MoboReader> Literature > The Reminiscences of an Astronomer

   Chapter 13 THE OLD AND THE NEW WASHINGTON

The Reminiscences of an Astronomer By Simon Newcomb Characters: 55172

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


A few features of Washington as it appeared during the civil war are indelibly fixed in my memory. An endless train of army wagons ploughed its streets with their heavy wheels. Almost the entire southwestern region, between the War Department and the Potomac, extending west on the river to the neighborhood of the observatory, was occupied by the Quartermaster's and Subsistence Departments for storehouses. Among these the astronomers had to walk by day and night, in going to and from their work. After a rain, especially during winter and spring, some of the streets were much like shallow canals. Under the attrition of the iron-bound wheels the water and clay were ground into mud, which was at first almost liquid. It grew thicker as it dried up, until perhaps another rainstorm reduced it once more to a liquid condition. In trying first one street and then another to see which offered the fewest obstacles to his passage, the wayfarer was reminded of the assurance given by a bright boy to a traveler who wanted to know the best road to a certain place: "Whichever road you take, before you get halfway there you'll wish you had taken t' other." By night swarms of rats, of a size proportional to their ample food supply, disputed the right of way with the pedestrian.

Across the Potomac, Arlington Heights were whitened by the tents of soldiers, from which the discharges of artillery or the sound of the fife and drum became so familiar that the dweller almost ceased to notice it. The city was defended by a row of earthworks, generally not far inside the boundary line of the District of Columbia, say five or six miles from the central portions of the city. One of the circumstances connected with their plans strikingly illustrates the exactness which the science or art of military engineering had reached. Of course the erection of fortifications was one of the first tasks to be undertaken by the War Department. Plans showing the proposed location and arrangements of the several forts were drawn up by a board of army engineers, at whose head, then or afterward, stood General John G. Barnard. When the plans were complete, it was thought advisable to test them by calling in the advice of Professor D. H. Mahan of the Military Academy at West Point. He came to Washington, made a careful study of the maps and plans, and was then driven around the region of the lines to be defended to supplement his knowledge by personal inspection. Then he laid down his ideas as to the location of the forts. There were but two variations from the plans proposed by the Board of Engineers, and these were not of fundamental importance.

Willard's Hotel, then the only considerable one in the neighborhood of the executive offices, was a sort of headquarters for arriving army officers, as well as for the thousands of civilians who had business with the government, and for gossip generally. Inside its crowded entrance one could hear every sort of story, of victory or disaster, generally the latter, though very little truth was ever to be gleaned.

The newsboy flourished. He was a bright fellow too, and may have developed into a man of business, a reporter, or even an editor. "Another great battle!" was his constant cry. But the purchaser of his paper would commonly read of nothing but a skirmish or some fresh account of a battle fought several days before-perhaps not even this. On one occasion an officer in uniform, finding nothing in his paper to justify the cry, turned upon the boy with the remark,-

"Look here, boy, I don't see any battle here."

"No," was the reply, "nor you won't see one as long as you hang around

Washington. If you want to see a battle you must go to the front."

The officer thought it unprofitable to continue the conversation, and beat a retreat amid the smiles of the bystanders. This story, I may remark, is quite authentic, which is more than one can say of the report that a stick thrown by a boy at a dog in front of Willard's Hotel struck twelve brigadier generals during its flight.

The presiding genius of the whole was Mr. Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War. Before the actual outbreak of the conflict he had been, I believe, at least a Democrat, and, perhaps, to a certain extent, a Southern sympathizer so far as the slavery question was concerned. But when it came to blows, he espoused the side of the Union, and after being made Secretary of War he conducted military operations with a tireless energy, which made him seem the impersonation of the god of war. Ordinarily his character seemed almost savage when he was dealing with military matters. He had no mercy on inefficiency or lukewarmness. But his sympathetic attention, when a case called for it, is strikingly shown in the following letter, of which I became possessed by mere accident. At the beginning of the war Mr. Charles Ellet, an eminent engineer, then resident near Washington, tendered his services to the government, and equipped a fleet of small river steamers on the Mississippi under the War Department. In the battle of June 6, 1862, he received a wound from which he died some two weeks later. His widow sold or leased his house on Georgetown Heights, and I boarded in it shortly afterward. Amongst some loose rubbish and old papers lying around in one of the rooms I picked up the letter which follows.

War Department,

Washington City, D. C., June 9, 1862.

Dear Madam,-I understand from Mr. Ellet's dispatch to you that as he will be unfit for duty for some time it will be agreeable to him for you to visit him, traveling slowly so as not to expose your own health.

With this view I will afford you every facility within

the control of the Department, by way of Pittsburg and

Cincinnati to Cairo, where he will probably meet you.

Yours truly,

Edwin M. Stanton,

Secretary of War.

The interesting feature of this letter is that it is entirely in the writer's autograph, and bears no mark of having been press copied. I infer that it was written out of office hours, after all the clerks had left the Department, perhaps late at night, while the secretary was taking advantage of the stillness of the hour to examine papers and plans.

