Local celebrities are legion in Washington D.C. Whether the guy who runs backwards, or Concepcion (RIP) who lived and protested on Lafayette square for decades, or Doc, who is a fixture on the sidewalk outside Peregrine every morning, they are people that everyone knows. Washington has had characters like this for hundreds of years, the most famous of which is almost certainly Robert S. “Beau” Hickman.
I have previously mentioned Hickman in passing in my columns, and told the story of his demise and “resurrection” in my scandal book, and even been interviewed on the subject for a podcast. But I have never looked at the man in total. This is a pity, as he was truly a famous character in his time, despite never having anything to do with politics or any other government role–– the usual way to fame in this town.
Robert S. Hickman (That’s him, as seen on the title page of the book about him, above) was born in Virginia in 1813, of “respectable parentage,” as the 1876 work Life, Adventures and Anecdotes of Beau Hickman: The Prince of American Bummers states. This book was written by James Samuel Trout, who was – near as I can tell – Beau’s first cousin once removed. Trout writes, in that wonderfully elliptical and slightly ungrammatical fashion so favored in the 19th century, of Hickman’s youth:
He had been early placed at school, but, although of a quick and sprightly turn of mind, yet he relied mainly upon practices of conciliation to maintain his rank in his classes, and secured the esteem of his mates by courteous deportment and insinuating confidences.
Unsurprisingly for someone who comports himself this way, young Hickman did not thrive in school, and instead was “suspected of libertinism” and “was frequently reprimanded on account of his licentious conduct in the neighborhood.” This culminated in a scandal that could not easily be covered up.
[I]n order to escape the scandal of his follies, he received the share of his patrimony and started from his home and friends a prodigal wanderer, without any defined object or aim in life.
How much this share was is unknown – as is the nature of the scandal that caused his departure – but is said to be about $10,000, which would be north of a quarter million dollars today. Nonetheless, in under two years, Hickman had spent the lot “in riotous and sumptuous living.” Trout goes on to explain what this meant at the time: Spending time at the track and being a “regular habitue of the club” while always dressed in the most current fashions, down to a diamond pin and a gold watch and topped by a “faultless beaver.” During this time, however, no social event was considered a success unless Hickman attended and told a few of his famous stories.
Even when his money ran out, Hickman continued to live as if work was something for other people, descending into a “vagabond Bohemian life”– though that may be selling him short. He did work, just not in a fashion that most people considered salubrious.
More on Hickman’s life, his methods, and his demise in the following weeks.