21 Oct 2019


Lost Capitol Hill: Death at the Navy Yard pt 1

Commandant Hiram Paulding. (LOC)

One of the exciting moments for me in writing these columns is when disparate sources of information come together and allow me to get a more complete idea of what happened a long time ago.

I was recently looking through my stash of previously unused newspaper items that I thought might be able to work into a column eventually, and noticed that there was a whole spate of deaths at the Washington Navy Yard in 1853. Whether this was just that editors were more desperate for copy in an otherwise quiet time, or if there was a real uptick in accidents in that year ––the first under a new Commandant, Hiram Paulding–– is a dive into the records of the time that I am unwilling to make. However, I thought this coincidence was worth at least commenting on. In looking up the names of those who died that year, I came across a very different source: The Michael Shiner diary. He, too, had taken note at the time of these deaths. And so, a look at the Shiner diary vs. what the newspaper wrote. (For those unfamiliar, Michael Shiner was an African American diarist who chronicled life around the District for over 60 years, first as a slave and then as a free man. – MHC)

The first death that year was a young Baltimorean, who was helping remove the scaffolding that had been employed in building a new ordnance building. Shiner noted his passing:

The Death of george J young a Bricklayer a native of Baltimore fell about 30 feet from a Scaffold at the North west Corner of the new ordnance building the 26th day of april 1853 on tuesday.

The following day, the Evening Star reported the young man’s name as “George H. Jean.” Possibly, Shiner meant to write “George J, a young Bricklayer” instead. Otherwise, the information agrees, though the Star adds the gruesome detail that Jean’s “skull and neck were so badly injured to cause his death in ten minutes.”

Building 33 a the Washington Navy Yard, which was begun in 1853, though not the site of the fatal scaffolding (LOC)

Less than two weeks later, came another cranial injury leading to death. Patrick Kane had been using a block and tackle to pull logs out of the Anacostia when one of them slipped and crashed down on those below. Kane did not jump out of the way quickly enough, and his head was crushed by the log. The Republic noted that if “he had had the presence of mind to throw himself at full length on the ground, the adjacent timber would have caused the instrument by which he was destroyed to pass harmlessly over him.”

Shiner’s take is shorter, but more graphic:

The death of Patrick Kane a native of Ireland in the rolling of pile he was Jamied between the piles Along Sides of the New Ship house on the 6th day of may 1853

This quote is immediately after the preceding one, and then Shiner adds “on wensday the death of Charles King” before going back to another death that he writes about before returning to King’s death. It is this sort of jumping around that has historians assume that Shiner wrote up at least part of his diary later, rather than being a day-to-day record of his life, thus being more a memoir than a true diary. Nonetheless, it remains an extraordinary insight into regular life in the Navy Yard. And I will continue looking at the Navy Yard’s Annus Horribilis next week.

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