25 Oct 2021


Lost Capitol Hill: Inspector Harry Gessford

Inspector Gessford

Last week, we looked at Charles Gessford, Capitol Hill builder. He was part of a family that either went into construction, or the police. Today, we will look at his nephew, Henry Gessford.

The younger Gessford , who was almost universally referred to as Harry, was pretty much fated to being an officer of the law, his father, James W. Gessford was one of the first group of men sworn in to uphold the law in D.C. early in the Civil War. Henry Lincoln Gessford was just a few months old at the time.

He became a police officer just before his twenty-first birthday, when he became the station keeper at the fourth precinct and for the next 20 years he was a private, not gaining the rank of sergeant until 1899 – and then he was only acting as one, getting the full rank only two years later. However, then his career took off: Within three days he vaulted from acting sergeant to captain. While his scaling of the career ladder slowed down at that point, he was made inspector only five years later. He would hold this rank for 13 years, ascending to assistant superintendent of police in 1919, and, almost exactly a year later, on the death of his boss, he became the superintendent himself.

Somewhere along the line, he also was given the rank of Major, which he held until his death.

Gessford did not get much ink as a police officer, mainly because he seems to have spent much of his time at headquarters, as assistant to various higher-ups in the department. This would, unsurprisingly, change when he reached the upper reaches of the police force, and Inspector Gessford is soon mentioned with great frequency in the papers of the day, whether because he has been put in charge of the police force’s property, as a member of the retiring board, or when censoring the Belasco Theater’s proposed poster for a performance of “A Vision of Salome.”

Gertrude Hoffmann as Salome with the head of John the Baptist. (LOC)

In 1919, the post of assistant superintendent of police was created, and Gessford became the first officer to hold that office. Shortly thereafter, he would receive the Order of Leopold II from representatives of the king of Belgium, though sadly the Washington Times neglected to mention why he was being given the award. The following year, the superintendent of police, Major R.W. Pullman died, and Gessford was chosen to replace him.

This promotion did not turn out well for Gessford. Pretty much the entire first year of being superintendent was taken up with planning for the burial of the unknown soldier from World War I in Arlington Cemetery, which was stressful enough. However, when, on the day of the ceremony, the traffic situation became so bad that even President Harding was affected by it, public opinion immediately found the perfect scapegoat in Gessford, who retired in “ill health” less than three weeks later.

His health was not helped by the death of his wife three years later. She was preparing a large Boxing Day meal for her family, some of whom visiting from far away, when her skirts caught fire on a gas heater. Harry Gessford attempted to put out the flames, but in vain. She passed away the following day.

Henry Lincoln Gessford died at age 72 in 1933. He was laid to rest next to his wife in Congressional Cemetery.

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