Only once did I come into personal contact with Mr. Stanton. A portrait of Ferdinand R. Hassler, first superintendent of the Coast Survey, had been painted about 1840 by Captain Williams of the Corps of Engineers, U. S. A., a son-in-law of Mr. G. W. P. Custis, and therefore a brother-in-law of General Lee. The picture at the Arlington house was given to Mrs. Colonel Abert, who loaned it to Mr. Custis. When the civil war began she verbally donated it to my wife, who was Mr. Hassler's grand-daughter, and was therefore considered the most appropriate depositary of it, asking her to get it if she could. But before she got actual possession of it, the Arlington house was occupied by our troops and Mr. Stanton ordered the picture to be presented to Professor Agassiz for the National Academy of Sciences. On hearing of this, I ventured to mention the matter to Mr. Stanton, with a brief statement of our claims upon the picture.

"Sir," said he, "that picture was found in the house of a rebel in arms [General Robert E. Lee], and was justly a prize of war. I therefore made what I considered the most appropriate disposition of it, by presenting it to the National Academy of Sciences."

The expression "house of a rebel in arms" was uttered with such emphasis that I almost felt like one under suspicion of relations with the enemy in pretending to claim the object in question. It was clearly useless to pursue the matter any further at that time. Some years later, when the laws were no longer silent, the National Academy decided that whoever might be the legal owner of the picture, the Academy could have no claim upon it, and therefore suffered it to pass into the possession of the only claimant.

Among the notable episodes of the civil war was the so-called raid of the Confederate general, Early, in July, 1864. He had entered Maryland and defeated General Lew Wallace. This left nothing but the well-designed earthworks around Washington between his army and our capital. Some have thought that, had he immediately made a rapid dash, the city might have fallen into his hands.

All in the service of the War and Navy departments who were supposed capable of rendering efficient help, were ordered out to take part in the defense of the city, among them the younger professors of the observatory. By order of Captain Gilliss I became a member of a naval brigade, organized in the most hurried manner by Admiral Goldsborough, and including in it several officers of high and low rank. The rank and file was formed of the workmen in the Navy Yard, most of whom were said to have seen military service of one kind or another. The brigade formed at the Navy Yard about the middle of the afternoon, and was ordered to march out to Fort Lincoln, a strong earthwork built on a prominent hill, half a mile southwest of the station now known as Rives. The Reform School of the District of Columbia now stands on the site of the fort. The position certainly looked very strong. On the right the fort was flanked by a deep intrenchment running along the brow of the hill, and the whole line would include in the sweep of its fire the region which an army would have to cross in order to enter the city. The naval brigade occupied the trench, while the army force, which seemed very small in numbers, manned the front.

I was not assigned to any particular duty, and simply walked round the place in readiness to act whenever called upon. I supposed the first thing to be done was to have the men in the trench go through some sort of drill, in order to assure their directing the most effective fire on the enemy should he appear. The trench was perhaps six feet deep; along its bottom ran a little ledge on which the men had to step in order to deliver their fire, stepping back into the lower depth to load again. Along the edge was a sort of rail fence, the bottom rail of which rested on the ground. In order to fire on an enemy coming up the hill, it would be necessary to rest the weapon on this bottom rail. It was quite evident to me that a man not above the usual height, standing on the ledge, would have to stand on tiptoe in order to get the muzzle of his gun properly directed down the slope. If he were at all flurried he would be likely to fire over the head of the enemy. I called attention to this state of things, but did not seem to make any impression on the officers, who replied that the men had seen service and knew what to do.

We bivouacked that night, and remained all the next day and the night following awaiting the attack of the enemy, who was supposed to be approaching Fort Stevens on the Seventh Street road. At the critical moment, General H. G. Wright arrived from Fort Monroe with his army corps. He and General A. McD. McCook both took their stations at Fort Lincoln, which it was supposed would be the point of attack. A quarter or half a mile down the hill was the mansion of the Rives family, which a passenger on the Baltimore and Ohio Railway can readily see at the station of that name. A squad of men was detailed to go to this house and destroy it, in case the enemy should appear. The attack was expected at daybreak, but General Early, doubtless hearing of the arrival of reinforcements, abandoned any project he might have entertained and had beat a retreat the day before. Whether the supposition that he could have taken the city with great celerity has any foundation, I cannot say; I should certainly greatly doubt it, remembering the large loss of life generally suffered during the civil war by troops trying to storm intrenchments or defenses of any sort, even with greatly superior force.

I was surprised to find how quickly one could acquire the stolidity of the soldier. During the march from the Navy Yard to the fort I felt extremely depressed, as one can well imagine, in view of the suddenness with which I had to take leave of my family and the uncertainty of the situation, as well as its extreme gravity. But this depression wore off the next day, and I do not think I ever had a sounder night's sleep in my life than when I lay down on the grass, with only a blanket between myself and the sky, with the expectation of being awakened by the rattle of musketry at daybreak.

I remember well how kindly we were treated by the army. The acquaintance of Generals Wright and McCook, made under such circumstances, was productive of a feeling which has never worn off. It has always been a matter of sorrow to me that the Washington of to-day does not show a more lively consciousness of what it owes to these men.

