The gallows at the foot of Capitol Hill was ready for McGirk, the first man executed in this capital, and he was hauled over in a cart, accompanied by a clergyman who, in the event, was rather an imbecile.
As Christian Hines recalled it (he was a pensioner of the War of l8l2), McGirk jumped off before the trap was sprung.
"Don't hang yourself," cried the alarmed cleric, who liked everything to be done according to Hoyle, and who wanted McGirk to get back on the platform and wait until the yo-yo in charge of the trap got his wits, such as they were, together.
And sure enough. An official pulled McGirk back on the platform to await the orderly majesty of the Law, but McGirk, who had at least some sense, jumped free again and was dead before the officials in charge of sadistic balderdash could return him to Square One to start over.
After McGirk was hanged, they buried him at Holmead's graveyard north of town, but people objected to a criminal being amongst them. Mr. Snively, in particular, was outraged. (Mr. Snively kept a small dry goods store on K Street, and was therefore a member of the capital's aristocracy). He naturally felt that the graveyard containing the mortal remains of the sainted House of Snively should not be desecrated by the likes of McGirk.
The pro-Snively faction dug McGirk up and moved him to a ravine. The McGirk faction (it commonly comes as a surprise that the McGirks of the world have a surprising number of friends) dug him up and put him back in the graveyard. The Snively forces dug him up once more and set him in a sort of quagmire, with water running over him, and that ended the matter.
As everybody knows (or as the Columbia Historical Society knows) McGirk was said to have drunk more than was wise, and he sometimes beat up Mrs. McGirk. Who, for all we know, well deserved it, but let it pass. Anyway, he beat her up one night and she died from injuries, so McGirk was hanged.
Husbands should not beat up wives. On the other hand, wives should not be the sort of person a husband wishes to beat up. These things have more than one side to them.
When I say we owe this important news about the town's first execution to Christian Hines, the 1812 War pensioner, you must not assume Hines was an old buddy of mine. He wrote down his recollections in 1866, and published them at his own expense. His work is little known, but is now about to be published for all to read.
In 1801 Hines was wandering about (this capital ranks next only to Paris in the number of folk wandering aimlessly about) when he heard the Treasury was on fire. He strolled over, in time to see President John Adams in the bucket line.
Leather buckets were passed up one line of men to the fire, then empty buckets were passed back, down another line, to be refilled. President Adams was doing his bit in the line. Somebody said to President Adams he might catch cold, so he stopped his labor.
Adams, who was politically and philosophically opposed to some positions taken by Thomas Jefferson, did not catch cold and die, however. Like many who worry about catching cold, he lived virtually forever.
Hines recalled that Jefferson, who was not in the bucket brigade (and who did not get out of it for fear of catching cold, either) was often seen here and there in the capital during his great period here. Hines recalled that Jefferson was always to be seen where "improvements were being made."
Jefferson was fond of the Italian or Lombardy poplar, and was behind the project to plant Pennsylvania Avenue with them. These are glorious trees, as every right-thinking lover of beauty has always acknowledged, though in later, depraved, ignorant generations (such as our own) many trifling and whining complaints against this poplar have been heard, merely because it is subject to disease, because it dies young and is expensive to remove, and because its roots undermine foundations and clog up drains.
Jefferson was above the dirty mechanics of things. No man ever loved the beautiful poplar more than he. Hines used to see him on the avenue, watching Mr. Buntin plant the poplars.
They are gone now, of course. As what is not. Roots or no roots, the poplars shaded the great avenue in the days when there were no punk kids gunning decent people down. One of those punks (to bring you up to date) approached me on K Street recently, demanded a cigarette, was refused, and reached in my shirt pocket to help himself. I gave him a push which sent him to the sidewalk, unfortunately not breaking his stupid neck, and from that position he called for his friend (there were two of them) to kill me. That person declined to do so and I walked off. My error was not (as some inform me) in failing to give him a cigarette. My error was failing to kill him three seconds after he reached his hand in my pocket.
If we still had Jefferson, and if we still had the poplars, things would be better here.
In any case, Hines rambles on in his recollections of Washington circa 1801 with tidbits about the first hanging, the bucket brigade, and information on who lived where.
I do not say his work equals Proust. Still, it seems too bad that his eyewitness account of early days should just vanish to the shelves of dusty archives.
The same thought occurred to movers and shakers within the Columbia Historical Society and to the Junior League of Washington, which has increasingly been pawing through the past of this town. Not uncovering, one trusts, too many skeletons.
No commercial publisher was willing to tackle Mr. Hines' brief memoirs. Of course not. They are too busy with what Elvis Presley's cook's nephew told the starlet and what she said to zub, zub, zub.
So the league is publishing "Early Recollections of Washington City" by Christian Hines. It is a small book, pocket size, and costs $5. If it goes over well, they may publish other fascinating little-known documents of our town. If it flops, they will conclude (as commercial publishers have done) that nobody gives a damn about some old veteran's recollections of 1801.
Until you have visited a great book room (like the one at this newspaper) in which new books come in, hopeful of review, you have no idea of the sheer junk being published in our nation. I don't mean pornography. At least pornography has an audience, and somebody is conceivably interested in it. By junk, I mean the general assault on the typewriter by cretins, every last one of whom has written a book within the year.
Listen. In Jefferson's day, when the poplars were tall and green on the great avenue, it was not so.