National Hero or Neighborhood Eccentric?
November 19, 1881, 3pm: The most hated man in America sat uncomfortably in the police wagon as it rattled along the streets of the Capitol grounds. Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield, was being returned to his jail cell after a day in court. He is often called a “disappointed office seeker,” but that term doesn’t paint a full portrait of the man. Guiteau was mentally unstable, a narcissist of the first order who felt he deserved an ambassadorship despite having no qualifications whatsoever. He stalked Garfield for months, then shot him in the back at the Baltimore & Potomac train station near the Capitol. Garfield lingered for almost two months before succumbing to the wound and inept medical treatment. Guiteau was then formally charged with murder. His trial was the kind of media sensation we would recognize today, fueled by Guiteau’s own wild statements in court and interviews he gave the newspapers regularly. Public hostility toward him was increasingly palpable. (Illustration from Puck Magazine, July 13, 1881. Library of Congress.)
As the police van lumbered across the streetcar tracks at 1st and East Capitol Street, a lone horseman rode up next to the wagon, peered inside, and fired one quick shot. The bullet almost met its mark, nicking Guiteau’s arm, but otherwise caused no harm.
Officer W.I. Edelin, seated next to the driver, turned and fired at the assailant, but missed. The gunman took off up First Street at a gallop. James Leonard, the driver, spurred the team of horses and they gave chase. Perry Carson, the conductor on the back of the wagon, held on tight and watched as Edelin fired again, missing once more.
The gunman’s horse was fast, and he knew how to handle it, easily outpacing the police van. They lost him at First and H Street NE, slowed down by the B & O railroad tracks. Mounted police had been notified, and they soon spotted him and gave chase, shooting as the assailant crossed Florida Avenue into Washington County, but then they lost him too. He was sighted a few times in our neck of the woods: Harewood Road, the Soldier’s Home, Bunker Hill Road; but then he seemed to disappear.
Operating on a tip, the police began looking for a man named Bill Jones who lived on the Bates farm, located just off present-day Varnum Street, about where the Providence Hospital parking lot is now. He wasn’t at the farm, so they began canvassing the neighbors. A wealthy resident named John B. Lord came by and told the police that Bill Jones was currently at his home, about a half mile away. Police found the man there, quite drunk, and arrested him without a fight. They took him to the Second Precinct station, where in his inebriated state he neither confirmed nor denied shooting at Guiteau.
This was not the first time Guiteau’s life had been in danger. Just two months previously, John Mason, an artillery sergeant coming on duty at the jail, rushed to the window of Guiteau’s cell and fired into it, hoping to kill the assassin. The bullet went wide, but not by much, just missing Guiteau’s ear. Mason was arrested, but treated gently by the police, who considered him a hero, as did the public. The same was true for Bill Jones. Within hours of his shooting at Guiteau in the police van, newspapers dubbed him “The Avenger,” and $300 had been raised for his defense.
Who was Bill Jones? It turns out he was pretty well-known to the police in Washington County. The New York Times described him this way:
He is 29 years old, and owns and operates a fine farm upon the Bates road, about three miles from the city. He is regarded as a ‘crank’ by his neighbors, and his frequent eccentricities would seem to justify the opinion.
One of his favorite pastimes seemed to be impersonating a police officer, bewildering innocent people by pretending to arrest them, then releasing them with a laugh. His farm was in reality the property of his wife, Catherine Bates, whom he had married a few years earlier. She was 25 years his senior. The Bates farm was large and fairly prosperous, dating from before the Civil War.
Jones was indicted on November 25, 1881, for assault with intent to kill. But during the trial, even though both Carson and Leonard identified Jones as the man who shot at their wagon, Officer Edelin said he could not be positive it was the same man. Many thought Edelin secretly sympathized with “The Avenger.” Jones was acquitted and returned to his farm, seemingly pleased with his new-found notoriety.
If the story ended there, it would be a sort-of-funny footnote to history, but Jones’s subsequent actions throughout the course of his life reveal a more tragic picture. As Brookland and Michigan Park were starting to grow around him, Jones continued his eccentric ways and became a familiar figure in the two communities, especially at the local taverns and wine houses. Because of his fame as “The Avenger,” newspapers both local and national followed his exploits over the years.
1886: Catherine Bates Jones begins a legal action against her husband. According to the Wessington Springs [Dakota Territory] Herald, “Mrs. Jones avers that for eight years her husband has been a drunkard and has treated her with extreme cruelty, and for the last three years, by means of threats, forced from her large sums of money, which he has spent in intemperance and debauchery, and in no way contributed to her support.” There was no further report of a resolution to the matter.
1888: Although the district police had appointed him a special officer for Washington County, the Washington Critic reported that “instead of being a terror to evildoers it has required a section of the regular police force to watch ‘Bill’ and his ready pistol.” It seems Jones went to a store near the Brookland railroad station, demanded drinks, and when refused got into a fight and fired his gun, though he didn’t harm anyone. When the police found him at the Bates farm later, he asked for permission to tie up his horse before they took him away, and used the opportunity to stampede the police horses and escape. The next day he turned himself in and was charged with assault and threats of violence. He was convicted and fired from his special police job.