One of the entertainments of Washington during the early years of the civil war was offered by President Lincoln's public receptions. We used to go there simply to see the people and the costumes, the latter being of a variety which I do not think was ever known on such occasions before or since. Well-dressed and refined ladies and gentlemen, men in their working clothes, women arrayed in costumes fanciful in cut and brilliant in color, mixed together in a way that suggested a convention of the human race. Just where the oddly dressed people came from, or what notion took them at this particular time to don an attire like that of a fancy-dress ball, no one seemed to know.

Among the never-to-be-forgotten scenes was that following the news of the fall of Richmond. If I described it from memory, a question would perhaps arise in the reader's mind as to how much fancy might have added to the picture in the course of nearly forty years. I shall therefore quote a letter written to Chauncey Wright immediately afterwards, of which I preserved a press copy.

Observatory, April 7, 1865.

Dear Wright,-Yours of the 5th just received. I heartily reciprocate your congratulations on the fall of Richmond and the prospective disappearance of the S. C. alias C. S.

You ought to have been here Monday. The observatory is half a mile to a mile from the thickly settled part of the city. At 11 A. M. we were put upon the qui vive by an unprecedented commotion in the city. From the barracks near us rose a continuous stream of cheers, and in the city was a hubbub such as we had never before heard. We thought it must be Petersburg or Richmond, but hardly dared to hope which. Miss Gilliss sent us word that it was really Richmond. I went down to the city. All the bedlams in creation broken loose could not have made such a scene. The stores were half closed, the clerks given a holiday, the streets crowded, every other man drunk, and drums were beating and men shouting and flags waving in every direction. I never felt prouder of my country than then, as I compared our present position with our position in the numerous dark days of the contest, and was almost ashamed to think that I had ever said that any act of the government was not the best possible.

Not many days after this outburst, the city was pervaded by an equally intense and yet deeper feeling of an opposite kind. Probably no event in its history caused such a wave of sadness and sympathy as the assassination of President Lincoln, especially during the few days while bands of men were scouring the country in search of the assassin. One could not walk the streets without seeing evidence of this at every turn. The slightest bustle, perhaps even the running away of a dog, caused a tremor.

I paid one short visit to the military court which was trying the conspirators. The court itself was listening with silence and gravity to the reading of the testimony taken on the day previous. General Wallace produced on the spectators an impression a little different from the other members, by exhibiting an artistic propensity, which subsequently took a different direction in "Ben Hur." The most impressive sight was that of the conspirators, all heavily manacled; even Mrs. Surratt, who kept her irons partly concealed in the folds of her gown. Payne, the would-be assassin of Seward, was a powerful-looking man, with a face that showed him ready for anything; but the other two conspirators were such simple-minded, mild-looking youths, that it seemed hardly possible they could have been active agents in such a crime, or capable of any proceeding requiring physical or mental force.

The impression which I gained at the time from the evidence and all the circumstances, was that the purpose of the original plot was not the assassination of the President, but his abduction and transportation to Richmond or some other point within the Confederate lines. While Booth himself may have meditated assassination from the beginning, it does not seem likely that he made this purpose known to his fellows until they were ready to act. Then Payne alone had the courage to attempt the execution of the programme.

Two facts show that a military court, sitting under such circumstances, must not be expected to reach exactly the verdict that a jury would after the public excitement had died away. Among the prisoners was the man whose business it was to assist in arranging the scenery on the stage of the theatre where the assassination occurred. The only evidence against him was that he had not taken advantage of his opportunity to arrest Booth as the latter was leaving, and for this he was sentenced to twenty years penal servitude. He was pardoned out before a great while.

The other circumstance was the arrest of Surratt, who was supposed to stand next to Booth in the conspiracy, but who escaped from the country and was not discovered until a year or so later, when he was found to have enlisted in the papal guards at Rome. He was brought home and tried twice. On the first trial, notwithstanding the adverse rulings and charge of the judge, only a minority of the jury were convinced of his guilt. On the second trial he was, I think, acquitted.

One aftermath of the civil war was the influx of crowds of the newly freed slaves to Washington, in search of food and shelter. With a little training they made fair servants if only their pilfering propensities could be restrained. But religious fervor did not ensure obedience to the eighth commandment. "The good Lord ain't goin' to be hard on a poor darky just for takin' a chicken now and then," said a wench to a preacher who had asked her how she could reconcile her religion with her indifference as to the ownership of poultry.

In the seventies I had an eight-year-old boy as help in my family. He had that beauty of face very common in young negroes who have an admixture of white blood, added to which were eyes of such depth and clearness that, but for his color, he would have made a first-class angel for a medi?val painter.

One evening my little daughters had a children's party, and Zeke was placed as attendant in charge of the room in which the little company met. Here he was for some time left alone. Next morning a gold pen was missing from its case in a drawer. Suspicion rested on Zeke as the only person who could possibly have taken it, but there was no positive proof. I thought so small and innocent-looking a boy could be easily cowed into confessing his guilt; so next morning I said to him very solemnly,-

"Zeke, come upstairs with me."

He obeyed with alacrity, following me up to the room.

"Zeke, come into this room."

He did so.

"Now, Zeke," I said sternly, "look here and see what I do."

I opened the drawer, took out the empty case, opened it, and showed it to him.

"Zeke, look into my eyes!"

He neither blinked nor showed the slightest abashment or hesitation as his soft eyes looked steadily into mine with all the innocence of an angel.

"Zeke, where is the pen out of that case?"

