Shepherd, Alexander R. (“Boss”)


1875 rare autograph of “Boss” Shepherd, DC’s 2nd  Governor, who turned Washington into a modern capital city by spending money he did not have!


Type: Autograph Note Signed
Description:  (1835-1902) “The Father of Modern Washington”, one of the most controversial and influential civic leaders in Washington DC history. One of the Gilded Age’s most powerful big-city political bosses, he led the DC Board of Public Works 1871-73, District of Columbia Governor 1873-74.

Born in SW Washington, left school at 13 to be a plumber’s assistant, became owner of the plumbing firm. He invested in real estate development,which made him a wealthy socialite and influential citizen. After Fort Sumter, Shepherd enlisted in the Army for 3 months, honorably discharged. He was a Republican member of Washington City Councils 1861-71, an important voice for D.C. emancipation and suffrage for freed slaves.

By 1870, the city’s finances and infrastructure deteriorated badly and Democrats and Republicans agreed drastic change was needed. Shepherd and his allies sought to abolish the elected governments of Washington City and Georgetown and appointed Washington County justices of the peace, to be replaced with a unified territorial government for the entire District of Columbia; his machine easily swayed popular support for it.

In 1871, Shepherd convinced Congress to pass a bill to establish the territorial government he desired. The Organic Act of 1871 merged various DC governments into an 11-member legislature, with 2 representatives each for Georgetown and the County of Washington, presided over by a territorial governor, all to be appointed by the President. Although popular support was behind Shepherd, President Grant’s inaugural appointment went to financier Henry D. Cooke, secretly a close Shepherd ally.

Shepherd was appointed vice-chair of the City’s 5-man Board of Public Works, the most powerful public entity in the District of Columbia, reporting to Congress but within the territory’s sphere of influence with the Governor its chairman. Cooke rarely attended Board meetings so Vice-Chair Shepherd presided, often not consulting other Board members before making decisions and taking sweeping action.

Washington City in the late 1860s-early 1870s was little more than a hamlet of dirt roads, wooden sidewalks and open sewers, surrounded by farmland and large country estates. Congress had for several years considered relocating the seat of the Federal government. Shepherd believed that for the capital to remain in Washington, city infrastructure and facilities had to be modernized and revitalized. He filled in the long-dormant Washington Canal, placed 157 miles of paved roads and sidewalks, 123 miles of sewers, 39 miles of gas mains, and 30 miles of water mains, planted 60,000 trees, installed street lights, built its 1st public transportation system (horse-drawn streetcars), and more.

In Sept. 1873, Cooke resigned as Governor and Shepherd was named Governor by Grant. Governor Shepherd integrated public schools, supported woman suffrage, sought representation for DC in Congress and a Federal payment to the City. Disregarding inadequate revenue to pay for street improvements, massive public works projects intensified during his term. The cost were excessive, however. He initially estimated a $6.25M budget; by 1874, costs ballooned to $9M despite the financial Panic of 1873. Congress did an audit and found the City was $13M in arrears and declared bankruptcy on its behalf. Shepherd was investigated for financial misappropriation and mishandling. It was discovered that he raised taxes to such a degree that citizens had to sell their property to pay them. Congress also found that Shepherd gave preference to neighborhoods and areas where he or his cronies had interests. Modernization created a decades-long real estate boom to the turn of the 20th century, the wealthy coming from all over to build large expensive mansions. While none of his actions violated laws, the territorial government was abolished for a 3-member Board of Commissioners which remained for nearly a century. Grant nominated Shepherd to the 1st Board of Commissioners, but the Senate rejected his appointment, one of many scandals in Grant’s administration.

Shepherd stayed in Washington for another 2 years, a celebrated, influential member of DC society. In 1876, however, he declared bankruptcy and later moved to Mexico where he made a fortune in silver mining. After he died, he was buried in a large vault in DC’s Rock Creek Cemetery. A statue of him stands in front of the Wilson Building, which houses the offices and chambers of the District of Columbia Council and Mayor, on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The neighborhood where he lived, Shepherd Park, is named for him, as is a school there.

NOTE: Living in the DC area for over 50 years, this is the FIRST Shepherd autograph I have EVER acquired or seen!

RARE ANS on 2 ¼ x 4 card, in full: “I cheerfully comply with your request/Yours truly/[signature]/ Washington Jan 22 75″ (after his appointment to the Board of Commissioners was rejected).

Condition: Very good, mount remnants on verso, very slight semi-circular stain at top right corner, very light aging

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