On August 16, 1885, a DC police officer shot and killed a man at 1st and N streets in “South Washington” (SE or SW is not specified), in an area known for public gambling and drinking — and violation of sabbath laws. Both The Evening Star and the Washington Post tell readers, right from the top, how to understand this shooting and who is to blame:
A POLICEMAN’S BULLET:
OFFICER SHEEHAN KILLS A NEGRO ROUGH AND DESPERADO.
A Tragedy Added to the Long List of Crimes Which Have Made “Blood-field” Notorious in Police Circles. — Post, August 17, 1885
THE BLOODY FIELD.
A Sunday Tragedy in South Washington.
A SMALL POLICEMAN’S DESPERATE STRUGGLE WITH A POWERFUL NEGRO — THE LATTER SHOT AND KILLED.” — Evening Star, August 17, 1885
Both papers include the expression “Negro rough,” stress the newness and smallness of the plain-clothes officer (whose whiteness remains unmarked), and tell us that police call the area “Bloody Field,” to reflect officers’ fear and expectation of violence.
The Evening Star mentions an incident from the year prior: “the death of Police Officer Fowler, who was shot by the colored man Langster with the policeman’s own pistol.” The 1884 incident, general expectations of “Bloody Field,” and supposed difference in build, between Sheehan and Coleman, are presented by both the Post and The Evening Star as explanation and justification for the killing.
Details and Their Lack
“Addison Coleman,” the Post writes, “has been a well-known character to police for many years. He was almost six feet tall and a very Hercules in strength. He was stoutly built and weighed about 190 pounds.”
Sheehan’s measurements do not appear in either paper, but Evening Star readers are told he is “small” and Post readers are told the officer “would have had very little show with [Coleman] in a fight….” The story adds that Sheehan was “a comparatively new officer, having joined the force not quite a year ago,” and that he “called upon a young white man named James Howard, who was standing near…” for assistance. Sheehan is quoted as saying that he had no intention of hurting Coleman, but was pressed by the crowd:
“If the crowd has not pressed me so, I could have managed my prisoner. But they did all they could to assist Coleman to get away. If young Howard had not been there I think there would have been a repetition of the Fowler tragedy, for Coleman was bent on killing me.”
— 8/17/1885 Post, p.1
The New York Times — somewhat removed from local expectations, but no less clear on how to understand this incident and whom to blame — summarizes more generally in the one-paragraph “A Thief Accidentally Killed”:
Addison Coleman, a notorious negro thief and desperado, while resisting arrest this afternoon, was shot and almost instantly killed by accidental discharge of the police officer’s revolver, which, during the struggle against arrest, the negro had wrested from the officer and was attempting to use on him.
— NYT, 8/17/1885, p.5
Post and Evening Star coverage continues as Officer Sheehan is acquitted of charges.
In addition, reporting includes the fact that several (colored) men were charged with interfering with arrest and assault on an officer…. the judge apparently refused to try charges of profanity, although both the Post and the Evening Star report ethnic slurs in depth as well as some language that is redacted as, e.g., “kill the s—b.”
The Evening Star reports on “A Colored Indignation Meeting,” which took place on October 18, 1887 to discuss the case of William Ellis, “the colored man who was struck over the eye by Officer Hanover…” One of the speakers, Robert Gunnell, “spoke of the number of persons that had been assaulted by officers,” cited the case of Addison Coleman and said that “eight colored men had been shot and killed in the District by policemen and that none of them had ever been punished.” — October 19, 1887, The Evening Star, p.6
The year following the killing of Addison Coleman, there are briefer reports involving John Jackson (AKA James Smith and Oscar Thornton), known as “the ghost burglar” (although several individuals, over decades, are given this same nickname), who was accused of burglary and threatening the lives of three officers, including Sheehan who was “dangerously wounded” by the “negro burglar” in late 1886 (Evening Star, 1/17/1887; see also Post, 4/3/1887),
During that period, Officer Sheehan was accused of kissing “a very pretty married woman” but charges were not filed.
A coda to Daniel Sheehan’s story appears in a short Evening Star piece reporting that he “has become insane” and his mother was inquiring about a pension:
Daniel Sheehan, who while a member of the police force in 1886 was shot by the notorious John Jackson, better known as the “Ghost burglar,” is an inmate of the insane asylum in Limerick, Ireland. This sad intelligence…
The insane man was well known in this city. For a number of years he figured as a base ball player and after serving in the army he returned here and received an appointment on the police force. While a member of the force some of his friends had an idea that his mind was not entirely right. This was after the colored burglar shot him. It is said by some of his friends that his religious ideas were the cause of his troubled mind.— The Evening Star, Dec 22, 1894, page 6
Someone of the same name was a juror in the inquest surrounding the death of Office John Fowler (see that story, which began on September 9, 1884), for which John Langster was convicted. The same name appears in a variety of other police blotter stories, in which this Daniel Sheehan (not sure if it is the same individual) is arrested or fined as a result of fights and incidents involving liquor.