Great Cranks of Washington

Great Cranks of Washington

Great Cranks of Washington

As I worked on my posts on the Fortean White House and the White House Shadowgraphs, I found frequent mention in the press of Washington “cranks.”   Naturally Washington and The White House, those places of Mystic Power and Influence, lured cranks by the hundreds, including men in drag, men with reptiles, blood-donors, Presidential wanna-bes, and assorted lunatics.  

Every few years, (or months, if there was a colorful incident) the papers would run stories about how Washington was a “Mecca” for cranks. They would comment on famous Past Cranks and cite the increase or decline of cranks in Washington this season, as if they were discussing the rise or fall of the stock market. For example:

An 1893 article in the Washington Evening Star titled “Mecca Of Cranks: That’s What The White House Is” wrote:

No other president has ever been so closely guarded from dangerous cranks as is Mr. Cleveland now. The precautions taken for his protection are unprecedented. There seems to be an epidemic of lunacy at present, and demented persons generally make the White House their Mecca. Evening Star [Washington DC] 14 October 1893: p. 12 

Most 19th-century Presidents tried to allow some access either to the White House or to their person for the ordinary citizen. But to screen out potential assassins and/or time-wasting cranks, a doorkeeper or special officer was employed. 

Down at police headquarters sits a busy man who is the medium through which all White House cranks are disposed of. His name is John A. Frank and his title is “sanitary officer, metropolitan police.” As soon as a suspicious person is caught in the executive grounds a patrol wagon is called and the offender is removed to Station No. 1, across from the post office. Sanitary Officer Frank immediately reports the arrest to the “insane surgeons” at headquarters. They put the suspect through a rigid examination and determine whether his disorder be of mental or physical origin. If his trouble be mental, he is temporarily committed to the government asylum at St. Elizabeth…He is thus held until finally disposed of by the Probate Court, which is petitioned by the policemen making the arrest, if the unfortunate be a non-resident of the District….

Recently a man was arrested on the railroad tracks of the city, where he was swinging a red lantern and signalling imaginary trains. He said he was a poet and philosopher and had journeyed here to get the President’s endorsement of his poems. Subsequently he was going to submit them to King Edward….A recent colored visitor at the White House claimed to be a human battery, and said that he was the only means of communicating with the army of the United Sates, which he had brought along with him in balloons.

A man who said that he had been Pope, but had experienced a change of faith as a result of the assassination of h President Lincoln, some time ago called with a note and a book of Greek poems for the President. “One year ago last Friday,” he explained, I was converted and the Almighty unfolded to me what he has not told to any other person. My mission is to have the President warn the people. “His was a typical case. The average White House crank is a victim of religious mania.

One man preached a sermon in the vestibule of the White House. Another declared that he was being persecuted by the Catholic Church. Still another proclaimed himself to be “Moses in the bulrushes.”

A man claiming to the inventor of an artificial musk, through some pretext succeeded in gaining access to President Harrison, whose coat he daubed with some vile-smelling decoction. Some months ago an unknown man called at the White House and left President Roosevelt three large boxes of “medicine.” Each box contained 400 envelopes and in each envelope were ten does of some powder recommended for all the ills to which human flesh is heir. Examination of the stuff disclosed that it was simply pulverized sugar. Evening Star [Washington, DC] 21 February 1903: p. 28

 Some of the gatekeepers of the White House showed flashes of genius in dealing with the deranged.

 One afternoon during President McKinley’s second winter at the White House a good-looking, well-dressed man of middle age, whose face, however, wore a steady, flaccid grin and whose eyes had a queer look in them, sauntered up to the door of the executive mansion. He had an unlighted, half-smoked cigar in his teeth.

“Howdy,” he said pleasantly to the tall doorkeeper who swung the door open for him. “Bill in?”

The doorkeeper replied that the president was out driving.

“Too bad, too bad,” sighed the man with the queer grin and the odd eyes. “Durn the luck—that’s what I say!”

The doorkeeper politely asked him if his business with the President was so pressing as all that.