"Missr Newcomb," he said quietly, "I don't know nothin' about it."

I repeated the question, looking into his face as sternly as I could. As he repeated the answer with the innocence of childhood, "Deed, Missr Newcomb, I don't know what was in it," I felt almost like a brute in pressing him with such severity. Threats were of no avail, and I had to give the matter up as a failure.

On coming home in the afternoon, the first news was that the pen had been found by Zeke's mother hidden in one corner of her room at home, where the little thief had taken it. She, being an honest woman, and suspecting where it had come from, had brought it back.

There was a vigorous movement, having its origin in New England, for the education of the freedmen. This movement was animated by the most philanthropic views. Here were several millions of blacks of all ages, suddenly made citizens, or eligible to citizenship, and yet savage so far as any education was concerned. A small army of teachers, many, perhaps most of them, young women, were sent south to organize schools for the blacks. It may be feared that there was little adaptation of the teaching to the circumstances of the case. But one method of instruction widely adopted was, so far as I can learn, quite unique. It was the "loud method" of teaching reading and spelling. The whole school spelled in unison. The passer-by on the street would hear in chorus from the inside of the building, "B-R-E-A-D-BREAD!" all at the top of the voice of the speakers. Schools in which this method was adopted were known as "loud schools."

A queer result of this movement once fell under my notice. I called at a friend's house in Georgetown. In the course of the conversation, it came out that the sable youngster who opened the door for me filled the double office of scullion to the household and tutor in Latin to the little boy of the family.

Probably the Senate of the United States never had a member more conscientious in the discharge of his duties than Charles Sumner. He went little into society outside the circles of the diplomatic corps, with which his position as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee placed him in intimate relations. My acquaintance with him arose from the accident of his living for some time almost opposite me. I was making a study of some historic subject, pertaining to the feeling in South Carolina before the civil war, and called at his rooms to see if he would favor me with the loan of a book, which I was sure he possessed. He received me so pleasantly that I was, for some time, an occasional visitor. He kept bachelor quarters on a second floor, lived quite alone, and was accessible to all comers without the slightest ceremony.

One day, while I was talking with him, shortly after the surrender of Lee, a young man in the garb of a soldier, evidently fresh from the field, was shown into the room by the housemaid, unannounced, as usual. Very naturally, he was timid and diffident in approaching so great a man, and the latter showed no disposition to say anything that would reassure him. He ventured to tell the senator that he had come to see if he could recommend him for some public employment. I shall never forget the tone of the reply.

"But I do not know you." The poor fellow was completely dumfounded, and tried to make some excuses, but the only reply he got was, "I cannot do it; I do not know you at all." The visitor had nothing to do but turn round and leave.

At the time I felt some sympathy with the poor fellow. He had probably come, thinking that the great philanthropist was quite ready to become a friend to a Union soldier without much inquiry into his personality and antecedents, and now he met with a stinging rebuff. But it must be confessed that subsequent experience has diminished my sympathy for him, and probably it would be better for the country if the innovation were introduced of having every senator of the United States dispose of such callers in the same way.

Foreign men of letters, with whom Sumner's acquaintance was very wide, were always among his most valued guests. A story is told of Thackeray's visit to Washington, which I distrust only for the reason that my ideas of Sumner's make-up do not assign him the special kind of humor which the story brings out. He was, however, quoted as saying, "Thackeray is one of the most perfect gentlemen I ever knew. I had a striking illustration of that this morning. We went out for a walk together and, thoughtlessly, I took him through Lafayette Square. Shortly after we entered it, I realized with alarm that we were going directly toward the Jackson statue. It was too late to retrace our steps, and I wondered what Thackeray would say when he saw the object. But he passed straight by without seeming to see it at all, and did not say one word about it."

Sumner was the one man in the Senate whose seat was scarcely ever vacant during a session. He gave the closest attention to every subject as it arose. One instance of this is quite in the line of the present book. About 1867, an association was organized in Washington under the name of the "American Union Academy of Literature, Science, and Art." Its projectors were known to few, or none, but themselves. A number of prominent citizens in various walks of life had been asked to join it, and several consented without knowing much about the association. It soon became evident that the academy was desirous of securing as much publicity as possible through the newspapers and elsewhere. It was reported that the Secretary of the Treasury had asked its opinion on some instrument or appliance connected with the work of his department. Congress was applied to for an act of incorporation, recognizing it as a scientific adviser of the government by providing that it should report on subjects submitted to it by the governmental departments, the intent evidently being that it should supplant the National Academy of Sciences.

The application to Congress satisfied the two requirements most essential to favorable consideration. These are that several respectable citizens want something done, and that there is no one to come forward and say that he does not want it done. Such being the case, the act passed the House of Representatives without opposition, came to the Senate, and was referred to the appropriate committee, that on education, I believe. It was favorably reported from the committee and placed on its passage. Up to this point no objection seems to have been made to it in any quarter. Now, it was challenged by Mr. Sumner.

The ground taken by the Massachusetts senator was comprehensive and simple, though possibly somewhat novel. It was, in substance, that an academy of literature, science, and art, national in its character, and incorporated by special act of Congress, ought to be composed of men eminent in the branches to which the academy related. He thought a body of men consisting very largely of local lawyers, with scarcely a man of prominence in either of the three branches to which the academy was devoted, was not the one that should receive such sanction from the national legislature.

