Commissioner Melvin Hazen and William Van Duzer, putting the first nickel in the parking meters ordered by Congress for a test in Washington in November 1938. (Source: Library of Congress)

When Parking Meters Were a Hot Controversy in Washington

Washington, DC has 17,000 parking meters, and the necessity of feeding them quarters--or, in the case of the newest models, a credit card swipe or electronic payment via smartphone--is one of those annoyances that urban drivers must grudgingly accept.  As hard as it may be to imagine, though, there was a time in the early 20th Century the idea of installing devices to collect fees for parking spaces was opposed by the American Automobile Assocation and motorists who saw it as unfair taxation, and it took several years to get approval to install the first meters on District streets.




Painting of Thomas Moore from National Portrait Gallery. (Source: Wikipedia)

Ireland's National Poet Visits Washington, 1803

In the wilderness of early Washington, fancy hotels and salons were not yet available for the stars of the city to gather. Instead, prominent citizens gathered in a farmer’s cottage to “discuss crops and drink apple jack.” In 1803, an Irish celebrity joined them around the fire, and immortalized the scenery in verse.

Julius Hobson's Unlikely Relationship with the F.B.I.

Julius Hobson was as active an activist as you could imagine, but he also collaborated with law enforcement for several years. (Image source: DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division, Collection 1, Julius Hobson Papers.)

We’ve written before on this blog about the exploits of Julius Hobson. A D.C. civil rights activist in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, his campaigns against segregation and injustice were based on equal parts audacity and bluff, ranging from staging a “lie-in” at a D.C. hospital, to encouraging people to paste pro-integration stickers over the punchcards on their power bills,  to threatening massive protests and boycotts that had no chance of materializing. He combated police brutality by following policemen around with a long-range microphone, and, most famously, promised to release cages full of rats on Georgetown if the city didn’t deal with the rat problem elsewhere. His antics effected genuine social change, in large part because everyone was too nervous to call him on his bluffs, for fear that he might be able to back them up. His acts were already so outlandish, anything seemed plausible, except for one rumor that seemed to be too uncharacteristic to be true. Yet, it was the truth: for years, Julius Hobson passed information to the FBI.

Vigo Jansen: The Resurrectionist King

Resurrectionists robbing a gravesite.

To conclude our series on Washington, D.C.’s professional grave robbers, we’ll focus on one of the most interesting individuals to ever stalk D.C.’s cemeteries, Vigo Jansen Ross. Like most professional grave robbers of the era, information comes mainly from local newspapers. Jansen in particular was quite well known as someone who loved the attention that the media could provide for him. Jansen claimed to have been born in Denmark in the late 1840s or early 1850s. It is unknown when he made his way across the Atlantic to America, but it seems that he studied medicine in his native Denmark and came across the sea to ply his trade in the growing American market. Jansen brought the love of drinking across with him, which destroyed any hope he had of pursuing a career in medicine, forcing him to provide bodies for medical colleges to make a living.

Professional grave robbers procuring a body

George Christian's Shipping Ring

December 13th, 1873. The streets of Washington, soupy with mud from the previous day’s rains, began crystallizing with slick patches of ice as the first kiss from winter’s lips touched the city. Despite the oncoming cold, Officer Hawkins remained focused, his suspicions high. Nearby, a horse-drawn wagon and its female occupant continued to sit idle near the circle of 22nd Street. Upon earlier questioning, the young woman claimed she was only waiting for her husband to conduct business in a nearby home. Yet as the minutes ticked past midnight, the hairs on Hawkins’ neck began to stand on end—no honest business took place this late into the night.

Grave Robbing in Washington: A History of the Morbid Trade

Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

As Halloween fast approaches, it seems like a fitting time to explore one of Washington’s horrific nineteenth-century professions, the professional grave robber. Known as “resurrectionists” by the media outlets that covered their deeds, grave robbers haunted Washington’s many graveyards and potter’s fields in the cover of night, acquiring bodies to sell to local medical colleges. With several medical colleges operating in Washington during the later decades of the nineteenth-century, the District of Columbia became a hub of grave robbing activity in the United States. Their exploits may be thought of as morbid and disgusting, yet their contribution to modern medical science is an important one that is often ignored by medical historians.

For a medical professional to learn the skills to be a surgeon, a hands-on knowledge of human anatomy is essential. Potential surgeons need to perform dissections on human remains—remains that are intact and with as little decomposition as possible. In today’s society, supplies of subjects for dissection purposes are easy to obtain. In nineteenth-century America, acquiring needed subjects proved to be a challenge. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, death traditions favored the condition of the corpse. Religious views proclaimed that the body should be buried in the earth to await eventual resurrection upon the Day of Judgment. Despite the pleas by the medical community expounding the importance of available bodies for dissection, people remained repulsed by the thought of former loved ones lying out upon a dissection table being poked, prodded and sliced by medical students.

Marion Barry Leads Bus Boycott

Boycotters board a “freedom bus,” one of the provided forms of transportation. (Source: Jet Magazine, Feb 10, 1966, accessible via GoogleBooks)

The price of public transportation in D.C. is rising and people are angry. Although this statement could accurately describe the present time, let’s turn back the clock to 1965.

D.C. Transit had just announced plans to raise bus fares and one man wasn’t having it. This man was Marion Barry, who would go on to become mayor of D.C., serving four terms. But Barry wasn’t mayor yet. He was a relatively new resident in D.C., having moved here to open up a local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Barry saw the bus company’s raised rates as a direct hit to low income people in the District, who were mostly African American.

The Manhattan Project Comes to Washington, D.C.

War Department Building, 21st and Virginia Ave., N. W., Washington, D. C. (Source: Boston Public Library, Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection)

When people think of the Manhattan Project, the top secret American mission to build the first atomic bomb, they often think of Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the world’s first atomic device was actually assembled and detonated. But in reality, the project was assigned to 26 locations across the country, from research labs in Chicago and New York to uranium mines in Colorado to production and design facilities in Tennessee and New Mexico.

And it was all run from a small two-room office in Washington, D.C.

Artist's rendering of CIA headquarters built in Langley, VA. (Source: CIA.gov)

Designing America's Spy Headquarters

Can you imagine the world’s most powerful clandestine intelligence agency spread out across a series of ramshackle offices in and around Washington, DC? Well, that’s what constituted the Central Intelligence Agency in 1953, the year that Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles announced a plan to build one large, secure campus that would be home to the rapidly growing spy agency.