“Yes,” replied the visitor, mournfully, “it is. As you see,” holding out his unlighted, half smoked cigar, “my weed has gone out.  I wanted Bill to give me a light. He promised me one in the year 1184, at the Battle of Hastings—which, as you remember, I won hands down—that if ever my cigar went out all I would have to do would be to drop in on him and get a light. Too bad, too bad!”

“Wait a minute,” said the doorkeeper, “I hear the rattle of the President’s carriage. He’s coming in the back way. I’ll see him,” and leaving another attendant to keep an eye on the man, he slipped into the passage, lighted a cigar, and, after waiting a moment, returned with it in his hand.

“Mr. McKinley’s renewed assurances of his most distinguished consideration,” said the doorkeeper, with great solemnity, holding out the cigar,” and here is his cigar, from which he begs that you accept a light for your own.” There was an expression almost of rapture on the man’s face as he took the cigar and applied the burning end of it to his own. He returned the “President’s cigar,” placed both of his hands upon his chest and bowed deeply to the doorkeeper, who returned the kowtow as ceremoniously and backed out, saying:

“Tell Bill to join me with the army in Flanders at twenty minutes past 8 o’clock, moon time.” Then he passed out, puffing vigorously at his cigar and he never appeared at the White House afterward. Omaha [NE] World Herald 30 September 1901: p. 3

The open door policy at the White House drew many interesting people. 

One night at a presidential reception, when the parlors of the White House were gay with brilliant toilets and gorgeous uniforms, a woman was observed to act suspiciously. She was arrested, taken to the police station, and ordered to undress. Seven pocketbooks were found in her trousers. As the guard had imagined, she was a man, having assumed skirts for the purpose of pilfering….  Quite one-half of them are religious maniacs. Of this sort was a visitor who brought a tin box for the president, in which he said he had a new kind of religion….Another person called to announce himself as an advance agent of the Messiah and to ask Mr. Cleveland for money to put up an altar….

Cranks with patents want to show them to Mr. Cleveland, sometimes insisting on setting up their models in the vestibule. One man, during the last administration, brought six small alligators in a wooden box, and desired to liberate them in the East Room…. Rene Bache. Oregonian [Portland, OR] 15 October 1893: p. 3

 Colonel Hay, our new ambassador to London, told me the other day that in Lincoln’s time they had their full share of trouble with cranks at the White House. Mr. Hay, it will be remembered, was assistant secretary to President Lincoln. “One day,” said he, “an old fellow came in and wanted to see Mr. Lincoln without the loss of a moment’s time. He had a plan by which the war could be stopped in 24 hours. He had a magic wand, which he had brought with him from Warsaw, Ills., out on the banks of the Mississippi and he had only to wave this magic talisman and the Confederate armies would instantly disband. On the plea of summoning the cabinet and the chief officials of the government to witness his performance the next day we hustled him out, and that night he was started back to his home.  Excerpt from “Passing of the Crank: Why He Seldom Visits the White House,” Fort Worth [TX] Morning Register 8 April 1897: p. 6 

Strange Caller at White House

Washington, Feb. 10. Among the callers at the White House today was one who, with a German accent, announced himself as “Prince” Albert of England, and later said he has relatives at Taunton, Mass., His odd costume and long brown locks, which fell below his collar attracted much attention. He did not see the President, but before leaving the White House grounds read a poem entitled “Peace,” which he has dedicated to the President. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 11 February 1909: p. 6

 One of the oddest cranks was this would-be blood-donor:


Young Man Appears at the White House With Strange Request

Washington, Dec. 29. Thomas Morris, the young man who, in New York a few days ago, offered to sell his blood or any part of his body, was arrested in Secretary Loeb’s office at the White House. The man, who admits that Morris is a fictitious name, appeared at the office of Secretary Loeb and handed the following letter to the secretary:

“Secretary Loeb:

“Dear Sir—I have come to Washington this morning in hopes that Dr. Wiley may use me for one of his experiments. Dr. Wiley, through his secretary, informs me that he cannot accede to my request. My position is now so desperate that I am compelled as a last resort to appeal to His Excellency, President Roosevelt, through you, asking if there is any way of relieving my predicament. I hope you will pardon the liberty I take in troubling you.