Mr. J. W. Patterson, of New Hampshire, was the principal advocate of the measure. He claimed that the proposed incorporators were not all unscientific men, and cited as a single example the name of O. M. Poe, which appeared among them. This man, he said, was a very distinguished meteorologist.

This example was rather unfortunate. The fact is, the name in question was that of a well-known officer of engineers in the army, then on duty at Washi

ngton, who had been invited to join the academy, and had consented out of good nature without, it seems, much if any inquiry. It happened that Senator Patterson had, some time during the winter, made the acquaintance of a West Indian meteorologist named Poey, who chanced to be spending some time in Washington, and got him mixed up with the officer of engineers. The senator also intimated that the gentleman from Massachusetts had been approached on the subject and was acting under the influence of others. This suggestion Mr. Sumner repelled, stating that no one had spoken to him on the subject, that he knew nothing of it until he saw the bill before them, which seemed to him to be objectionable for the very reasons set forth. On his motion the bill was laid on the table, and thus disposed of for good. The academy held meetings for some time after this failure, but soon disappeared from view, and was never again heard of.

In the year 1862, a fine-looking young general from the West became a boarder in the house where I lived, and sat opposite me at table. His name was James A. Garfield. I believe he had come to Washington as a member of the court in the case of General Fitz John Porter. He left after a short time and had, I supposed, quite forgotten me. But, after his election to Congress, he one evening visited the observatory, stepped into my room, and recalled our former acquaintance.

I soon found him to be a man of classical culture, refined tastes, and unsurpassed eloquence,-altogether, one of the most attractive of men. On one occasion he told me one of his experiences in the State legislature of Ohio, of which he was a member before the civil war. A bill was before the House enacting certain provisions respecting a depository. He moved, as an amendment, to strike out the word "depository" and insert "depositary." Supposing the amendment to be merely one of spelling, there was a general laugh over the house, with a cry of "Here comes the schoolmaster!" But he insisted on his point, and sent for a copy of Webster's Dictionary in order that the two words might be compared. When the definitions were read, the importance of right spelling became evident, and the laughing stopped.

It has always seemed to me that a rank injustice was done to Garfield on the occasion of the Credit Mobilier scandal of 1873, which came near costing him his position in public life. The evidence was of so indefinite and flimsy a nature that the credence given to the conclusion from it can only illustrate how little a subject or a document is exposed to searching analysis outside the precincts of a law court. When he was nominated for the presidency this scandal was naturally raked up and much made of it. I was so strongly impressed with the injustice as to write for a New York newspaper, anonymously of course, a careful analysis of the evidence, with a demonstration of its total weakness. Whether the article was widely circulated, or whether Garfield ever heard of it, I do not know; but it was amusing, a few days after it appeared, to see a paragraph in an opposition paper claiming that its contemporary had gone to the trouble of hiring a lawyer to defend Garfield.

No man better qualified as a legislator ever occupied a seat in Congress. A man cast in the largest mould, and incapable of a petty sentiment, his grasp of public affairs was rarely equaled, and his insight into the effects of legislation was of the deepest. But on what the author of the Autocrat calls the arithmetical side,-in the power of judging particular men and not general principles; in deciding who were the good men and who were not, he fell short of the ideal suggested by his legislative career. The brief months during which he administered the highest of offices were stormy enough, perhaps stormier than any president before him had ever experienced, and they would probably have been outdone by the years following, had he lived. But I believe that, had he remained in the Senate, his name would have gone into history among those of the greatest of legislators.

Sixteen years after the death of Lincoln public feeling was again moved to its depth by the assassination of Garfield. The cry seemed to pass from mouth to mouth through the streets faster than a messenger could carry the news, "The President has been shot." It chanced to reach me just as I was entering my office. I at once summoned my messenger and directed him to go over to the White House, and see if anything unusual had happened, but gave him no intimation of my fears. He promptly returned with the confirmation of the report. The following are extracts from my journal at the time:-

"July 2, Saturday: At 9.20 this morning President Garfield was shot by a miserable fellow named Guiteau, as he was passing through the Baltimore and Potomac R. R. station to leave Washington. One ball went through the upper arm, making a flesh wound, the other entered the right side on the back and cannot be found; supposed to have lodged in the liver. In the course of the day President rapidly weakened, and supposed to be dying from hemorrhage."

"Sunday morning: President still living and rallied during the day. Small chance of recovery. At night alarming symptoms of inflammation were exhibited, and at midnight his case seemed almost hopeless."

"Monday: President slightly better this morning, improving throughout the day."

"July 6. This P. M. sought an interview with Dr. Woodward at the White House, to talk of an apparatus for locating the ball by its action in retarding a rapidly revolving el. magnet. I hardly think the plan more than theoretically practical, owing to the minuteness of the action."

"The President still improving, but great dangers are yet to come, and nothing has been found of the ball, which is supposed to have stayed in the liver because, were it anywhere else, symptoms of irritation by its presence would have been shown."

