Books You Should Read: Alexander Shepherd Biography by John Richardson

For John Richardson, Washington’s influential territorial governor, Alexander Robey “Boss” Shepherd, has been a source of fascination for over 30 years, since the author moved into D.C.’s Shepherd Park neighborhood. Balancing this curiosity with a day job in the CIA and stints overseas meant that progress on the book was slower than Richardson intended. But, the result of his labors is worth the wait for local history enthusiasts. Richardson’s recently published biography, Alexander Robey Shepherd: The Man Who Built the Nation’s Capital (Ohio University Press, 2016) is a thoroughly researched and well written study of a man who, despite his enormous impact on the District of Columbia, has not gotten the attention he deserves from scholars. Check out our video with the author!

Lobbying at the Willard Hotel

Willard Hotel lobby in 1901 (Photo source: Library of Congress)

Washington, D.C. is a city rich in history with many stories to tell. Inevitably some of those stories take on a life of their own, even if the facts don’t necessarily back them up. For example, the story that the term “lobbyist” was created by President Ulysses S. Grant to describe the flocks of favor-seekers he encountered during his frequent sojourns to the lobby of the Willard Hotel.

Prince Arthur was the youngest son of Queen Victoria. (Source: Mount Vernon website)

Washington Pulls Out All the Stops for Prince Arthur, 1870

As the nation's capital, Washington has a long and illustrious history of hosting important guests, but in 1870 the city's fashionable set pulled out all the stops for the seventh child of Queen Victoria, His Royal Highness Arthur William Patrick Albrecht. Called Prince Arthur, the fashionable prince made quite an impression on the press and the city's Treasury girls.

Frederick Douglass's Career in D.C. Government

Frederick Douglass (Source: Library of Congress)

Frederick Douglass had spent time in Washington, D.C. during his career as an abolitionist, writer, and orator, but he was never a permanent resident. His presence prior to and during the Civil War was most notable as an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln during the debate over constitutional amendments to guarantee voting rights and civil liberties for African Americans.

It wasn’t until his Rochester, N.Y. home was destroyed by fire in 1872 that Douglass took up permanent residence in the District. Relocating to Washington seemed a logical choice, since he was already spending an increasing amount of time there.

D.C.'s Half-Accidental National Mardi Gras

Crowds pack the top floor of the Treasury Building as the Carnival is in full swing on Pennsylvania Avenue. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The modern-day DC Caribbean Carnival is a small affair, at least compared to the world-famous parades in carnival cities. There are plenty of revelers - and people celebrating Caribbean culture - but the capital certainly doesn’t come to a halt the way cities like New Orleans do on Mardi Gras. This hasn’t always been the case, however. For one year, in 1871, Washington, D.C. stumbled into hosting a Carnival parade that rivaled those in New Orleans itself. The National Fete, as it also became known, was an extremely patriotic version of the Carnival festivities, with national flags, “Yankee Doodle,” and rockets’ red glare mingling with the Lord of Misrule and the masquerade.

Mrs. Woodhull Goes to Washington: The First Female Presidential Candidate Petitions For Women's Suffrage

Victoria Woodhull speaks in front of the Judiciary Committee on January 11, 18. I

Tomorrow, Hillary Clinton is going to officially declare her candidacy for the 2016 presidential election (again), making her well on track to be the first woman to win a major party's presidential nomination. However, she is far from the first woman to run for president. That distinction belongs to Victoria Woodhull, a spiritualist, suffragist, and stockbroker who ran for president on the Equal Rights ticket in 1872. We look into her campaign and her visit to DC in order to argue for women's suffrage before the House Judiciary Committee below the cut.

Mark Twain, 1871 portrait by Matthew Brady. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Impressions of Washington: The Gilded Age, 1873

In 1873, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published their novel The Gilded Age, both as a parody of contemporary popular novels and to criticize political and economic corruption. In chapter 24, Twain and Warner take the reader on a virtual tour of the nation’s capital. They didn't paint a pretty picture.

You are assailed by a long rank of hackmen, who shake their whips in your face as you step out upon the sidewalk; you enter what they regard as a “carriage” in the capital, and you wonder why they do not take it out of service and put it in the museum. You reach your hotel presently- of course you have gone to the wrong one. There are a hundred and eighteen bad hotels, and only one good one. The most renowned and popular hotel of them all is perhaps the worst one known to history.

The city at large… is a wide stretch of cheap little brick houses, with here and there a noble architectural pile lifting itself out of the midst- government buildings, these. …You will wonder at the shortsightedness of the city fathers, when you come to inspect the streets, in that they do not dilute the mud a little more and use them for canals.

The Wawaset Disaster of 1873

Few remember it today, but in 1873 “the Waswaset horror” broke the hearts of many in D.C. and the surrounding area.

On August 8, 1873, the Wawaset was heading towards Cone River from Washington. Around 11:30AM, near Chatterson’s Landing, the fireman of the steamer raised the alarm that a fire had broken out on board. The boat was very dry, “almost like timber”, and it spread quickly on the oiled machinery of the steamer. Captain Woods immediately steered the boat towards shore. He stayed in the pilot’s house in order to keep the steering ropes from catching on fire; if those were lost, there would be no way to direct the steamer. If the steamer could make it to shore before the fire became too much for those on board, any loss of life could be avoided. Sadly, it didn’t happen that way.

U.S. Grant (Source: Library of Congress0

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.