22 Apr 2019


Lost Capitol Hill: Explosion in the Alley

Lieutenant Ogden T. Davis

Having now spent two weeks finding the good in Schott’s Alley, it’s time to go back to my real love: scandals. And Schott’s Alley had its share. In 1911, not only did a gang of purse snatchers make their home there, but it harbored an honest-to-god murderer.

But first, the purse snatchers. On January 8, the Washington Evening Star reported that, “the gang of pocketbook snatchers who have been operating in the northeast and northwest sections has been broken up, it is believed by the police.” Presumably, the reporter was trying to say that the police believed that they had broken up the ring through their arrests and not that the reporter was uncertain whether or not it was the police who had broken up the ring.

Indeed, it had been quick work by the police that had done the job. Shortly after a Mrs. Thorne had been assaulted by two men as she passed an alley on East Capitol Street, she had alerted the police, who found one of the men answering to her description a few blocks away. A short interview later, and the police went to the corner of 2nd and F Streets, Northeast, where “Detective Smith was lowered into the sewer trap. After a search of a few minutes he reappeared with the pocketbook.” It did not take long to arrest all four members of the gang.

On September 10 of the same year, a far more gruesome discovery was made in the aftermath of a fire in a cobbler’s shop at 4th and H Northwest. Among the debris was “found the charred and unrecognizable body of a boy.”

It did not take long to connect the corpse with the owner of the shop, one Tony Milano of 18 Schott’s Alley. When he left the rear of his domicile, he found himself facing “a revolver held by Detective Fred Cornwell.” While Milano denied his involvement, the dark spots on his suit convinced the police they were on the right track. While Milano continued to deny his complicity, he was eventually sentenced to death, and escaped only when his sentence was commuted by President Wilson to life in prison.

But there were not just pursesnatchers and murderers in Schott’s Alley – there were also bootleggers and moonshiners. A little after a half year of Prohibition becoming the law in D.C., a Walter Williams of Schott’s Alley was jailed for 180 days and fined $500 for selling liquor.

Seven years later, with Prohibition now enforced all across the country, Lieutenant Ogden T. Davis [pictured] of the Metropolitan Police led a squad of his colleagues into Schott’s Alley. The raid began well, with them not only discovering a still, but one in actual operation. Davis having never seen one of them in operation, he decided to take a closer look:

While Officers Sirola and Thompson proceeded to their business of swooping, Lieut. Davis sidled over to what he could scarcely believe could be, but which undoubtedly was, nothing other than a still. From the pictures of such things it was easily recognizable. It had steam, coils, a familiar odor and everything.

Davis (far left) and colleagues pose with “the largest still in captivity” according to the catption of this 1922 picture. (LOC)

Lieut. Davis’s eyes drank in every little detail as his men joined him. The trio examined a jigger here, tested a little gadget on the boiler and tinkered with a thingamabob there. In the midst of the inspection there was a terrific explosion.

Davis was taken to Casualty Hospital to have “parts of the still and its contents removed from his face and eyes,” while the two prisoners, their “alleged whisky and 300 gallons of mash” were carted off to jail.

Davis would fully recover and had a long successful career in the police thereafter.

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