"July 9. This is Saturday evening. Met Major Powell at the Cosmos Club, who told me that they would like to have me look at the air-cooling projects at the White House. Published statement that the physicians desired some way to cool the air of the President's room had brought a crowd of projects and machines of all kinds. Among other things, a Mr. Dorsey had got from New York an air compressor such as is used in the Virginia mines for transferring power, and was erecting machinery enough for a steamship at the east end of the house in order to run it."

Dr. Woodward was a surgeon of the army, who had been on duty at Washington since the civil war, in charge of the Army Medical Museum. Among his varied works here, that in micro-photography, in which he was a pioneer, gave him a wide reputation. His high standing led to his being selected as one of the President's physicians. To him I wrote a note, offering to be of any use I could in the matter of cooling the air of the President's chamber. He promptly replied with a request to visit the place, and see what was being done and what suggestions I could make. Mr. Dorsey's engine at the east end was dispensed with after a long discussion, owing to the noise it would make and the amount of work necessary to its final installation and operation.

Among the problems with which the surgeons had to wrestle was that of locating the ball. The question occurred to me whether it was not possible to do so by the influence produced by the action of a metallic conductor in retarding the motion of a rapidly revolving magnet, but the effect would be so small, and the apparatus to be made so delicate, that I was very doubtful about the matter. If there was any one able to take hold of the project successfully, I knew it would be Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. When I approached him on the subject, he suggested that the idea of locating the ball had also occurred to him, and that he thought the best apparatus for the purpose was a telephonic one which had been recently developed by Mr. Hughes. As there could be no doubt of the superiority of his project, I dropped mine, and he went forward with his. In a few days an opportunity was given him for actually trying it. The result, though rather doubtful, seemed to be that the ball was located where the surgeons supposed it to be. When the autopsy showed that their judgment had been at fault, Mr. Bell admitted his error to Dr. Woodward, adding some suggestion as to its cause. "Expectant attention," was Woodward's reply.

I found in the basement of the house an apparatus which had been brought over by a Mr. Jennings from Baltimore, which was designed to cool the air of dairies or apartments. It consisted of an iron box, two or three feet square, and some five feet long. In this box were suspended cloths, kept cool and damp by the water from melting ice contained in a compartment on top of the box. The air was driven through the box by a blower, and cooled by contact with the wet cloths. But no effect was being produced on the temperature of the room.

One conversant with physics will see one fatal defect in this appliance. The cold of the ice, if I may use so unscientific an expression, went pretty much to waste. The air was in contact, not with the ice, as it should have been, but with ice-water, which had already absorbed the latent heat of melting.

Evidently the air should be passed over the unmelted ice. The question was how much ice would be required to produce the necessary cooling? To settle this, I instituted an experiment. A block of ice was placed in an adjoining room in a current of air with such an arrangement that, as it melted, the water would trickle into a vessel below. After a certain number of minutes the melted water was measured, then a simple computation led to a knowledge of how much heat was absorbed from the air per minute by a square foot of the surface of the ice. From this it was easy to calculate from the known thermal capacity of air, and the quantity of the latter necessary per minute, how many feet of cooling surface must be exposed. I was quite surprised at the result. A case of ice nearly as long as an ordinary room, and large enough for men to walk about in it, must be provided. This was speedily done, supports were erected for the blocks of ice, the case was placed at the end of Mr. Jennings's box, and everything gotten in readiness for directing the air current through the receptacle, and into the room through tubes which had already been prepared.

It happened that Mr. Jennings's box was on the line along which the air was being conducted, and I was going to get it out of the way. The owner implored that it should be allowed to remain, suggesting that the air might just as well as not continue to pass through it. The surroundings were those in which one may be excused for not being harsh. Such an outpouring of sympathy on the part of the public had never been seen in Washington since the assassination of Lincoln. Those in charge were overwhelmed with every sort of contrivance for relieving the sufferings of the illustrious patient. Such disinterested efforts in behalf of a public and patriotic object had never been seen. Mr. Jennings had gone to the trouble and expense of bringing his apparatus all the way from Baltimore to Washington in order to do what in him lay toward the end for which all were striving. To leave his box in place could not do the slightest harm, and would be a gratification to him. So I let it stand, and the air continued to pass through it on its way to the ice chest.

While these arrangements were in progress three officers of engineers of the navy reported under orders at the White House, to do what they could toward the cooling of the air. They were Messrs. William L. Baillie, Richard Inch, and W. S. Moore. All four of us co?perated in the work in a most friendly way, and when we got through we made our reports to the Navy Department. A few weeks later these reports were printed in a pamphlet, partly to correct a wrong impression about the Jennings cold-box. Regular statements had appeared in the local evening paper that the air was being cooled by this useless contrivance. Their significance first came out several months later, on the occasion of an exhibition of mechanical or industrial implements at Boston. Among these was Mr. Jennings's cold-box, which was exhibited as the instrument that had cooled the air of President Garfield's chamber.

More light yet was thrown on the case when the question of rewarding those who had taken part in treating the President, or alleviating his sufferings in any way, came before Congress. Mr. Jennings was, I believe, among the claimants. Congress found the task of making the proper awards to each individual to be quite beyond its power at the time, so a lump sum was appropriated, to be divided by the Treasury Department according to its findings in each particular case. Before the work of making the awards was completed, I left on the expedition to the Cape of Good Hope to observe the transit of Venus, and never learned what had been done with the claims of Mr. Jennings. It might naturally be supposed that when an official report to the Navy Department showed that he had no claims whatever except those of a patriotic citizen who had done his best, which was just nothing at all, to promote the common end, the claim would have received little attention. Possibly this may have been the case. But I do not know what the outcome of the matter was.