1900: Jones’s sanity is questioned after he was found with a stab wound and refused to divulge the name of his attacker. “It was a love affair,” was all he would say regarding his injury, according to the Evening Star. His wife thought he had stabbed himself. The following day, the Bates farmhouse caught fire and was extinguished only after neighbors formed a bucket brigade to save it. The fire was supposedly started while Jones was in the house and he was mildly burned while trying to put it out. Believing he had succeeded, he got on a streetcar and rode downtown, later surrendering himself to the police. He was sent to St. Elizabeth’s Asylum for a week while a medical panel examined him. They concluded he was mentally unbalanced (they called it “epileptic insanity,”) but rather than sending him back to St. Elizabeth’s, they allowed him to be put under the care of some relatives in Georgia.
1908: If Jones ever actually went to Georgia, he didn’t stay. Back at the Bates farm he suddenly found himself facing a charge of murder. On May 21, he and a man named John McPherson, who had recently been hired to work at the farm, were drinking together at the Wine View Club (located at present-day 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE). Both were intoxicated when they got back to the farm. At his trial, Jones would testify to what happened next:
I heard a noise at the outer door and rushed downstairs. I saw a man crouching in the doorway and grabbed my shotgun. As I reached the figure I saw his rifle trained on me. He shouted ‘It’s sixteen to one against you, Jones; hands up, I’ve got you where I want you now.’ I heard the hammer of the rifle click and fearing that Mac would make another effort to shoot before I could reach him, I fired on him only to save my own life.
The shot caught McPherson in the chest and killed him instantly. Jones was arrested, charged with second degree murder and brought to trial. His wife, as well as a domestic and a farm hand all testified in support of Jones’s claim of self-defense. The jury was out only 38 minutes before they acquitted him of the murder charge.
1910: The Bates farm was still a valuable piece of property, perhaps moreso now that the subdivisions of Brookland and Michigan Park were developing all around it, and the Bates relatives wanted a piece of it. In 1910, Charlotte Bates, the niece of Catherine Bates Jones, began agitating to have her aunt declared mentally unsound and unable to manage her estate. By this time, the Bates farm was valued at $50-80,000. At the court hearing, Catherine, then 85 years old, was helped to the stand by her husband, and according to the story in the Evening Star, testified quite clearly about the relationship with her niece, Charlotte:
She came to me and said she never gave me any trouble. I think this is trouble, bringing me here to court. She wanted me to stay at her house, as she thought if I died there, she would get my property. I wanted to return and remain with my husband, as I promised to do when I married him. I want him to get my property, and I have made another will for that purpose.
Nonetheless, on December 5, 1911, Catherine Bates Jones was judged mentally unsound. However, the court had still not verified that finding when she died on March 4, 1912. Her will, giving everything to her husband Bill Jones and nothing to the rest of her family, was submitted for probate and immediately challenged. After three years of negotiations between Bill Jones and the Bates family, a compromise was reached, the terms of which were confidential, though it appears Jones didn’t get much more than a modest monthly allowance. He moved from the Bates farm to a rooming house on New York Avenue, where he died of natural causes on September 16, 1916. There were short notices of his death in many newspapers around the country (the grainy picture below appeared with his obituary in the Evening Star). But his fame as “Bill Jones, the Avenger,” the man who shot at the man who killed the President, faded quickly with his death.
I have been unable to locate the grave of Bill Jones. He is not buried with his wife Catherine, who is interred in the Bates family plot at Glenwood Cemetery.
Charles Guiteau was found guilty of murder and was hanged in the Washington City Jail on June 30, 1882. His body was buried in a corner of the jailyard, then transferred to the Army Medical Museum, who preserved his brain, spleen and skeleton. The remains are now with the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland.
“Assassin and Avenger,” Washington Post, November 21, 1881.
“Guiteau and the Man Who Tried to Shoot Him,” New York Times, November 21, 1881.
“The Man Who Shot at Guiteau,” Evening Star, November 21, 1881.
“Jones, the Avenger,” Washington Post, November 22, 1881.
“The Guiteau Trial,” Harper’s Weekly, December 3, 1881.
“Bad Bill Jones,” Wessington Springs [Dakota Territory] Herald, December 10, 1886.
“Bill Jones’ Tricks,” Washington Critic, January 6, 1888.
“His Sanity Questioned,” Evening Star, March 27, 1900.
“Self-Defense is Plea,” Evening Star, October 12, 1908.
“Heart Blown Out,” Washington Post, October 12, 1908.
“Avenger Jones Free,” Washington Post, May 22, 1909.
“Plea for Committee for Mrs. C.M.B. Jones,” Evening Star, March 31, 1910.
“Sanity to be Tested,” Evening Star, November 16, 1911.
“On Witness Stand,” Evening Star, November 20, 1911.
“Mrs. Jones Insane, Declares Jury in Court of District,” Washington Times, December 6, 1911.
“Husband Gets Estate of Mrs. C.M.B. Jones,” Evening Star, March 7, 1912.
“Mrs. C.M.B. Jones’ Will is Set Aside by Verdict,” Evening Star, January 8, 1915.
“‘Bill Jones, Avenger,’ Dies in an Ambulance,” Sunday Star, September 17, 1916.
“Relic of Civil War Stands in Brookland Area,” John Clagett Proctor, Evening Star, May 12, 1935.
“Horseman Made Dramatic Attempt to Kill Guiteau,” John Clagett Proctor, Evening Star, March 9, 1941.