25 Apr 2016


Lost Capitol Hill: John L. Wirt

Calhoun TNLast week, I looked at the tussle between Representatives Rathbun and White on the House floor. While the fracas itself was quickly resolved, and the combatants soon realized the error of their ways, there was a coda to the events of that day that had long-lasting repercussions.

While Rathbun and White were going at it, one William S. Moore was trying to get onto the floor of the House. Moore, originally from Kentucky, was in Washington attempting to get some satisfaction from an unknown government agency. Presumably, he hoped to pester one of the Representatives for assistance in this matter. Not being a member of the House, the Sergeant-at-Arms attempted to keep him from the floor. Representative William C. McCauslen of Ohio came to the Sergeant-at-Arms’s assistance, and escorted Moore out, then turned to return to the floor.

At that moment, Moore pulled out a pistol and fired. Who he was aiming for was undetermined, but the fact was that the bullet went home–not to McCauslen, but to one John L. Wirt of the Capitol Police. Wirt was just exiting the floor when he was struck in the thigh. Moore was tackled and dragged off to the post office of the House, where he was relieved of both the gun and a dirk he was carrying and placed under arrest.

About two weeks later, the House decided to turn over Moore to the local police, to have them try the case. Ten days after that, the House once again roused themselves to action, appropriating $150 for Wirt, as compensation for the injuries. This was actually quite generous – his salary had been only $100 per year not much earlier.

Moore was charged with assault with intent to kill McCauslen, as well as assault on Wirt. He was tried early the following year, and was convicted only on assault on McCauslen, but not on Wirt. He then disappears into the mists of history.

Wirt, for his part, did quite well for himself. A few years later, he was elected Alderman, and served as such for four years. He also assisted his neighbor Mathias M. White , a funeral director. White noted in an ad that ran in the Daily Union of May 1, 1850 that “John L. Wirt will see to the filling of all orders during my absence with the remains of Hon. John C. Calhoun.” Calhoun (pic) had died on March 31st of that year, and was taken back to Charleston, SC, for burial.

1828 picture of the Capitol showing the fence and one of the gates. Watercolor by John Rubens Smith (LOC)

Detail of 1828 picture of the Capitol showing the fence and one of the gates that Wirt was responsible for. Watercolor by John Rubens Smith. (LOC)

Wirt was also assaulted two more times in the following years, but it was the injury caused by Moore that caused him the greatest problems. In 1854, one of his colleagues, Aquilla K. Arnold, wrote a letter to Congress in which he testified that Wirt’s health was “feeble” and that walking up hills was so difficult that “the police and watch in the Capitol grounds … close the gates assigned to him as his duty … which I believe he would do if he had to crawl to do it.” Two years later, he reiterated his belief.

The following year, on November 20, 1857, Wirt died of ‘hemorrhage of the lungs” He was not yet 50 years old. Wirt was buried in Congressional Cemetery, where he was joined less than two years later by his widow, Margaret Rebecca Wirt, nee Duley. She, too, was young, having just passed her 45th birthday.

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2 responses to “Lost Capitol Hill: John L. Wirt”

  1. Liz Ruskin says:

    Any relationship to William Wirt? The one whose tomb at Congressional Cemetery was raided?

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