Shortly after the death of the President, I had a visit from an inventor who had patented a method of cooling the air of a room by ice. He claimed that our work at the Executive Mansion was an infringement on his patent. I replied that I could not see how any infringement was possible, because we had gone to work in the most natural way, without consulting any previous process whatever, or even knowing of the existence of a patent. Surely the operation of passing air over ice to cool it could not be patentable.

He invited me to read over the statement of his claims. I found that although this process was not patented in terms, it was practically patented by claiming about every possible way in which ice could be arranged for cooling purposes. Placing the ice on supports was one of his claims; this we had undoubtedly done, because otherwise the process could not have been carried out. In a word, the impression I got was that the only sure way of avoiding an infringement would have been to blindfold the men who put the ice in the box, and ask them to throw it in pellmell. Every method of using judgment in arranging the blocks of ice he had patented.

I had to acknowledge that his claim of infringement might have some foundation, and inquired what he proposed to do in the case. He replied that he did not wish to do more than have his priority recognized in the matter. I replied that I had no objection to his doing this in any way he could, and he took his leave. Nothing more, so far as I am aware, was done in his case. But I was much impressed by this as by other examples I have had of the same kind, of the loose way in which our Patent Office sometimes grants patents.

I do not think the history of any modern municipality can show an episode more extraordinary or, taken in connection with its results, more instructive than what is known as the "Shepherd régime" in Washington. What is especially interesting about it is the opposite views that can be taken of the same facts. As to the latter there is no dispute. Yet, from one point of view, Shepherd made one of the most disastrous failures on record in attempting to carry out great works, while, from another point of view, he is the author of the beautiful Washington of to-day, and entitled to a public statue in recognition of his services. As I was a resident of the city and lived in my own house, I was greatly interested in the proposed improvements, especially of the particular street on which I lived. I was also an eye-witness to so much of the whole history as the public was cognizant of. The essential facts of the case, from the two, opposing points of view, are exceedingly simple.

One fact is the discreditable condition of the streets of Washington during and after the civil war. The care of these was left entirely to the local municipality. Congress, so far as I know, gave no aid except by paying its share of street improvements in front of the public buildings. It was quite out of the power of the residents, who had but few men of wealth among them, to make the city what it ought to be. Congress showed no disposition to come to the help of the citizens in this task.

In 1871, however, some public-spirited citizens took the matter in hand and succeeded in having a new government established, which was modeled after that of the territories of the United States. There was a governor, a legislature, and a board of public works. The latter was charged with the improvements of the streets, and the governor was ex officio its president. The first governor was Henry D. Cooke, the banker, and Mr. Shepherd was vice-president of the board of public works and its leading member. Mr. Cooke resigned after a short term, and Mr. Shepherd was promoted to his place. He was a plumber and gas-fitter by trade, and managed the leading business in his line in Washington. Through the two or three years of his administration the city directory still contained the entry-

Shepherd, Alex. R. & Co., plumbers and gas-fitters, 910 Pa. Ave. N. W.

In recent years he had added to his plumbing business that of erecting houses for sale. He had had no experience in the conduct of public business, and, of course, was neither an engineer nor a financier. But such was the energy of his character and his personal influence, that he soon became practically the whole government, which he ran in his own way, as if it were simply his own business enlarged. Of the conditions which the law imposes on contracts, of the numerous and complicated problems of engineering involved in the drainage and street systems of a great city, of the precautions to be taken in preparing plans for so immense a work, and of the legal restraints under which it should be conducted, he had no special knowledge. But he had in the highest degree a quality which will bear different designations according to the point of view. His opponents would call it unparalleled recklessness; his supporters, boldness and enterprise.

Such were the preliminaries. Three years later the results of his efforts were made known by an investigating committee of Congress, with Senator Allison, a political friend, at its head. It was found that with authority to expend $6,000,000 in the improvement of the streets, there was an actual or supposed expenditure of more than $18,000,000, and a crowd of additional claims which no man could estimate, based on the work of more than one thousand principal contractors and an unknown number of purchasers and sub-contractors. Chaos reigned supreme. Some streets were still torn up and impassable; others completely paved, but done so badly that the pavements were beginning to rot almost before being pressed by a carriage. A debt had been incurred which it was impossible for the local municipality to carry and which was still piling up.

For all this Congress was responsible, and manfully shouldered its responsibility. Mr. Shepherd was legislated out of office as an act of extreme necessity, by the organization of a government at the head of which were three commissioners. The feeling on the subject may be inferred from the result when President Grant, who had given Shepherd his powerful support all through, nominated him as one of the three commissioners. The Senate rejected the nomination, with only some half dozen favorable votes.

The three commissioners took up the work and carried it on in a conservative way. Congress came to the help of the municipality by bearing one half the taxation of the District, on the very sound basis that, as it owned about one half of the property, it should pay one half the taxes.

