16 Apr 2024


Lost Capitol Hill: Forty Thieves

Richard T. Sylvester

On Monday, January 17, 1910, William T. Sorrell of 426 7th St SW died. His death was reported to have been because of gas inhalation. It was a tragic, if typical, occurrence. His grieving mother had him interred two days later in Congressional Cemetery.

That should have been that. However, over the next two weeks, a welter of articles went through the newspapers stating that there was a new band of robbers in the city, which they named the “Forty Thieves.” Several friends of Sorrell’s were supposed to be members, and so the theory was generated that the dead young man had failed to turn over the appropriate percentage of his takings to the gang and had been killed due to this breach in protocol.

On January 30t, Charles Sorrell, brother of the deceased, felt it necessary to call at police headquarters to explain, once again, that his brother had nothing to do with the gang.

This did not stop the speculation, nor did an article the following day in the Washington Evening Star, in which Chief of Police Richard T. Sylvester acknowledged that he had been given numerous statements denying the gang’s existence. Instead, rumors continued to swirl, especially around Charles Hurley, who was Sorrell’s cousin. While Hurley agreed that Sorrell had been “considerably under the influence of liquor” on the night before he had died, and had indeed been involved in some sort of fight, he had been perfectly capable of making his own way home.

Illustration of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves by Albert Robidat (Wikipedia)

In the end, Sorrell’s mother insisted that her son be exhumed in order to lay all these rumors to rest. Interestingly enough, the police, coroner, and hospital officials all were against this. They were convinced that the cause of death had been as originally stated in the death certificate, and, if there was any question at all, it was whether the death had been suicide or an accident, a question that an autopsy would fail to answer.

On February 1, Sorrell’s grave was opened and the coffin removed. The coffin was immediately opened and just as quickly shut again after protests from the cemetery staff. Instead, his body was brought to the morgue and a proper autopsy done by Coroner James Ramsey Nevitt and Deputy Coroner Larkin W. Glazebrook. While there were a number of anomalies on the body, Nevitt stated that:

there were two scratches on the right side of Sorrell’s face, which had undoubtedly been made while shaving; an old scab on the right knuckle, a similar condition on the right ear and a bunion bruise on one foot.

Each of these “trivial injuries” had happened several days before Sorrell’s death. Someone suggested that Sorrell had been injured in the neck, so a final close examination of that area was made without any evidence of this being evident.

Sorrell was re-interred and focus turned to his supposed partners in crime, now standing trial. It became quickly evident that they were not members of some nefarious gang, and so the newspapers at the time quickly lost interest.

As to the Forty Thieves? They do seem to have existed in some form, both in D.C. and other cities, though mainly in the imagination of newspaper reporters.

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