30 Apr 2018


Lost Capitol Hill: James McGurk

While it has been over 60 years since the last execution in the District of Columbia, the first was done almost immediately after the founding of the city. The site? Just off Capitol Hill, and close enough for us to have a look at the deed today.

James McGurk was nobody’s idea of a good man. He was known for beating his wife, and continued to do so even when she was pregnant with twins, until she miscarried. A few months later, after a further beating from her, she succumbed to her injuries. He was sentenced to die, with his wife’s dying declaration being key to conviction.

In spite of this, his lawyer, Augustus B. Woodward (picture) refused to give up the fight. The first attempt was having McGurk write a letter to President Jefferson, in which he appealed to Jefferson’s (and Adams’s) good nature:

The Charactor of the nation over which you now preside is Known for the mildness of its Laws and the humainety of those the Executes them

your Excellency Predicessor is also Known for their humainety and never Suffered a wretch to be put to death where they with safity could prevent it

Surely then I cannot be without hops of my Days being prolonged in a Land over which a Jefferson presides [all errors sic]

For the next months, McGurk was kept in a small cell in what passed for a jail at the time. While Jefferson did not reply to McGurk’s letter, he did, as the date of the execution grew near in late August, postpone the date by two months, during which time Woodward wrote an impassioned letter that was published in the National Intelligencer, in which he insisted that McGurk’s offense was manslaughter, and not murder. McGurk wrote two more letters to Jefferson, both of which seem to have been ignored. And so, on October 28, 1802, McGurk was taken from his cell and executed. It is generally agreed that the scaffold was erected at First Street and Maryland Avenue SW: right where the Garfield Statue stands today, just southwest of the Capitol

1863 picture showing the general area of the McGurk execution. It was, presumably, even less salubrious in those days (LOC)

The following day, the National Intelligencer laconically noted that

Yesterday was executed JAMES M’GIRK, sentenced to death for murdering his wife.

Woodward would soon thereafter decamp from Washington and move to the Michigan territory, where Jefferson had appointed him territorial governor. He would remain there for some twenty years, even when Detroit was occupied by the British. He would later be instrumental in the founding of the University of Michigan.

You can read about other executions on the Hill here: Charles Guiteau, Henry Wirz.

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