24 Dec 2012

Lost Captol Hill: Lewis Dublois

tn (1)With Christmas almost upon us, it seems to behoove me to go to reruns rather than trying to find new information to post. And so, I will repeat a column that argues for the renaming of one of the more minor rooms at the Old Naval Hospital after one Lewis Dublois.

Lewis (or Louis – records differ) Deblois was born in 1760 in Boston a member of a famous and well-regarded family. He moved to DC shortly after the city’s founding, where his first job was to running a store for his father, a former Senator from Massachusetts. Deblois also dabbled in building, hiring out workers for some of the speculators building houses in the nascent city. Over the next 10 years he branched out into banking, but in 1810, he sold his store, laid down his work at the bank, and entered public service in the form of the United States Navy. With his knowledge of banking, it was unsurprising that he should be made purser’s clerk. Unfortunately, the faith shown in him was apparently misplaced, as soon numerous questions were being raised about his trustworthiness, with multiple shipyard workers complaining about his financial dealings.

In spite of this, he was made a purser, being commissioned an officer just in time for the war of 1812. A purser in this time was in charge of ensuring that each sailor was properly paid, as well as selling them such items as clothing, candy, and tobacco. While the running of the payroll was not terribly lucrative, the sales end of the job made most pursers a tidy profit, but in spite of this, Deblois found himself insolvent in 1814. Even worse, he found himself unable to balance the books he kept for the Navy, and thus, in 1821, he found himself furloughed from the Navy. For the next several years, he was still nominally on the Naval rolls, but they simply indicate that he was furloughed.


Detail of 1857 map showing Deblois’s store on Square 948. The original Tunnicliff’s tavern can be seen on the square to the left. (LOC)

Detail of 1857 map showing Deblois’s store on Square 948. The original Tunnicliff’s tavern can be seen on the square to the left. (LOC)

Somewhere along the line, Deblois had managed to buy several lots in square 948, which fronted Pennsylvania Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets, SE. It was here that he ran a store, though how well it did given Deblois’s notoriously bad financial acumen is anyone’s guess.

In 1821, just as he was being furloughed from the Navy, he also found himself in such dire financial straits that the city demanded he turn over these two lots as part payment of the $3,000 he owed. Deblois himself lived another 12 years, dying in 1833 and buried with all honors in the Deblois family tomb.

For the next 32 years, the city held onto Deblois’s old property. During the Civil War, it became clear that a new, modern, hospital was needed and a site needed to be found. Searching through the properties the city owned, this particular land stood out, and by buying the other two lots, the city had space for the new edifice that is today known as the Old Naval Hospital.