members often hired guards to keep watch over cemeteries to ensure that their loved ones remained buried.

This gave rise to a legend exclusive to Washington, D.C.'s African Americans, who referred to the grave-robbers as "Night Doctors."  They believed that if the Night Doctors couldn’t find fresh bodies in the cemeteries, they would kidnap the living. Writer Josephine Davis Leary, in her 1947 Backward Glances at Georgetown, wrote a rather patronizing account of the family's cook refused to work past dark in wintertime:  "Mother's word was of no avail, so that we had to have dinner that Winter at 5:30 in order to keep Lucinda from being cut up by the night doctors."

There’s no way to know whether there is any basis for the belief; certainly the medical profession paid grave robbers handsomely for cadavers and would not necessarily ask for details; further, Washington’s population had swollen tremendously in the years following the Civil War. Its alleys were filled with freed slaves; roustabouts, military deserters and indigents, any of whom could easily go have gone missing, no questions asked.

By now, the transformation of Sedgwick is complete: The former teacher who wrote so elegantly in his application to the force, who was brave and strong enough to tackle thirty drunken men in a brawl and come out alive, has by now been reduced to the superstitious and easily frightened buffoon of minstrel shows. 

And the charges were piling up:

On October 19th, 1895, Sedgwick was cited with failing to pay his legal fines. The police board ordered him to make good his debt in monthly $5 installments and warned him that “a failure to comply will be deemed sufficient cause for his removal from the force.”

On October 30, Sedgwick summoned to court yet again--this time, for failing to pay his lawyer, Aloysius P. Geier $34.75.  Even though the prosecuting witness failed to appear, Sedgwick pled guilty and was ordered to pay back the debt in $5 monthly payments.

April of 1896, Washington Post reporter William P. Spurgeon wrote a story that created a sensation, to the embarrassment of the Commissioners and Police Force:

Police Scandal Brewing in the
Ninth Precinct
The Colored Officer Who Loaded His Gun with a Silver Bullet to Shoot a Ghost
Declares His Intention of Bringing Charges Against Sergt. Pearson, Which Will Lead to an Investigation Similar to the Fat Men’s Club Affair of Two Years Ago
If Police Officer Sedgwick, of the Ninth Precinct, carries out his present intentions, the result is likely to be a sensation in police circles equal to that caused by the famous raid on the Fat Men’s Club room, in South Washington, which was followed by the dismissal of a number of officers who were found toying with the foamy growler when off duty.

…These charges will not only affect Pearson, but will also involve a dozen officers attached to the precinct, including Sedgwick himself.

…Sedgwick claims that his action is inspired by Pearson’s subsequent display of inefficiency and unofficial conduct, which he will bring witnesses to prove. He will attempt to show that Pearson fails to visit policemen on their beats when it is his duty to do so. It is understood, however, that Pearson recently accused Sedgwick of leaving his beat twenty minutes before the proper hour, and also caught him standing in front of a saloon and changing some money. Sedgwick is thoroughly in earnest about the matter and it is said has interested a United States Senator in the case who will also go before the Commissioners in retaliation to the charges. Sedgwick is the colored policeman who not long since claimed to have seen a ghost on his beat, and loaded his pistol with a silver bullet to bring down the strange apparition which seemed to be haunting him.
According to Spurgeon, Sedgwick planned to expose the following:

One evening back in October, fire broke out at the Washington Brick Machine Company on Florida Avenue in Ivy City. Acting Sergeant John A Pearson brought roughly eighteen men from the 9th Precinct with him to preserve order at the scene and supervise employee efforts to save the premises.

Noah Sedgwick, from Washington Bee

When the fire was finally put out, the owner and general manager of the brick company, Theodore L. Holbrook, invited the entire precinct over to Bohn’s restaurant at the corner of Fourteenth and Maryland Ave for “refreshments.” The majority of the eighteen men present accepted the invitation, including Sergeant Pearson. In full uniform, they spent the next two hours drinking whiskey, beer and assorted other intoxicants at the bar, which meant that for that time, their respective beats went completely uncovered.

