10 Jul 2017


Lost Capitol Hill: The Short, Unhappy Life of William M. Steele

Last week, we looked at the origins of Pipetown and the rather bizarre noise complaint that brought a number of its citizens into conflict with the law and into the court of Judge Ivory Kimball (pic). Unfortunately, this was not the end of court appearances for one of those fined on that occasion. William Steele went from disturbing the peace to heading a “crowd of young men” that attacked a boatman in 1896. The Washington Morning Times of December 14th of that year notes that he was a member of the “Pipetown gang” at this point. Steele evaded punishment by leaving town to “keep out of the way of the police.” The rest of the gang had the choice of paying a $20 fine or spending 60 days in jail.

Two years thereafter, Steele was involved in an even more egregious situation. Having recently completed his duties as a volunteer during the Spanish-American War, Steele went to a local bar on the corner of 11th and M Streets, and – along with three friends – “created no end of hilarity.” Unfortunately, this “hilarity” came at the expense of John Dugan, owner of the establishment, who requested that the local constabulary put a stop to it. By the time the police arrived, Steele and his buddies had disappeared. They came back shortly thereafter and resumed rampaging, at which point they were told to knock it off. The Post of November 29, 1898 describes what happens next: “[Steele and co.] resented the interference of the officer and sat upon him, about half a dozen being in the crowd.” Eventually Steele and his merry band were captured on a boat on the Potomac, and dragged before the magistrates.

Three weeks later, out on a $500 bond, Steele married Florence M. Alberts. Whatever his punishment from the trial, he soon thereafter fathered a child with her, and the 1900 Census shows him working as a steam fitter at the Navy Yard, apparently now a productive member of society.

Headline of the Washington Evening Star of June 13, 1905 about the trial of William Pruitt. (LOC)

Sadly, Steele could not escape his former life, and in 1905, he was gunned down under questionable circumstances. Steele had been invited to the “old Naylor Mansion” in Anacostia by one William R. Pruitt, and Pruitt had shot him with a shotgun. The Evening Star of June 12, 1905, reported that the victim had “received a load of shot in his stomach, and [had had] his right hand […] almost shot off.” Steele died the following day in the Washington Asylum Hospital.

The man wielding the gun claimed it was self-defense, and the trial indicated that there was a fair bit of drinking done by not only the killer but the decedent as well. Pruitt was tried twice for murder, but neither time could the jury agree on whether or not he was guilty, and thus was eventually set free. Steele was buried at Congressional Cemetery.

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