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A HISTORY...............
by Barry Mackintosh


Notwithstanding their newly acquired police powers, the park watchmen of the 1880s were still occupied largely with other duties. The Chief of Engineers characterized their function in his 1886 annual report:

They are not watchmen, in the common acceptation of that term, but are really park-keepers, doing daily the work of gardener, laborer, and watchman. During the season of active operations they are on duty daily, including Sundays, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., with only time for their meals. The parks under their charge are the handsomest in the city, and are visited by large numbers of citizens and strangers. The entire time of these watchmen is devoted to making their parks as beautiful as possible. . . . [1]

There were no set knowledge, education, or experience requirements beyond prior military service in these early years, and not surprisingly the watchmen varied in their capacity and fitness for the job. Samuel H. Chapman, the watchman at Judiciary Square, was an elderly veteran of the Seminole, Mexican, and Civil wars. During the last of these he had served as a captain in the 5th Iowa Infantry but "was compelled to resign and go home a broken down man," he wrote Sen. Samuel J. Kirkwood of Iowa in January 1880. He sought the senator's intercession to help him secure "an easier place" on account of his age and poor health, but Secretary of War Alexander Ramsey told Kirkwood that there was no easier place for Chapman in the park watch. [2]

Remaining at Judiciary Square, Chapman prompted public complaints for his inattention to duty. "Instead of sweeping off the pavement . . . he sits by the stove in his villa and reads his newspaper," wrote "a taxpayer" who regularly traversed the square. "A very estimable old gentleman no doubt, but wholly unsuited for the duty assigned him." [3] Another citizen's letter suggests that Chapman may have confused his assignment with that of another sort of watchman: "Mr. Chapman instead of attending to the duty of Watchman is employed at a table in the Watchman's House in Judiciary Square mending and repairing Clocks and Watches almost constantly during the business hours of the day, each and every day." Confronted with this complaint, Chapman confessed to some minor watch repairing on the job -- for Public Buildings and Grounds officials at their request. [4] His resignation in April 1881 must have occasioned general relief.

Edwin Knowles, the watchman at Washington Circle and Rawlins, McPherson, and Farragut squares, was attacked anonymously by "A Laday [sic] who has known him for years" in July 1880: "He is a good talker and anyone who does not know him would think him a nice old man he is not he is a wicked old wretch. . . . I know a girl he ruined and he is always after colored girls he will make the Parks disrespectful unless watched himself." [5] While the case against Knowles lacked corroboration, the misconduct of Godfrey Beck and John F. Brown did not. Beck, the watchman in the reservations between Thomas Circle and Mount Vernon Square, was repeatedly drunk on duty and was finally discharged after being arrested by the Metropolitan Police for drunkenness in June 1883. Brown, the watchman at Logan and Scott circles, was the object of several complaints for over-officiousness before his denunciation in a joint letter from ten Metropolitan Police officers in July 1884: "Under his management disorderly characters are tolerated, and commit violations of the law without any interference on his part. His time, when he is there, is so much occupied by women, that he has no thought of his official duties. During the day when he is supposed to be there, his time is passed with a colored woman living on Kingman Place." He had previously been dismissed from the Metropolitan Police for neglect of duty, they said. [6] Brown stayed on the rolls but was transferred to the Smithsonian Grounds, away from the neighborhood of his alleged distraction.

Jacob Crison, the watchman at Lincoln Square, appears to have taken his responsibilities seriously, if his performance one day in 1879 is any indication. A citizen claiming influence with the House Appropriations Committee wrote Colonel Casey to complain about Crison's "impertinence and stupidity," adding, "I have observed that these guardians of the public squares, triangles, &c., &c., allow negros and 'poor white trash' to lie around and occupy the benches in indecent positions, oftentimes and to the exclusion of decent people while they reserve all the exertion of their brief authority against some modest gentleman who detests the notoriety of public attention under such circumstances." But according to Crison, the man had ridden unlawfully into the park on horseback, nearly trampled a gentleman and his child, and when asked to leave flaunted his Appropriations Committee connection. [7] Crison had persisted in ejecting him and suffered no adverse consequences from his complaint.

Some complaints against watchmen emanated from their fellows. In 1887 Edward Cummerford, a night watchman on the Smithsonian Grounds, charged his colleague Thomas O'Brien with neglect of duty, frequently leaving his post, and removing flowers from trees and shrubbery. O'Brien denied the charges, saying they came "from one who is a combination of treachery and vindictiveness" and attributing his absences to court appearances in connection with arrests he had made. When O'Brien got in another dispute with another watchman soon afterward, Col. John M. Wilson, officer in charge of Public Buildings and Grounds, became exasperated: "The U.S. does not employ watchmen to quarrel among themselves and annoy this office with complaints." [8]

Of course, it is impossible to measure the overall performance of the early watch force from the few such incidents in the surviving records. Serious problems were evidently uncommon, and the expansion of the force during the last decades of the century suggests that it was doing well overall. By 1900 the force, nearly twice its size in 1880, numbered 23 men:

James McKericher, Franklin Park
James Selbie, Lafayette Park
Charles Roskin, Smithsonian Grounds (day)
Joseph Field, Smithsonian Grounds (day)
James White, Judiciary Park
Alexander Robertson, Lincoln Park
Edward Dorsey, Iowa (Logan) Circle
Patrick Dowd, Thomas Circle
W. W. Steele, Washington Circle
David C. Kerr, Dupont Circle
Jacob A. Chase, McPherson and Farragut parks
E. F. Austin, Stanton Park
Edward Donnelly, Henry and Seaton parks
L. F. Davis, Henry and Seaton parks
James B. Smith, Mount Vernon Park
Thomas Smith, grounds south of Executive Mansion
Thomas Goodall, greenhouses at nursery
Charles F. Held, Garfield Park
A. T. Carrico, Smithsonian Grounds (night)
Martin Kenny, Smithsonian Grounds (night)
Thomas F. O'Neill, Judiciary Park (night)
John Cherry, Henry and Seaton parks (night)
John F. Lacey, Garfield Park (night) [9]

Three of them, White, Robertson, and Steele, had recently been promoted from laborer positions, suggesting that the two jobs still had common elements. [10] The force remained inadequate for the task at hand, however, and the Chief of Engineers pleaded for more:

The one day watchman now allowed for the "White Lot" or President's Park [Ellipse] is quite unable to cope with the "scorching" bicyclers, fast [horse] drivers, and trespassers on the grass and shrubbery, and patrol 63 acres of ground. At night this large area with thickets and shrubs is absolutely defenseless, as there is no night watchman. After dark no decent woman, or couple of them, dare go through these grounds, and it has on several occasions proved dangerous for men. [11]

Common offenses at the turn of the century included drunk and disorderly behavior, fast driving (of horses and bicycles, automobiles still being rare), riding bicycles on walks, vagrancy, and indecent exposure. Some arrests and punishments reflected a rather rudimentary concern for civil liberties. On April 26, 1899, Thomas F. O'Neill arrested Richard W. Smith in Judiciary Park on a "suspicious character" charge; Smith was sentenced to two months in the workhouse (presumably for something more substantial, although the record reveals nothing further). On June 12, 1900, James B. Smith nabbed William J. McNamara for profanity in Seaton Park; McNamara got 30 days in the workhouse. On the night of October 2, 1900, John Cherry arrested C. Kimmer and Kate Kirley for fornication in Seaton Park; he was fined $20 and she was sentenced to 60 days in the workhouse. [12]



Last Modified: Fri, Dec 10 1999 07:08:48 am PDT

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