“Yours respectfully,

THOMAS MORRIS.” The police searched Morris at the First Precinct Station and found a clipping from a New York paper in which it was said that Morris had visited the paper’s office and offered to sell his blood, limbs or flesh.

The story said that Morris had told how he was head over heels in debt and was using a fictitious name because his creditors would be panic-stricken to know that he was making such an offer. He said he owed $800 to people who could not afford to lose it; that he had been in the stationery business.

Morris, who was well dressed, and of evident refinement, declares that he is not insane, but that he is afraid he will kill himself. He gave his address as No. 1360 Boston Road, the Bronx, New York City. Duluth [MN] News-Tribune 30 December 1906: p. 12

 Eccentrics of all nationalities came to make claims and share their schemes with the President.

 Another Crank at the White House

Washington, Sept. 9. A man named Jacob Coaster was arrested at the White House to-day and sent to the insane asylum. He claimed to be emperor of all America, and demanded admittance to the White House as its lawful occupant. He ordered the doorkeeper to go to the treasury and bring him $30,000,000. He is an Englishman and only recently came to this city. He had in his possession seventy-one Bank of England notes. Dallas [TX] Morning News 10 September 1886: p. 3

 Dan Costabel Committed To St. Elizabeth’s

Dan Costabel, the demented Italian, who climbed over the high iron fence surrounding the White House at 1 o’clock yesterday morning and tried to enter the mansion, as briefly told in The Star yesterday, was pronounced insane by the police surgeons late yesterday afternoon and taken to St. Elizabeth’s Asylum.

It appears that the only garment Costabel had on was a short serge coat. He was looking for his wife, he said, and imagined he had been in communication with spirits and had been told that his wife was in the White House…at one time, he said he came to the White House to find his wife, and the next moment he stated that his wife is dead, and that it is her spirit that is at the White House. Soon afterward he stated that he had a daughter, who knew Mrs. Roosevelt, and that he was going to the White House to see the first lady of the land about his daughter, who was to furnish music for her.

“Where is your daughter now?” he was asked.

“Why, I have no daughter,” he replied.  Evening Star [Washington DC] 14 May 1905: p. 3


Chicagoan, Afflicted With Very Strange Ideas, Placed Under Arrest.

Washington, Feb. 22. Edward Relgar, who gave his address as 271 South Clark Street, Chicago, was arrested at the White House today and locked up pending an inquiry into his mental condition.

Relgar evidently is of unsound mind. He has written many letters to the president suggesting that people be named in accordance with their occupations. Thus he maintains that a dealer in wood should be named Wood, a carpenter should be named Carpenter and so on throughout the list of names.

He says that the present scheme of naming people has caused a war among the flies which may be ended only the adoption of his suggestion. Duluth [MN] News-Tribune 23 February 1904: p. 2 

When Hayes was president a crank came to the White House who had gone crazy on religion. He called himself the Red Man of the Revelations, and told the doorkeeper that his business was making presidents and that he would unmake President Hayes as he had made him. In Arthur’s term a German came to the White House…He said he was the original Jonah, who had been swallowed by the whale, and had a bill which he wanted congress to pass for his benefit…

At the Capitol the crank thrives and multiplies as the years go, and the man who stripped himself the other day and stood naked in the rotunda at midday, pretending to think himself a statue, has had his counterparts in times past, though as yet no one’s crankiness has taken just the same direction….

