25 Jan 2016


Lost Capitol Hill: False Accusations

tnMichael Shiner is one of the more fascinating characters from the history of Capitol Hill. Born a slave in Maryland, he was brought to Washington and put to work at the Navy Yard. He managed to emancipate himself, and was a long-time resident of Capitol Hill. Most importantly, however, he wrote a diary that gives insight into the Navy Yard and its operation from the War of 1812 to the Civil War.

Today, however, we will look at a less salubrious time in his life, and how he – quite falsely – came to be accused of a crime.

Given the usual relish that newspapermen have of writing of the mistakes and poor choices made by their fellow citizens, Washingtonians must not have been too surprised to read in the Washington Evening Star of Monday, January 7, 1861, that the previous Saturday one of their own had been robbed: George R. Wilson, who lived at the corner of 8th and E Streets SE had found that a burglar had absconded with, “$92 in gold, a considerable amount of silver plate, jewelry, medalions, etc.”

Much more surprising must have been to read that, “Mike Shiner and his wife (colored)” had been arrested in connection with this robbery. Shiner was, after all, well-known in his neighborhood as an honest and upstanding worker at the Washington Navy Yard.

Detail of a page of Shiner's diary (LOC)

Detail of a page of Shiner’s diary (LOC)

The following day, the Daily National Republican expanded on the story, adding that Wilson’s house had not only been burglarized, but that there had also been an attempt to set it alight. There was some suggestion that these outrages were perpetrated due to Wilson’s being a Republican, and that he “had his house much damaged lately by a lawless mob of political opponents.” Even worse, Wilson had recently lost his job at a foundry when it had closed. On the positive side, the article indicated that Shiner had been arrested, but after a search of his premises, been released when no evidence that he was involved was uncovered.

The following day, the Evening Star had to shame-facedly admit that it was not Michael Shiner who had been (falsely) arrested, but rather a Joe Shiner. In an attempt to rehabilitate the former’s name, the Star added that he was, “a very respectable colored man, an employee in the Navy Yard.”

Who, exactly, was responsible for the original outrage was never determined. However, George Wilson would soon see a dramatic uptick in his fortunes. He was a deputy marshal in the inaugural parade for Abraham Lincoln, and then was named a master mechanist at the Navy Yard, and shortly thereafter appointed superintendent of machinery. This post he held until the election of Grover Cleveland, when the new Secretary of the Navy, William C. Whitney (pic) had him removed. Too valuable to the Navy to be lost, as he had several patents to his name, he soon found himself re-employed.

He died 80 years old in 1906, and was buried in Congressional Cemetery. He was survived by two sons, four daughters, and his wife, the former Charity Inch, sister of two Navy officers.

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