Imagine cruising through the hushed pre-dawn streets of Washington D.C., the humming of your souped-up engine piercing the calm. Now picture the flash of police lights cutting through the darkness, your heart racing as you push the accelerator to the floor in a desperate attempt to outrun the law.
For 19-year-old Francis Aebersold, these thrilling scenarios were realities in the early hours of March 11th, 1926. Born around 1907 to Swiss immigrant gardener John Aebersold and German homemaker Mary Aebersold, Francis grew up with his family in a modest $5,000 home at 3939 Ellicott St. NW – worth approximately $80,000 today. The younger brother, with older sister Catherine and her young son Joseph, Aebersold spent his youth surrounded by a close-knit Old World family. But the ambitious teenager had his sights set beyond the gardening trade of his father. Lured by wealth and excitement, Aebersold gained notoriety as a bootlegger fueling D.C.’s illicit speakeasy scene with illegal liquor in defiance of Prohibition.
In the darkness before dawn, Aebersold set out in his customized roadster packed with 190 quarts of illegal corn liquor. But he caught the eye of veteran Detective Charles A. Berry, a devoted policeman and family man living with his wife Emma and 15-year-old daughter in their $8,500 residence at 244 15th St. SE. Noting the suspiciously flashy vehicle near the 11th precinct station after 1:00am, Berry quickly scrambled fellow officers into pursuit.
Thus began a breathtaking game of cat-and-mouse retold in vivid detail by period news reports. Aebersold leaned on the accelerator as his tires screamed through empty streets at upwards of 65 miles per hour. The Washington Post captured the action as the vehicles dueled at death-defying speeds. But Aebersold had no intention of being caught. As The Washington Times recounted, a hail of bullets soon flew as Aebersold and his passenger returned fire, desperate to escape custody.
The scene climaxed in cinematic fashion at 13th and D Streets Northeast. With the police blockade closing in and his car battered from the gun battle, Aebersold made one final play – abandoning the bullet-riddled vehicle to run on foot. But his youthful speed was no match for the crackshot Berry, whose well-placed bullet brought down the teenage bootlegger. While Aebersold crashed to the pavement wounded, his mysterious accomplice disappeared into the night by scaling fences and slipping down alleys.
As Aebersold was whisked away to the hospital and eventual criminal trial, 190 quarts of contraband liquor in the discarded car proved Detective Berry’s suspicions. To the seasoned officer, Francis Aebersold was just the latest embodiment of the dark side of Prohibition – a daring lawbreaker fueling underground vices and challenging the bounds of morality, freedom, and justice. The dramatic capture of this audacious teen bootlegger represented a larger struggle underway in the nation’s capital between the forces of order and, on some anarchic nights, the defiant lure of the open road.
Nearly a century later, Aebersold’s moonlight ride remains an unforgettable snapshot of the Roaring Twenties in Washington D.C. – an era where iron-willed youth recklessly tested the limits while duty-bound police officers like Charles Berry sought to uphold the fragile social order. For Francis Aebersold and Charles Berry, the early morning streets on March 11th, 1926 became an arena where their dueling values collided at top speed.
Lastly, for transparency, the featured image above is generated by AI because we obviously couldn’t dig up an image of the car chase. But, it looks like a pretty good representation of what it might have looked like. Here it is in greater detail.