There are a number of queer characters in Washington who can hardly be labeled cranks, yet who are so different from the average run of humanity that they come very close to it. One of these is Dr. Mary Walker, who struts about Washington in men’s clothes, wearing black broadcloth pantaloons, patent leathers boots, a Prince Albert coat and a plug hat. She is a short-haired little woman of less than five feet, and her hands and feet are small. She has a weazened, dried-up face, and she looks like a funny little dwarf as she struts about with a cane daintily held between her fingers. She likes to be seen, and wherever there is a respectable free crowd you will find her in it. She calls upon the president, representatives, and senators, and she does not object to office when she can get it. Cedar Rapids [IA] Evening Gazette 19 August 1886: p. 8

 In 1894 the flood of cranks seemed to have abated and this article looks back with nostalgia at some of the great Characters of Washington:

All that strange drift of humanity which poured into the district from every direction soon after the war has been wasted away by death, lunacy commission or gentle restraint by friends until very few are left, and a comparatively harmless set has taken its place….

What becomes of all the cranks anyhow? Lawrence, the painter who snapped a pistol twice at President Jackson, lived for 35 years in a lunatic asylum. Guiteau, as everybody knows, died by the rope, and, although the weight of opinion is that he was really insane, yet events have shown that his execution was wise and justifiable, for no subsequent attempt has been made upon the life of a president. It is true that scarcely a week passes without a call at the White House by some crank who insists upon seeing the president, but it is very seldom that any such are arrested. Old residents tell many queer stories about panics in the White House in the days when presidents were not so carefully guarded as now….One day a mysterious looking box was delivered at the White House and was at once pronounced an infernal machine. After much trepidation the coachman consented to open it very cautiously, and in it was the model of a patent stove and a letter from the inventor requesting the president to see that the proper patent was issued at once….

Most noted of our present cranks is “The stuffed man,” a son of the once eminent Judge Dunlap of Georgetown. He was educated at Heidelberg and inherited a competence, but developed an idea that he was the glass of fashion and the mold of form when properly dressed. His chest and shoulders are puffed out with padding to an amazing extent, and he wears a child’s chip hat on the crown of his long and curiously shaped head. In this queer getup h poses on the street corners, standing erect and motionless sometimes for an hour at a time and threatening with destruction any who laugh at him or even stop long to gaze. Another local curiosity, though a man of average sense, is Big Headed Parker. He is a small man, but has the largest head in the world and enjoyed fairly good health withal. The fact that he has sold this head to a scientific association adds not a little to the interest he excites.

There is one man who made a bet against Cleveland’s election in 1892 the terms of which were that if he lost he was to play the cornet for one year on the streets and live on what he received for it. He seldom played over an hour a day and was so generously rewarded that he lived like a prince. There is a Frenchman with a scheme for laying out the Potomac flats in immense flower beds of red, white and blue, representing the American flag. He also has a scheme for a new system of sewerage, the pipes to be above ground and painted gorgeously in the national colors. Of course he has a bill which he wants congress to pass and has hammered away for years making the lives of new congressmen a burden….Idaho Statesman [Boise, ID] 22 May 1894: p. 5 

One theme that is conspicuously absent from these articles on cranks is the modern lunatic leitmotif of voices being beamed into a person’s head or being followed by the CIA. Instead, we have, in a kind of democratic version of Jerusalem Syndrome, people imagining that they are the true President of the United States and the rightful occupant of the White House. I cite only one example below–there are hundreds more. There were also a substantial number of cranks who believed that the money in the U.S. Treasury was theirs and they could walk in and claim “their” money.

While the papers, for the most part, wrote indulgently about most cranks, a certain subset of the species was dangerous. 


An Insane Man Claiming to be President of the United States

Washington, Oct. 31.  A well-dressed and powerfully built man appeared at the White House this afternoon and demanded to see the “accounts of the President.” Mr. Dinsmore, the doorkeeper, at once recognized the visitor as a “crank,” who had called there in May last and was sent home to his friends in Pennsylvania, and, with a view of delivering him into the custody of the police, suggested that the accounts could be seen down street, and that he would accompany him. The man, who gave the name of John Woling, of Pennsylvania, then presented a letter, which he insisted gave him the right to enter the Mansion, and endeavored to force his way in. Mr. Dinsmore seized him, and a desperate struggle ensured. Woling attempted to draw a revolver, but Dinsmore, who had grasped him by the throat choked so vigorously that he was unable to use it. Steward Crump and another employee of the house hurried to Dinsmore’s assistance, and the lunatic was, with some difficulty, overpowered, and his revolver taken from him. It was a large sized seven-shooter, with every barrel loaded. The police were called and Woling, or Dr. Noetling, was taken to the station and locked up. The letter which he presented read as follows:

“John Woling: You are hereby informed that Dr. John Noetling is lawfully elected President of the United States, and occupies the White House every day.


