24 Aug 2015


Lost Capitol Hill: Crime on the Hill

tnThe recent uptick in crime in our neighborhood has everyone from Chief Lanier on down concerned; but as someone who likes to take the long view, I want to… well, take the long view on this. And point out that it’s been going on for a long, long time.

Rezin Nathaniel Pumphrey was just another Hill resident in 1852– that is, he was a Hill resident with a truly odd first name. He had been born in Prince George’s County in 1802, moving to DC in the 1840s, where he worked as a farmer and miller. He was, according to the Daily American Telegraph, “a well disposed person, very well known and much respected in this city.”

On November 8, 1852, however, he had an altercation with one John Long. The discussion began at a house near Pumphrey’s mill, a discussion which Pumphrey attempted to end by leaving the house and returning to his mill. Long followed Pumphrey, and knocked him down with a stone. After Long returned and boasted of what he had done, others found Pumphrey, “lying apparently lifeless on the ground near the mill with a dreadful fracture on the left side of his head.” The National Intelligencer went on in a similarly bloody way, describing the wound and the weapon that had caused it in great detail.

Pumphrey’s life was despaired at, and the Telegraph two days later stated that they had “heard this morning that Mr. Pumphrey was dead.” Amazingly enough, this was not true. In spite of the grievous nature of the wound, Pumphrey survived, and early the following year, Long was sentenced to two years in prison for assault.

Germans in America lg

Pumphrey’s attack was even mentioned in this book about Germans living in the United States, published in Goettingen, Germany in 1853. Unfortunately, it gets a few things wrong: The attack occurred in Washington, not nearby, John Long’s name real name was not Jackes, Pumphrey did not die of his wounds, and Long did not escape punishment. Otherwise, it is 100% correct. (Google books)

As awful as this episode was, it was not the end for this family. Just over five years later, Rezin Nathaniel Pumphrey, junior, was at James A. Bean’s restaurant, located in the Odd Fellows Hall on 8th Street. Pumphrey junior was simply, as the Evening Star put it, “getting some refreshments” when someone outside pulled out a gun and fired through the window of the restaurant. Pumphrey was “seriously, though…not dangerously wounded.” The assailant fled into the night.

There is no indication that the perpetrator ever was brought to justice. The attack may have been part of a larger campaign against Bean: Four days later, the Star reported of a riot that “attacked the restaurant kept by James Bean.” They had used, “a shower of stones and other missiles” and shattered his windows. While they only managed to make a small mess, the Star opined that the “violation of the law was outrageous.” Once again, no sign of any justice being meted out in this case was to be found.

Beam himself moved his restaurant to 11th and I SE a few years later, then eventually converted to the quieter occupation of grocer. He died in 1884 and was buried in Congressional Cemetery in a funeral that was, “very largely attended.”

The younger Pumphrey, like his father, survived his wounds and never looked back. He married a few years later, then signed up to fight in the Union Army for three months before settling down as a plasterer in DC and later a butcher in Baltimore, where he eventually died in 1901.

His father also briefly moved to Baltimore, but returned to DC before 1880. He died at age 80 in 1883, over 30 years after having received his head wound. He, too, ended up in Congressional Cemetery.

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