In his new biography, John P. Richardson argues that Alexander Robey Shepherd wasn’t the corrupt figure many hold him to be. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

A word that’s not on the cover of John P. Richardson’s new biography of Alexander Shepherd says as much about the 19th-century District politician as the thousands of words that are in the book.

That word is “boss.” If John has done anything in “Alexander Robey Shepherd: The Man Who Built the Nation’s Capital” (Ohio University Press), it’s strip the damning epithet from the figure who sat atop District politics in the 1870s.

“I think the word ‘boss’ is a bit of a distraction,” John said recently over lunch at, appropriately enough, Boss Shepherd’s, the Northwest Washington restaurant named for the one-time D.C. territorial governor.

John, 78, spent 30 years working on the book, the first proper biography of Shepherd. He kept getting interrupted by his day job at the CIA, including postings to Pakistan, Jordan and Indonesia. He became interested in Shepherd while living in Shepherd Park, the Upper Northwest neighborhood named after the politician, whose now-demolished country estate, Bleak House, stood in the area.

“People had very strong views about Shepherd, mostly negative,” said John, who now lives in Arlington, Va.

An 1871 painting by Henry Ulke of Alexander Shepherd, the one-time D.C. territorial governor. (Historical Society of Washington/Archives of the District of Columbia)

Some of those negative views were warranted. Shepherd was no social reformer. He considered himself an Abraham Lincoln Republican, John said, and like Lincoln, came slowly to the opinion that African Americans should get the right to vote. As Shepherd rose through District political circles, he played to various constituencies, willing to constrict suffrage — of blacks and whites — if it meant more power for himself.

Shepherd’s family was from Southern Maryland, but Alexander was born and raised in the District. He dropped out of school, learned the trade of plumbing, served in the Union Army, and then joined a busy plumbing and gas-fitting company, eventually taking over the business and becoming one of the capital’s richest citizens.

It was Shepherd’s actions from 1871 to 1874, when he served first as head of the city’s Board of Public Works and later as governor, that attracted the nickname “Boss.” It was an attempt by critics to tar him with the taint of corruption, like New York City’s William M. “Boss” Tweed.

Before Shepherd’s rise, Washington was three separate entities: the city of Washington, the county of Washington and Georgetown. They competed for funding from Congress. The overall infrastructure was shabby, and there were rumblings that the U.S. capital should be moved to the Midwest.

“Shepherd realized you couldn’t do any large-scale public works without political consolidation,” John said. He successfully pulled the three entities together. He was also determined to have Congress pay its fair share to keep the city running, a debate that continues to this day.

During his roughly three years in power, Shepherd spent $18 million on improvements: grading city streets, paving them, planting trees, covering the fetid Washington Canal. The problem was, Shepherd was only authorized to spend $6 million. Congress stepped back in, and District citizens lost for a century what limited control of their city that they’d had.

Many thought Shepherd enriched himself, although two congressional investigations failed to nail him.

“I am persuaded he was not personally corrupt,” John said. “I have found no evidence. In fact, he came out of office far poorer than when he went in.”

In 1876, Shepherd declared bankruptcy. His plan to turn his fortunes around makes for some of the most entertaining chapters in John’s book. With investors, Shepherd purchased a Mexican silver mine and moved his entire family — wife, four daughters, three sons, four dogs, cook — to Batopilas, an isolated town in the state of Chihuahua.

It was quite a comedown for Shepherd, who, in addition to Bleak House, owned a fine mansion at Connecticut Avenue and K Street NW. Now, his foes weren’t rival politicians but the earth itself.

Unfortunately for Shepherd, there just wasn’t as much silver in the ground as he’d thought. He was in a good position to embezzle from the company, but never did, John said, instead plowing profits back into the failing operation.

Shepherd had envisioned returning to Washington a wealthy man. As it was, in the 22 years he lived in Mexico, he only took two trips back to the District. Shepherd died in his adobe hacienda in 1902. He was 67. His casket was buried for nine months in Mexico before being transported to Rock Creek Cemetery.

In John’s reckoning, Shepherd was a man of action, not much given to introspection. “I’ve often said he was what he did,” John said.

And what did he do?

“The metaphor I use is that Shepherd put the flesh on the bones of the L’Enfant Plan,” John said. “It was just damn lines on a map until Shepherd’s time.”

John will be signing copies of his book from 5 to 7 p.m. Nov. 9 at Boss Shepherd’s. For information on other appearances, visit alexandershepherd.net.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.