DC

Ice Carnival at the Tidal Basin

People ice skating and walking on the Tidal Basin, year unknown. [Estimated to be between 1900 and 1930] (Image source: D.C. Public Library, Special Collections.)

We’ve written earlier about how the Tidal Basin was the site of a popular public beach in the 1920s. In the decade before, however, it hosted another source of popular entertainment: ice skating. In 1912, it was the site of an elaborate “ice carnival,” with thousands of Washingtonians showing up to skate, sled, and have an evening of wintry fun.

In the 1900s, the Tidal Basin freezing was a rare treat. Unlike the Potomac River, when the enormous basin froze completely, it had a smooth surface, turning it into a gigantic potential ice rink. The absolutely frigid temperatures of the winter of 1912 gave D.C. residents ample chance to take advantage of this. For several weeks in January and February 1912, D.C. was subjected to “the coldest temperatures of the 20th century.” It was a cold spell to put the polar vortex to shame. On January 14, 1912, the low was -13 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature which has never again been reached in the District, and which is rivaled only by one freezing day in 1899. Pipes burst, gas meters iced over, and milk bottles froze, with “the cream [swelling] out into a solid cylinder two inches above the mouths of the bottles.”

Obviously, people were pretty miserable. But the upside of this was that for several weeks, the Tidal Basin was completely frozen, creating perfect skating conditions. Many people had already ventured out onto the ice on their own, but some District officials had bigger plans.

1977: A Long Time Ago, in a Theater Not Far Away ...

Uptown Theater, Washington, D.C. (Credit:  Highsmith, Carol M., photographer. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the latest installment of the long-running sci-fi movie franchise, premiered at the Uptown Theater in the District's Cleveland Park neighborhood on December 17, 2015, and it's pretty obvious from the legions of fans who showed up that it's going to be an enormous hit. That's all the more remarkable when you consider that when the first Star Wars made its debut at the same theater back on May 25, 1977, few in Hollywood expected director George Lucas' movie to do much business, let alone the pandemonium it would go on to create.

The Stranger in America by Charles William Janson. (Photo source: Internet Archive)

Impressions of Washington: Charles William Janson, 1807

Throughout the history of the capital, people have thought of it as… a pretty bad place, honestly. From Lead Belly in 1937, to Mark Twain and Charles Dudley in 1873, to Nathaniel Hawthorn in 1862, to Byron Sunderland in the 1850s, to Charles Dickens in 1842, to a British Chaplin in the War of 1812, to Abigail Adams in 1800, it seems like pretty much everyone has disliked the District. If you don’t want to read one more, skip to the bottom to check out the people who, somehow, against all odds, actually like the city -- if not, read on!

Charles William Janson was an Englishman who lived in and wrote about America from 1793 to 1806. He published the account of his travels in 1807, in The Stranger in America. The following is what he had to say about what was then called “Washington City”...

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.

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