J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Alexander Kerr and “the late distressing affair”

None of the printed sources about the son of Alexander Kerr who was killed by President Thomas Jefferson’s four-horned ram in February 1808 state the boy’s name.

I played a hunch and searched for “Alexander Kerr, Jr.” At Find-a-Grave I found this gravestone in the Oak Hill Cemetery of Washington, D.C., for a person of that name who died on 16 Feb 1808. So this is the marker for the boy who was killed by the President’s sheep. (The stone also lists two siblings who died decades later, one of them having been a U.S. Army officer.)

Less than two months later the boy’s father again wrote to the President, this time seeking a federal government job:
Washington 4 April 1808.


The office of Collector of the Port of Baltimore being vacant by the death of Mr. Christie, I beg leave to offer myself to you as a Candidate for that situation. I have been engaged in the Bank in this place since its establishment, however the greater part of my life, prior to that, I have been engaged in Mercantile pursuits & particularly in the Shipping line, which gives me confidence that I could do justice to the discharge of the duties & in a little time give satisfaction to the Public—

The compensation I receive from my present situation is too small for the support of my family, in the manner they have always been accustomed to, which is a strong reason for my taking this liberty in applying to you for an Office: Independent of that, the great desire I have to remove myself & family from the place, where every day, indeed I may say every hour, presents something to keep our feelings alive to the late distressing affair that has taken place in it.
In other words, your sheep killed my son, so you owe me.
Pardon me for this weakness. Mr. [James] Madison has known me for many years, to whom I beg leave to refer you for farther information. I would have waited on you in Person, but did not think myself Sufficiently Known to you to authorize my doing so. Time would not admit, else I would have procured Letters from Men of the first respectability to strengthen my application. On enquiry, should you think me worthy of this appointment, I pledge myself to use every exertion to give general satisfaction.

With the utmost respect, I have the honor to be, Sir, Your Most Ob: Servt.
Alexr. Kerr
Kerr had indeed sought positions from Secretary of State Madison in 1801, and would again from President Madison in 1812. Because President Jefferson didn’t offer him a job.

There’s a line in Jefferson’s private accounts for 10 July 1808, slightly more than five months after the ram attacked young Alexander:
Drew ord. on the bk. US. in favr. of the bearer for 25.D. in charity sent by Mr. Kerr.
That might have been a discreet way of compensating the Kerr family for its loss.

Alexander Kerr remained in the private sector. He moved from the Branch Bank to the National Metropolitan Bank in Washington when it opened in 1814 and remained there until his death in 1832. In that capacity he served another Secretary of State and future President, John Quincy Adams.

TOMORROW: More victims of the killer sheep.

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