Sedgwick himself was among them. He would later tell the Board that he went along with the whole thing because he didn’t dare say no.
The article was not only a public relations nightmare for the Force, but placed Sedgwick in a very vulnerable position.  Two days later, the Post published a letter from Sedgwick, who denied having talked to the reporter—(whether he did or he didn’t and what he said would be taken up in detail during the coming trial):
As an officer of the Metropolitan Police Force, I am unwilling to lend my name to newspaper notoriety. In your article of the 4th instant I have been quoted without my knowledge and consent. I deny that I have knowingly met a representative of your paper, or that I have given out the information attributed to me. Desirous of acting fairly in this matter, and in the hope that you will publish this explanation, I remain, very respectfully,
N.E. Sedgwick, Metropolitan police, Ninth Precinct, Northeast.
Sedgwick then wrote a letter, dated only April 1896, in which he charged that Sergeant John A. Pearson had failed to visit Sedgwick as he was required to as Night Inspector:
Furthermore, the said acting Sergt. Pearson did on or about the 17th day of October 1895 enter a bar-room situated at the corner of 15th and Md. Ave., N.E. and at 6 o’clock AM did then and there order his men being officers of the Metropolitan Police Force to enter the abocve restaurant and partake of whatever they cherished. Furthermore that the said Act. Sergt. Jno. A. Pearson did cause several of the police territorial beats to be unprotected and at the mercy of Robbers, Murderous thugs & c. for over 1 hour, this while on duty in the District of Columbia.
Acting Sergeant John A. Pearson (not to be confused with Inspector Ike Pearson), an Ohio-born former machinist, had been a Metropolitan Police Officer for over ten years. There were strong rumors that he was a card-carrying member of the American Protective Association (APA), a secret society patterned after the “Know-Nothings” prior to the Civil War. The APA was a nationalist, nativist group hell-bent against Catholics—and any group that undermined the Protestant fabric of America.

John Pearson’s service records are peppered with charges of unbecoming conduct, neglect of duty and intoxication—nearly a dozen of them over his 28 year career. Charges were dismissed in most cases; where he was found guilty, he was cautioned. He does not appear to have been fined so much as a nickel. He was also promoted twice in his career, which ended with his death in December, 1911.

Pearson turned around and slapped Sedgwick with an accusation of neglect of duty, and on April 8th, only four days after Spurgeon’s revelations in the Post, Sedgwick was back before the Trial Committee on the following charge:
That N.E. Sedgwick…on or about the 31st day of March, 1895, at or about the hour of 6:00 A.M., leave his beat and visit the saloon of one George Reinsfels, situate [sic] at or about number 1101 C Street, N.E. and did, on or about the date aforesaid, at or about the hour of 12:00 P.M., did leave his beat and again visit said bar room premises, and did, on day and date unknown, make such statements and circulate such rumors as to create and cause to appear a scandalous and false publication in the Washington Post, concerning the conduct of several officers of the Metropolitan Police Force.
While they were at it, the Board then tried Sedgwick on the second charge of maligning the force to a newspaper reporter. Post reporter William Spurgeon was the first to testify.

Several pages of testimony reveal that Spurgeon  (photo below)  went to the 9th Precinct house and asked for Officer Sedgwick. It is not clear whether Sedgwick realized he was talking to a reporter—but he certainly talked some; Spurgeon admitted to filling in the rest of the blanks: “That was sometime ago and I have forgotten the exact words he used, but I know the impression he conveyed to me...
Q: In writing these articles, you judge from a man’s face of course and appearance, and if a man says, “never mind about that,” you judge from that just what it is?
A: (Spurgeon): You can do that under certain circumstances.
Q: Of course you think he would tell you right out if it was not so?
A: If I could not get information in any other way, I might be driven to reading his face.
Q: You would reason if it was not so he would say so, and if he did not say no or yes you could take it for granted it was so? That is the way these articles are written?
A: Generally, we have more to base our articles on than looks.
On May 15th, District Commissioners dismissed charges against Sedgwick, but issued a formal reprimand.
Ordered: That the charges against private N.E. Sedgwick…tried April 8…are hereby dismissed, but that said private be warned not to talk about his superior officers nor assist in circulating reports calculated to bring the Police Force into disrepute.
That the charges against acting Sergeant J. A. Pearson…for gross neglect of duty and conduct unbecoming an office, are hereby dismissed, but that Private Sedgwick be reprimanded and admonished that a repetition of his conduct will be deemed sufficient cause for his removal from the force.
A month later, John Pearson was and transferred to the Second Precinct, for street duty.

