WASHINGTON — The reported indictment of former President Donald Trump on Thursday breaks new ground in U.S. history. Trump becomes the first former chief executive in U.S. history to be charged, and he will be asked to surrender to authorities, according to The New York Times.
More than 150 years ago, one sitting president was arrested — for speeding.
In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant was arrested by a policeman in the District of Columbia for driving too fast in his horse-drawn carriage, The Washington Post reported. He paid $20 as collateral and forfeited it when he did not appear in court the next day, according to the newspaper.
The incident was confirmed by former D.C. police Chief Cathy Lanier in an Oct. 6, 2012, interview with WTOP.
The arresting officer, William Henry West, had only been with D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department for about a year when he stopped Grant at the corner of 13th and M streets in Washington.
West, a Black man born into slavery in 1842 and a military veteran who served during the Civil War, would serve with the D.C. police department for three decades. But West’s arrest of the 18th president of the U.S. remained largely unnoticed until he was interviewed for a Sept. 27, 1908, story that ran in The (Washington) Sunday Star. West had been reluctant to discuss the incident but decided to open up to the newspaper “to let the public know the true story of the arrest.”
“Gen. Grant was an ardent admirer of a good horse and loved nothing better than to sit behind a pair of spirited animals,” the Star reported. “He was a good driver, and sometimes ‘let them out’ to try their mettle.”
John Marszalek, the former executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University, told NPR in 2018 that the man who led the Union to victory in the Civil War “was going very fast” through the intersection a day after a woman and her 6-year-old child were hit in a “serious accident.”
West was then assigned to patrol the area, “which was then in the aristocratic section of the city,” the officer told the Star. Grant came barreling through the area with his horses and was apologetic when he was stopped by the officer, according to the newspaper.
However, the next day, West caught Grant speeding through the same intersection as several teams of horses were “literally burning up the roadway.”
“In the front of them all was President Grant,” the newspaper reported.
Grant was sheepish, “with a rare smile on his face.” He presented “the look of a schoolboy that had been caught in a guilty act by his teacher,” and told the officer that he had not realized he was going so fast, according to the Star.
This time, Grant would not be let off the hook.
“I am very sorry, Mr. President, to have to do it, for you are the chief of the nation, and I am nothing but a policeman,” West said as he recounted his conversation to the Star. “But duty is duty, sir, and I will have to place you under arrest.”
At the police station, Grant put up his $20 so he would not have to spend the night in jail. According to the Official Data Foundation website, $20 in 1872 is equivalent to $493.18 in 2023.
“They ended up letting him pay a fine and walk back to the White House,” Lanier told WTOP.
“West is a little embarrassed because, after all, this is the president of the United States,” Marszalek told NPR. “But he did his duty. And nothing is heard of it again.”
Grant later heard a rumor that West’s job was in jeopardy because he arrested the president and the other horse racing teams that day, the Star reported.
“Grant immediately sent a special messenger to the chief of police, complimenting West on his fearlessness in making arrests, and made it plain that he would not allow any harm to come to West,” the newspaper reported.
West had a long career in uniform.
He was stationed in Baltimore during the Civil War and worked as a waiter, according to Civil War draft registration records. He would also serve in Company K of the 30th United States Colored Infantry, online military records show.
According to the 1870 census, West had been a messenger for the Treasury Department before joining the Metropolitan Police force. He lived in the District of Columbia for most of his adult life, marrying Katharine “Kate” Bowie on June 11, 1867, in Washington.
West retired from the police force on Sept. 1, 1901.
According to the 1910 census for the District of Columbia, West was a retired policeman. He died in the district on Sept. 6, 1915, and was buried three days later at Columbian Harmony Cemetery, a large cemetery for Blacks.
In 1960, approximately 37,000 graves from the cemetery were removed to the National Harmony Memorial Park Cemetery in Landover, Maryland, according to findagrave.com.
“During his many years of service (West) was responsible for the apprehension of many desperate criminals,” the Star reported.
And one sitting president.
Online newspaper archives, along with census and military records found on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, were used in compiling this report.