An Irishman, a U.S. President, and the First Hanging in the District of Columbia

This guest post is by Manuscript Division historian and military and diplomatic history specialist Margaret McAleer.

The first man hanged in Washington, D.C., was an Irishman.

His name was James McGirk, and his crime was heartrending. McGirk’s wife was pregnant with twins when he attacked her, delivering blows so severe that they caused her to deliver her babies prematurely. They did not survive. Neither did she.

Handwritten list of criminals in left column, cause of arrest in right column

James McGirk listed among “Criminals in Washington Jail, [Mar. 29, 1802], Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

James McGirk was tried for their murder in the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia in April 1802. Found guilty, the court sentenced him to death.[1] Domestic violence occurs all too frequently, today as in the past. Subsequent trials are no substitute for prevention.

This particular trial, however, provides a unique lens on the early republic and its nascent national capital. The case drew national attention, particularly among Federalist newspaper editors. They lamented the tragic death of McGirk’s wife and children, certainly, but they used far more ink to expose the threat of Irish immigrants and their hold over the sitting U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson.

Poem on M'Girk printed in 1802 newspaper

“James M’Girk, (a foreigner)” poem, Boston Commercial Gazette (Boston, Mass.), Apr. 26, 1802, p. 4.

Newspapers paired McGirk’s violence with his ethnicity. A Washington Federalist article, reprinted nationally, pointed out the obvious: “the prisoner was neither born nor educated in America.” It then asked its readers, “How long can we expect our native youth to remain uncontaminated”?[2]  A poem, “James M’Girk, (a foreigner),” ran in several papers. While acknowledging that some immigrants become “the best of citizens,” its author predicted, “some like James M’Girk, are doom’d to swing.”[3] The presumed proportion of each? Not in doubt.

The reality of Irish immigration after the American Revolution was far different. One hundred thousand strong by McGirk’s trial, it was a brain drain of talent and skill for Ireland. Irish trade funneled most immigrants into Philadelphia and New York, depositing the rest in smaller American ports where Irish goods also landed. Washington too took on a green patina during its earliest years. Irish laborers, builders, artisans, shopkeepers, hotel proprietors, tavern keepers, teachers, clergymen, and government clerks gambled their futures on the fledgling capital, including architect James Hoban who designed the White House.[4]

Yet we are all familiar, aren’t we, with the nativist-inspired brutish depictions of “Paddy” that became prevalent by the middle of the nineteenth century. Largely forgotten now is Paddy’s predecessor – the specter of bloodthirsty Irish emigrés, veritable Irish sans culottes, whom Federalists believed capable of igniting a French-style reign of terror in the United States through their political radicalism.

Farfetched? Yes, but . . . Irish immigration during the early national period included refugee United Irishmen who had engaged in a failed national independence movement in Ireland, 1791-1805, inspired in part by French revolutionary ideology. As exiled emigrés, some former United Irishmen plunged into American political life and civil society. They felt an ideological kinship with Jefferson. They saw in the Federalists a resemblance to their former British oppressors. The Federalists saw in them carriers of a radical French contagion.[5]

Let’s be clear. McGirk was a man who killed his wife and unborn children. Yet somehow, he morphed into a Federalist Irish-Jacobin meme.  After all, when does anything happen in Washington, D.C., that isn’t viewed through a political lens? McGirk became a stand-in for all the alleged United Irishman radical mischief that kept Federalists up at night.

James McGirk was the sword-waving, would-be assassin who broke into Federalist editor John Fenno’s Philadelphia office in 1799, Federalists reported. Never mind that the man convicted of that attack was John McGurk, not James McGirk.[6]

James McGirk, the Federalists were certain, had led an Irish army to Washington in 1801 to insure that Jefferson became the nation’s third president. As the House of Representatives met that February to settle the tied presidential election’s outcome, “a gang of bravoes (remarkable only for the fierceness of their looks, and the indecency of their conduct)” marched in Federalist imaginations from Philadelphia to Washington, led by McGirk, threatening civil war if the House did not choose Jefferson as president over Aaron Burr. No assault on the Capitol, Irish or otherwise, occurred as the House deliberated.[7]

McGirk’s domestic violence crime became heatedly partisan, a way for Federalists to attack Thomas Jefferson. Struggling Washington attorney Augustus B. Woodward opened that door wider.

Political cartoon of two members of Congress fighting

Congressional pugilists. [Philadelphia], 1798. A crude portrayal of a fight on the floor of Congress between Irish-born Vermont Representative Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold of Connecticut illustrates the heated partisanship of the era. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson received a document from Woodward dated August 16, 1802, which interceded on McGirk’s behalf. The Irishman was scheduled to hang in less than two weeks. Wait, Woodward advised. Facts, he reported, without specifying them, “which exist in his case, and which were entirely unknown at his trial or sentence, seem to entitle him to pardon.”[8]

Jefferson trusted Woodward enough to issue a stay of execution. He did not trust him enough to issue a full pardon.

Proof! cried the Federalist press. Jefferson was paying a political debt to one of his bloodthirsty Irish henchmen.

Jefferson should not have trusted Woodward’s judgment, and matters grew politically worse for him. Woodward published the extenuating circumstances in a local Washington paper. If McGirk’s wife had a stronger constitution, Woodward argued, she would have been able to withstand her husband’s beatings. Really, he wanted us to believe, her physical weakness, compounded by carrying twins, caused her death, not her husband’s fists.[9]

With that defense, McGirk hanged on October 28, 1802, the first man executed in the District of Columbia—220 years ago this year.

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[1] The name “McGurk” is spelled variously in early records as “McGuik,” “M’Gurk,” “M’Girk,” and “M’Kirk.” “Criminals in Washington Jail,” [Mar. 29, 1802], Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Commercial Advertiser (New York, N.Y.), Apr. 17, 1802, p. 3.

[2] Republican; or, Anti-Democrat (Baltimore, Md.), Apr. 16, 1802, p. 3.

[3] Boston Commercial Gazette (Boston, Mass.), Apr. 26, 1802, p. 4.

[4] Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North American (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 137; David Bailie Warden, A Chorographical and Statistical Description of the District of Columbia: The Seat of the General Government of the United States. (Paris: Printed and sold by Smith, 1816), 27; Margaret McAleer, “‘The Green Streets of Washington’: The Experience of Irish Mechanics in Antebellum Washington,” Urban Odyssey: A Multicultural History of Washington, D.C., ed. Francine Curro Cary (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), 42-64.

[5] For background on the United Irishmen in America, see David A. Wilson, United Irishmen, United States: Immigrant Radicals in the Early Republic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998). For my own take on their transition from a national independence movement to the politics of the host country, see Margaret H. McAleer, “In Defense of Civil Society: Irish Radicals in Philadelphia during the 1790s,” Early American Studies 1, no. 1 (2003): 176-197. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23546484.

[6] On the arrest and conviction of John McGurk in Philadelphia in 1799, see Philadelphia Gazette (Philadelphia, Pa.) Apr. 6, 1799, p. 3. On the mistaken Federalist belief that James McGirk was the same man, see Republican Star (Easton, Md.), Nov. 23, 1802, p. 3.

[7] American-born, Irish-raised editor William Duane is more often identified as the leader of an Irish mob that allegedly descended on Washington. See Oracle of Dauphin (Harrisburg, Pa.), Feb. 23, 1801, p. 2. On McGirk’s alleged role, see Massachusetts Mercury (Boston, Mass.), Sept. 14, 1802, p. 2.

[8] Augustus B. Woodward to Thomas Jefferson, Aug. 16, 1802, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[9] National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), Sept. 6, 1802, p. 1.