“Communicated by the Holy Spirit.”

 New York Tribune 1 November 1881: p. 2 

One thing that did worry the White House was the “copycat crank,” because it had been observed that if one crank made the papers, more were sure to follow.  


Norwich Man Troubled with Visits from the Devil Found Wandering in the Building.

Washington, Oct. 7. It has often been said that when a crank makes a scene at the White House or around the person of the President of the United States and the newspapers are filled with accounts of the affair the incident arouses all the other cranks in the country and they begin to write to the President all manner of crazy letters or to migrate in the direction of Washington. The appearance at the White House today of another insane man seems to support this observation. To-day’s case was John Decker, forty-four years old, from Norwich, Conn. His hallucination is that he was to receive $750,000 to exorcise the devil of the Indians.

Decker explained that he had actually received visitations form the aboriginal evil one and that his majesty was even then tugging at him in a very annoying manner. The police and attendants at the White House preserved better order than they did Monday and got rid of the man quietly.

The lunatic had in some manner found his way into the White house and was wandering around in the interior, when first noticed. He was at once arrested and taken in a cab to the station house. He made no resistance. He was unarmed, but had two small pocket knives on his person.

Decker was examined later in the day, pronounced insane, and was removed to the Government Insane Asylum.

Some difficulty was met in getting news of the affair. Secretary Loeb has instructed the attendants to treat such affairs circumspectly and give no information about them. A similar order has been issued to the Washington police. This is done on the theory that accounts of cranks incite others to similar performances.

Decker is a small, inoffensive appearing fellow, with a smooth face and big brown eyes. He seems to have consumption and is extremely loquacious.

He betrayed none of the signs of the Anarchist or Socialist, but is imbued with the fanciful philanthropy of ridding the poor Indians of the red devil that is preying on their souls. When he was searched a letter addressed to the President was found in his pockets.

He said he had read all about Peter Elliott on the cars coming to Washington.  New York [NY] Times 8 October 1903

NOTE: Peter Elliott came from Minneapolis, determined to see President Roosevelt on October 5, 1903, just days before Decker decided to visit. He was arrested, placed in the police van, where he drew a revolver and tried to shoot the two officers. A desperate struggle ensued. The previous day, a Sunday, he had tried to approach the President at church and was turned away by the Secret Service. He was committed to a lunatic asylum in St. Paul, MN, then escaped and went again to Washington. Recaptured and returned to Minnesota, in 1904 he hung himself from a Minneapolis railroad bridge. 

The Washington Characters in the illustration above are (with the tin tube where he kept his proofs of inheritance) “Colonel” Morris Pinchover, who had lost his fortune, but was obsessed with the idea that the Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, Samuel J. Randall, was conspiring to defraud him of millions of dollars Pinchover imagined he’d inherited. He finally threatened Randall physically and was confined in the US Insane Asylum where he died, aged 73. Also “Beau” Hickman, a decayed dandy and conman. And Dr. Mary Walker and the “Stuffed Man,” mentioned above.

Thursday’s post will be about the cranks and curiosities of the Washington Monument in D.C.  I wonder… The papers seem to suggest that D.C. crankery ran in cycles. If one analysed the dates of all the incursions of cranks and lunatics, would some pattern emerge that could be cross-referenced with factors like weather, moon cycles, and sunspots? That might be instructive. More cranks? Send them to the doorkeeper at Chriswoodyard8 AT

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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