20 Sep 2021


Lost Capitol Hill: Joseph Orange

Judge Ivory Kimball

We have looked at a couple of bars in the 900 block of 8th Street SE over the last few weeks. Curious about what happened to the Union House after the Civil War, we dug into the records of the time to unearth the story of Joshua Orange.

Orange was born in 1846 in Palermo, Sicily. He moved to the US as a young boy. During the Civil War, he served with the Massachusetts 12th Infantry Regiment. Founded in the early days of the war, they were involve in some of its bloodiest battles, including Antietam, during which they lost two-thirds of the Regiment. Orange was invalided during the war, and moved to Washington after the South surrendered.

He built up a business as a barber. In about 1875, he married Mary Savaria La Cava, who had also been born in Italy. That same decade, he moved to Capitol Hill, opening a barbershop first at 904 8th Street before settling in at 918, the old Union House building.

In short, his was a very ordinary life for that era. Orange’s name rarely appeared in the newspaper, mainly just when he was looking for a new barber, or was elected to a position in the Italian Society, or, on one distressing instance, when he was in court to answer to a charge of cruelty to animals.

Orange’s quiet life would be shattered on January 21, 1896. He was quietly riding through the Smithsonian Gardens (what we would call the Mall today) when he was approached by a barking bull dog. The noise startled the horse, which reared up and Orange could keep it under control only with difficulty. The dog then proceeded to attack Orange, fastening his teeth into the rider’s boot. Orange tried to dislodge the dog with his cane, but the horse’s continued plunging made that impossible. Eventually, the horse rolled over, crushing Orange’s leg. The dog finally dislodged his attacker and tried to escape, but was captured by a police officer a few blocks away.

The Smithsonian Gardens, ca. 1900. (SI.gov)

Orange was taken to the hospital, where he was patched up before being sent home. About two weeks later, he had his day in court. Hobbling in on crutches, and clutching the boot that had been destroyed, he confronted Andrew J. Lewis, who tried to get out of responsibility for the dog’s actions by claiming that it was owned by his children. Judge Kimball did not agree, and with that, Orange and the park’s watchman testified as to what happened. Kimball’s decision was quick and decisive: He fined Lewis 5 dollars and ordered him to get rid of the dog.

And with that, Orange disappeared from the pages of the newspaper again. About ten years later, he taunted the Daughters of the Confederacy to go ahead and build a statue to notorious POW camp commander Henry Wirz:

Seeing the monument so near to the cemetery containing 14,000 graves, the tourists and sightseers will ask its reason, and the apologists for Wirz will have to explain that he was the chief man in that tragedy, and that he was arrested, given a trial in a court of law, convicted by the jury, and hanged. It will require much elaborate reasoning and justification on the part of the Daughters of the Confederacy to convince the aforesaid tourist that Wirz was not properly punished.

As so many others, Orange’s last appearance in the newspapers was related to his death. In contrast to most others, who would receive a brief mention or a proper obituary, Orange’s death was reported as a crime. He had left his home at 9 p.m. on April 2, 1916, stating that he was going to go to a movie at a local theater.What happened between 10:30, when the movie let out, and 4 a.m. the next morning, when Orange was found, badly injured, on D Street southwest, a half block from South Capitol Street, was never adequately determined. Orange was taken to Casualty Hospital, where he died that evening without having regained consciousness. The working assumption was that he had been robbed, as the money and gold watch he had left the house with were no longer on him, but that theory fell apart when these items were found nearby later.

The coroner put down the death to uraemic poisoning (most likely what we would call uremia today) and Joseph Orange was laid to rest in Congressional Cemetery.

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