A few days later, the police received a letter from a Samuel Oppenheimer, likely the butcher who, in the 1890 is doing business at 1732 8th Street, NW.  He complained that Sedgwick owed him $45.75 in unpaid bills and threatened to sue.  This was a common practice at the time, and police files are filled with bills from creditors including tailors, grocers and other retailers. 

Sedgwick, fearing that he was about to be dismissed, turned in his resignation. Then he thought better of it and asked whether he could withdraw his resignation. The Police Commissioner told him it was too late.

Sedgwick appealed to the DC Commissioners:
May it please your Honorable Body:

By your direction I have been advised, through your Secretary, William Tindall, Esquire, that you were not inclined to favorably consider my application for reinstatement on the Metropolitan Police Force.

Feeling that your action was predicated largely, if not entirely, on my failure to fully explain my case, the causes, etc., which led to my resignation, I now ask permission to do so and most respectfully and earnestly request that my application for reinstatement be considered in the light of the facts herein presented.

So far as I know and am advised my record as a police officer is good. Sometime prior to my resignation three deaths occurred in my family, namely, my mother, my brother and my son, for whose funeral expenses I became responsible. I was also indebted to Mr. Samuel Oppenheimer to the amount of about $45 or $55, and in consequence of the other expenses above stated, I was not able to pay him the amounts, and in the manner he desired, whereupon he brought suit before a justice of the peace, and obtained judgment for the amount due and costs. Still being unable to satisfy the judgment in the manner desired by Mr. Oppenheimer, he threatened to bring the matter to the attention of the trial board, and have me tried for non-payment of debt. Rather than have the heads of the police department annoyed with the matter, I resigned. My resignation was purely and simply the result of my wish not to have the department annoyed by trying me for nonpayment of a debt, which I desired to pay but could not do so in the manner desired by Mr. Oppenheimer.

Within a few days after I sent in my resignation over two hundred prominent citizens, who knew me as an officer, sighed a petition requesting your Honorable Board of Commissioners to reinstate me.
This petition was handed to James L. Pugh, Jr., Esq., Assistant Attorney for the District of Columbia, who promised to look over it and return it to me. When I called for it, Mr. Pugh advised me that he had inadvertently misplaced it and could not find it, but that he would willingly endorse another application, in which I might use his name if I desired…
…That matter of debt for which Mr. Oppenheimer threatened to bring me before the trial board, and which caused me to resign…has been satisfactorily adjusted…

…I most respectfully and earnestly request that your Honorable Body may favorably reconsider your action in declining to reinstate me on the Metropolitan Police Force.
At the bottom of the letter appears a note in the DC Attorney General’s own hand attesting that he “lost or misplaced” the aforementioned petition. “When Sedgwick was on the force, he made a very good policeman,” added Pugh.

The Board refused to reinstate Sedgwick.

Sedgwick would never wear a uniform again.

Two years later, we find him listed as a cook in the City Directory.  He is still cooking the last time he's found on record, in 1903.

Noah's son, William Noah Sedgwick, a laborer, according to DC death records, passed away on  June 18, 1900, and was buried in an unknown location two days later.

Evening Star, March 2, 1906

Noah Sedgwick died in Washington DC at age 42 of causes unknown on February 27, 1906 and was buried on March 2nd in an unknown location.

Captain Isaac Pearson retired and was placed on the pension roll at $90 a month.

James Pearson died in December, 1911.

Journalist William P. Spurgeon ended up being promoted to managing editor at the Post and was elected the first president of the National Press Club in 1908. He died of typhoid fever in on June 4, 1920.

© Cecily Hilleary, 2010

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