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On June 20, 1874, the District’s territorial legislature met for the final time in what was called the “Feather-Duster Affair,” when members who lost their jobs stole desks, chairs, and whatever else they could get their hands on, including a feather-duster stashed down a legislator’s pants.
Legislators of the racially integrated House of Delegates were still in session that day when they learned that a bill essentially ending their careers had passed. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the act to abolish D.C.’s legislative assembly, along with its Board of Public Works and governor’s office, replacing them with an appointed commission.
Many of the 22 elected members began stealing furniture, knickknacks, and a soon-to-be-infamous feather-duster in a last hurrah. According to 1916’s Fiscal Relations Between the United States and the District of Columbia, policemen spotted the half-concealed feather-duster sticking out of an African-American member’s pant leg and arrested him outside of Metzerott Hall at 925 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, where the final meeting occurred on the building’s second floor. The legislator in question, not identified in the historic account, was forced to return the duster. Other retellings of the incident, like that of District of Columbia Police from 1894, claim that the household-cleaning item was the only article that was never returned.
A few years earlier, the Organic Act of 1871 had created a government that absorbed the County of Washington and cities of Washington and Georgetown. Grant had appointed the Board of Public Works and its most prominent member, Alexander Shepherd, better known as Boss Shepherd, as governor. When Shepherd spent millions modernizing the District during an economically-challenged, post-Civil War era, Grant abolished the act in favor of direct rule in 1874, which sparked the feather-duster heist. Direct federal rule lasted for nearly another century, until 1973’s Home Rule Act provided for an elected mayor and 13 council members.
One report wrote that the feather-duster prank was actually a flop. Records of the Columbia Historical Society: Volume 3, states that the looters knew someone had alerted the police and began “returning their plunder, and the affair had assumed more of the appearance of a donation party than the pilfering-bee, which was in full blast when the faithful messenger left for help.” The record also states that the infamous feather-duster bandit became “the butt of the newspaper jesters of the time.”
Today, the scene of the Feather-Duster Affair, Metzerott Hall, is occupied by the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building.
Photo of a feather duster by Flickr user CedarBendDrive using an Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license