• Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Washington Coliseum, Feb. 11, 1964 (Photo credit: Mike Mitchell)
    Music History
     
     
    The Beatles gave their first-ever U.S. concert in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 11, 1964. Learn more about that historic -- and quirky -- performance.
  • Crowds pack the top floor of the Treasury Building as the Carnival is in full swing on Pennsylvania Avenue. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)
    A Patriotic Carnival
     
     
    For two days in 1871, Washington, D.C. eclipsed New Orleans for the biggest Mardi Gras celebration in the country.
  • Benjamin Banneker
    Designing the City
     
     
    When George Washington had a falling out with capital city planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant, surveyor Benjamin Banneker came to the rescue.
  • Washingtonians with outdoor jobs, like this snow-removal crew, suffered mightily during Washington's record-setting cold snap of 1899. (Photo source: Library of Congress)
    Weather History
     
     
    On February 11, 1899, the Weather Bureau at 24th and M St., NW recorded Washington's coldest temperature reading ever, a frigid 15 degrees below zero.
  • On February 2, 1959 (l-r) Michael Jones, Gloria Thompson, Ronald Deskins and Lance Newman became the first black students to break the color line in Virginia's public schools. (Source: Washington Post website)
    The Struggle for Civil Rights
     
     
    On February 2, 1959 Arlington County became the first school district in Virginia to integrate, ending the Commonwealth's era of "Massive Resistance."
  • President Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, Alice, was married at the White House just after Valentine's Day in 1906 and gave birth to a daughter on Valentine's Day in 1925. The family's coincidental and sometimes complicated relationship with the holiday did not stop there. (Photo source: Wikipedia)
    Love, Life and Death
     
     
    Valentine’s Days were unusually eventful for Theodore Roosevelt and family, as this date marked some of the happiest and darkest periods in their lives.
  • The Robert Portner Brewing Company's main brewery at St. Asaph & Pendelton Streets in Alexandria. Known as the "Tivoli" Brewery, it operated from 1869 until 1916. Photo courtesy of the Portner Brewhouse.
    Robert Portner Brewing Company
     
     
    From the closing years of the Civil War until prohibition, the Robert Portner Brewing Company of Alexandria, Virginia was the leading brewery and distributor in the southeastern United States.
Memorial to P.O. Box 1142 located at Fort Hunt in Alexandria, VA

P.O. Box 1142: The Secrets of Fort Hunt

December 7th, 1941. Pearl Harbor smoldered following intense, coordinated attacks by air forces from the Empire of Japan. Within days, Americans were embroiled in the conflict that was the Second World War, while the American military scrambled to establish a competent intelligence gathering operation on the East Coast. Carved from a portion of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, Alexandria’s Fort Hunt began its life as a coastal fortification during the Spanish-American War. With its close proximity to Washington, Fort Hunt became an ideal location for one of the most secretive group of programs in American history. Codenamed after its post office box in Alexandria, 1142, Fort Hunt became a secret interrogation center for high value German POWs. The layers of secrecy did not stop there. Unbeknownst even to interrogators stationed there, Fort Hunt also held a program whose mission was to communicate and aid in the escape of Allied POWs trapped in several German camps throughout Europe.

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.

Remembering Arlington's John Lyon

In honor of Veterans Day, the Arlington Historical Society is having a talk about Arlington's fallen sons of World War I tomorrow night at Marymount University. To get you ready, we sat down with the speaker, Annette Benbow, and she told us about one of the men, Lt. John Lyon. Watch the video above and then click through for more information.

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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