June 2013

The Tight Laced Ladies of Washington

Women’s fashion is a complicated subject, but one doesn’t usually think of it as deadly. However, the fatal dance between health and beauty was a reality for Washington women in the 19th century.

The “corset problem,” or the “corset question” as it was called in the press, was the phenomenon of tightly lacing corsets to constrict the waistline to about 16 inches and sometimes even as small as 13 inches; basically, the smaller the better. These miniscule waists, also called “wasp waists,” were in style in the first half of the 1800s, reaching their peak in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Starting in the latter half of the century, the style began its descent and area newspapers began to debate the practice.

Houdini Escapes Newest and Strongest D.C. Jail in 1906

This past Saturday, as part of the Urban Photography Series, I went on a tour of the neighborhood of Park View, hosted by The Historical Society of Washington. As we meandered down Georgia Avenue, I snuck off to the right down Park Road NW to indulge my curiosity on something I had read.

I came to the Tenth Precinct Police Station just a little way down the street and pondered again the story of a crafty escape artist who managed to break out of a jail cell in less than 20 minutes. Got any guesses on who the trickster was?

Even Washington D.C. couldn’t hold Harry Houdini, the original handcuff king. On New Years Day in 1906, the infamous Houdini broke out of what was said to be the strongest and toughest jail in the city.

Cold-Blooded Murder in Lafayette Square: The Sickles Tragedy of 1859

On the morning of February 27, 1859, Philip Barton Key was shot multiple times by the deranged Daniel E. Sickles in the middle of Lafayette Square. Sickles’ motive? …the discovery of an intimate affair between his wife and good friend.

Now Washington, D.C., has had its fair share of scandals, political pandemonium, and secret trysts over the years. But the Sickles tragedy provided a particularly scandalous dance between sex and politics even by Washington standards. After all, it’s not everyday that a Congressman commits cold-blooded murder in broad daylight on a city street.

The Feather Duster Affair of 1874

Understanding the history of local government in the District of Columbia is tricky business. The governance structure has changed several times since the city was founded in 1791 and, sometimes, these changes were quite dramatic... which brings us to the 1870s.

The territorial government prescribed by the Organic Act of 1871 gave D.C. a measure of home rule but the experiment would be short-lived. After Governor Alexander “Boss” Shepherd racked up big bills in an effort to modernize the city, President Grant felt compelled to make a change. What resulted was one of the more bizarre episodes in city history.

A Wedding Announcement: Joseph Pulitzer and Kate Davis

Here’s a fun piece of trivia. America’s most famous newspaper publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, than man who is often credited for rise of modern journalism, was married here in Washington 135 years ago today, June 19, 1878.

His bride was Miss Kate Davis of Georgetown, a cousin of Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy. (I wonder if cousin Jefferson knew that Pulitzer had fought for the Union army during the Civil War. In fact, his immigration expenses from Hungary to the United States in 1864 were paid by Massachusetts military recruiters!)

Mary Custis Lee Challenges Streetcar Segregation

111 years ago today, Mary Custis Lee was arrested on an Alexandria streetcar for sitting in the section reserved for black patrons. As the daughter of Robert E. Lee, the General of the Confederate Army, the incident caused quite a stir within the community.

On her way to visit a friend, and being burdened with many large bags, Miss Lee chose to sit near the rear of the car in order to easily exit upon arriving at her destination. Shortly after she sat down the conductor Thomas Chauncey “explained the Virginia law on the subject, but being ignorant of the existence of the law herself, and also being loth [sic] to move her baggage, she protested.” At that time, Chauncey let her stay seated.[1]

The Doors concert poster. (Photo source: Ebay)

Jim Morrison’s Not So Happy Homecoming

It was the summer of 1967 and The Doors’ single “Light My Fire” was racing up the Billboard music charts. The band found itself headlining large venues and even made an appearance on American Bandstand. But one date on the tour schedule might have stood out to front man Jim Morrison more than any other. (Not that he would’ve told anyone.)

On August 18, 1967, the band played an odd D.C. area double-header: a 7:30pm show at the National Guard Armory in Annapolis, Maryland, and a late night show at the Alexandria Roller Rink Arena in Alexandria, Virginia. It was the only time The Doors played two separate concerts at different venues in the same evening. And, for Morrison, it was a homecoming of sorts.

It's Raining Bottles at Griffith Stadium: The Music Battle of 1942

On July 23, 1942 Washingtonians packed Griffith Stadium to the gills for a special “Battle of Music” between African American jazz legend Louis Armstrong and white saxophonist Charlie Barnet. In segregated Washington of the 1940s, such an organized interracial competition was a big event and few people – especially in the black community that surrounded the stadium – wanted to miss the “musical fisticuffs.”[1]

Georgetown’s Mischievous Tradition of Clock Hand Thievery

Georgetown University holds true to traditions of academic excellence, religious customs and…clock tower mischief?

Healy Hall, perhaps the university’s most iconic building, was built in 1877 by the same architects who designed the Library of Congress. The structure boasts a 200 foot tall clock tower which overlooks the campus and is visible from many locations across the city. In other words, the tower is a prime target for creative student pranksters.