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The Murder of Agnes Watson: From Georgetown to the White House

In 1888, a gruesome murder occurred in Georgetown, DC. The murder of Agnes Watson shocked the nation, and the story eventually reached the White House itself. Learn how this Georgetown story made its way to the highest office in the land.
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Here’s a story to throw into the crazy bin. We came across this piece in The Washington Post printed on June 24th, 1888.

A brutal murder occurred in Georgetown shortly before midnight last night. Agnes Watson, a young colored woman, was thrown into the canal by a negro named Fred Barber and was drowned before assistance could reach her. Agnes had been living with Barber for several months as his wife and a short time ago she learned that he was contemplating marriage with a girl in West Washington named Celia Mahoney. To ascertain whether or not her information was correct, Agnes followed him last night to the house of her rival and there upbraided him for his faithlessness. Barber ordered her out of the house, and when she insisted upon his accompanying her, he knocked her down and would have kicked her, but she clung to his legs, screamed for help and begged for mercy. Celia was a witness of this inhuman treatment and added her entreaties to those of the jealous woman.

Barber finally desisted from his abuse and walked sullenly away, followed by the much-abused, though still faithful, Agnes.

All this occurred on Thirtieth street about a block above the canal. The street is occupied almost entirely by colored people at this point, many of whom were occupying their doorsteps at the time, and as Barber and the woman started down the street he was heard to say that if she followed him he would throw her in the canal. No one paid any attention, however, and it was not until a few moments later when a piercing scream, followed by a loud splash startled the neighborhood, but the state of lethargy in which the negroes seem to exist in Georgetown would not allow anything to be hurriedly done, and Barber walked quietly and unmolested up the street again with his coat on his arm.

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By the time the police had been notified of what had occurred, and they took charge of the body and began to search for Barber. The latter, however, had disappeared and has not yet been arrested. It was learned that he had obtained some money from Celia Mahoney, after the other woman had been thrown in the canal, and it is supposed that he will attempt to leave the city this morning.

Barber is a man about thirty years of age and has been engaged by the Independent Ice Company for a number of years. Heretofore he has borne a good reputation.

C&O Canal from Wisconsin Avenue Bridge, Georgetown circa 1920 (Library of Congress)
C&O Canal from Wisconsin Avenue Bridge, Georgetown circa 1920 (Library of Congress)

Doing a little digging to follow up this murder, Barber was indicted and convicted at the end of 1888. Barber was sentenced to hang for the murder of his wife. Interestingly, as part of Barber’s defense, he claimed that Agnes was not murdered by him, but rather, she committed suicide.

On February 16th, 1893, The Baltimore Sun had a special report from Washington, stating that the execution had been stayed and his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Even more interesting was that this order came from the outgoing President of the United States, Benjamin Harrison. Three weeks later, Grover Cleveland would be inaugurated for his second, non-consecutive term.

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