The spirit of the time is illustrated by two little episodes. The reservation on which the public library founded by Mr. Carnegie is now built, was then occupied by the Northern Liberties Market, one of the three principal markets of the city. Being a public reservation, it had no right to remain there except during the pleasure of the authorities. Due notice was given to the marketmen to remove the structures. The owners were dilatory in doing so, and probably could not see why they should be removed when the ground was not wanted for any other purpose, and before they had time to find a new location. It was understood that, if an attempt was made to remove the buildings, the marketmen would apply to the courts for an injunction. To prevent this, an arrangement was made by which the destruction of the buildings was to commence at dinner-time. At the same time, according to current report, it was specially arranged that all the judges to whom an application could be made should be invited out to dinner. However this may have been, a large body of men appeared upon the scene in the course of the evening and spent the night in destroying the buildings. With such energy was the work carried on that one marketman was killed and another either wounded or seriously injured in trying to save their wares from destruction. The indignation against Shepherd was such that his life was threatened, and it was even said that a body-guard of soldiers had to be supplied by the War Department for his protection.

The other event was as comical as this was tragic. It occurred while the investigating committee of Congress was at its work. The principal actors in the case were Mr. Harrington, secretary of the local government and one of Mr. Shepherd's assistants, the chief of police, and a burglar. Harrington produced an anonymous letter, warning him that an attempt would be made in the course of a certain night to purloin from the safe in which they were kept, certain government papers, which the prosecutors of the case against Shepherd were anxious to get hold of. He showed this letter to the chief of police, who was disposed to make light of the matter. But on Harrington's urgent insistence the two men kept watch about the premises on the night in question. They were in the room adjoining that in which the records were kept, and through which the robber would have to pass. In due time the latter appeared, passed through the room and proceeded to break into the safe. The chief wanted to arrest him immediately, but Harrington asked him to wait, in order that they might see what the man was after, and especially what he did with the books. So they left and took their stations outside the door. The burglar left the building with the books in a satchel, and, stepping outside, was confronted by the two men.

I believe every burglar of whom history or fiction has kept any record, whether before or after this eventful night, when he broke open a safe and, emerging with his booty, found himself confronted by a policeman, took to his heels. Not so this burglar. He walked up to the two men, and with the utmost unconcern asked if they could tell him where Mr. Columbus Alexander lived. Mr. Alexander, it should be said, was the head man in the prosecution. The desired information being conveyed to the burglar, he went on his way to Mr. Alexander's house, followed by the two agents of the law. Arriving there, he rang the bell.

In the ordinary course of events, Mr. Alexander or some member of his family would have come to the door and been informed that the caller had a bundle for him. A man just awakened from a sound sleep and coming downstairs rubbing his eyes, would not be likely to ask any questions of such a messenger, but would accept the bundle and lock the door again. Then what a mess the prosecution would have been in! Its principal promoter detected in collusion with a burglar in order to get possession of the documents necessary to carry on his case!

It happened, however, that Mr. Alexander and the members of his household all slept the sleep of the just and did not hear the bell. The patience of the policeman was exhausted and the burglar was arrested and lodged in jail, where he was kept for several months. Public curiosity to hear the burglar's story was brought to a high pitch, but never gratified. Before the case came to trial the prisoner was released on straw bail and never again found. I do not think the bottom facts, especially those connected with the anonymous letter, were ever brought to light. So every one was left to form his own theory of what has since been known as the "Safe Burglary Conspiracy."

What seems at present the fashionable way of looking at the facts is this: Shepherd was the man who planned the beautiful Washington of to-day, and who carried out his project with unexampled energy until he was stopped through the clamor of citizens who did not want to see things go ahead so fast. Other people took the work up, but they only carried out Shepherd's ideas. The latter, therefore, should have all the credit due to the founder of the new Washington.

The story has always seemed to me most interesting as an example of the way in which public judgment of men and things is likely to be influenced. Public sentiment during the thirty years which have since elapsed has undergone such a revolution in favor of Shepherd that a very likely outcome will be a monument to commemorate his work. But it is worth while to notice the mental processes by which the public now reaches this conclusion. It is the familiar and ordinarily correct method of putting this and that together.

This is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States, of which Americans generally are proud when they pay it a visit.

That is the recollection of the man who commenced the work of transforming an unsightly, straggling, primitive town into the present Washington, and was condemned for what he did.

These two considerations form the basis of the conclusion, all intermediate details dropping out of sight and memory. The reckless maladministration of the epoch, making it absolutely necessary to introduce a new system, has no place in the picture.

There is also a moral to the story, which is more instructive than pleasant. The actors in the case no doubt believed that if they set about their work in a conservative and law-abiding way, spending only as much money as could be raised, Congress would never come to their help. So they determined to force the game, by creating a situation which would speedily lead to the correct solution of the problem. I do not think any observant person will contest the proposition that had Shepherd gone about his work and carried it to a successful conclusion in a peaceable and law-abiding way,-had he done nothing to excite public attention except wisely and successfully to administer a great public work,-his name would now have been as little remembered in connection with what he did as we remember those of Ketchem, Phelps, and the other men who repaired the wreck he left and made the city what it is to-day.

In my mind one question dominates all others growing out of the case: What will be the moral effect on our children of holding up for their imitation such methods as I have described?

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares