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.

Fire and Rain: The Storm That Changed D.C. History

British soldiers set fire to Washington on August 24, 1814, prior to the worst storm that had been seen in Washington for years. (Image Source: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)

D.C. has had more than its fair share of extreme weather lately, setting records for the highest number of days over 90 degrees and the most rainfall ever recorded in a single day, as well as being the site of a toothier type of storm. One day in 1814, however, combined all three - extreme heat, rainfall, and wind - surprisingly, somewhat to the District's advantage.

On August 24, 1814, for the first and only time in our country's history, Washington, D.C. was overrun by an invading army. The British army had easily defeated inexperienced American defenders, and set the city ablaze. The President had fled to Brookeville, MD, and many of the citizens had fled along with the army. Those few residents of the capital who hadn't already fled may well have prayed for anything that could stop the flames. What they got, however, was something far more than they were hoping for: a "tornado" more powerful than any storm in living memory.

Hobson with his station wagon and trademark pipe and fedora, ready to harangue the multitudes. (Source: Evening Star)

Julius Hobson Gets Out of the Rat Race

Despite recent events at the National Zoo, scares about escaped rodents in Washington are nothing new, and since this is Washington, these scares have sometimes had a political bent.

If you lived in DC in August of 1964, you might have seen Julius Hobson driving through downtown with a cage full of enormous rats strapped to the roof of his station wagon. Frustrated by the city government’s refusal to do anything about the rat problem in Northeast and Southeast DC, and about the District’s more affluent citizens’ apathy about the issue, he said that if Southeast was having this problem, then Georgetown should share it too. Hobson caught “possum-sized rats” in Shaw and Northeast, and transported them up to Georgetown, promising to release the cage full of rats in the middle of the wealthy district unless the city government acted to curb the epidemic. Since he was, as a piece in The Washingtonian put it, “[a]ware that a DC problem usually is not a problem until it is a white problem,” he decided to go ahead and make it a white problem.

"Taft Tosses Ball: Officiates at the Opening Game of the Season," The Washington Post, 15 Apr 1910: 2.

Georgetown University's Imperial Prince

Georgetown University has some pretty prestigious professors. But did you know the school once had an imperial prince on their staff? Don Agustin de Iturbide y Green, with a name as weighty as the Infanta, taught Spanish and French at Georgetown near the end of the 19th century. How did Don Agustin, the heir to two emperors, end up in elbow pads? It’s sort of a long story, which takes us from Georgetown to Mexico to France and back.

The Rosedale estate in Georgetown was the grand home of Alice Green, granddaughter of Revolutionary War General Uriah Forrest and great-granddaughter of Maryland Governor George Plater. This belle was basically American royalty, which was great for when she married Don Angel Maria de Iturbide y Huarte, the exiled prince of the Mexican imperial line and a student at Georgetown University. By the time the lovebirds met and wed, Angel’s father, Agustin the First, had been deposed and executed. Although Alice’s husband and their son, Agustin, had a technical claim to the throne, few suspected that Agustin I’s nine-month rule would bring his descendants anything.

This is not the face of someone who enjoyed her stay in Washington, D.C.

Impressions of Washington: Abigail Adams, 1800

When Abigail Adams came to Washington, D.C. on November 16, 1800, she arrived at an infant city, sparse and not fully formed.  Having just left the comforts of old Philadelphia, this must have been quite a shock. To make matters worse, her trip south had seen been rough. So, it’s safe to assume that she was in an irritable mood, when she finally made it to D.C.

We should probably keep that in mind while reading her appraisal of the city because she was pretty harsh. The First Lady called the capital ‘a city only in name,’ and pulled no punches in her description of Georgetown

The Real-Life Setting for "American Hustle"

If American Hustle wins Best Picture at Sunday night's Academy Awards telecast, it may well create a new tourist attraction in the nation's capital, even though the story takes place elsewhere. We're talking about the six-bedroom house at 4407 W Street NW that the FBI rented to use as a base for the Abscam sting operation that inspired the film, in which a U.S. Senator, six members of the U.S. House, and assorted other local and state-level politicians in New Jersey were convicted of accepting bribes from a fictitious favor-seeking Middle Eastern sheik. (Here's a surveillance video clip showing the inside of the house, which features the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who was offered a bribe but turned it down, later insisting to FBI agents that he was seeking investment in his district. He ultimately was not charged with a crime.)

In a strange twist, the FBI leased the house in 1978 from an unwitting journalist, then-Washington Post foreign editor Lee Lescaze, who was heading to New York to work for the Post there.

Young JFK in Georgetown

When we think of President John F. Kennedy, we picture him living in the White House with Jackie, Caroline and John Jr.  But for most of the time he spent in Washington—the years from 1946 through 1960—he was a resident of the city’s Georgetown neighborhood.

When the Massachusetts native moved to Washington after being elected to Congress in 1946, he was just 29 years old and still single, and he followed the same pattern as so many other young people who’ve arrived here over the years in a quest for greatness. He settled into a group house, where after a long day at work he could hang out with his friends, leave his dirty laundry strewn all over the place and lead the carefree existence of a party-loving bachelor.

The Strange Rock of Georgetown: Colonel Ninian Beall

Known by some as the founder of Georgetown, Colonel Ninian Beall was quite an interesting fellow. With fierce red hair he stood 6 feet 7 inches tall and he lived almost 3 times longer than he should have. (The average life expectancy was 35 and he lived to be 92). What a champ.

Born in 1625 in Scotland, Beall spent the first 27 years of his life living out scenes from an adventure film. While fighting in the Scottish Army, Beall was taken prisoner at the Battle of Dunbar and landed in a London prison. Shortly after, he and 149 others were shipped to the island of Barbados in the West Indies to live as indentured servants. Doesn’t sound much like the Caribbean vacations we think of nowadays.[1]

Impressions of Washington: A Georgetown Fourth of July in the 1850s

With the Fourth of July festivities just around the corner, area residents are preparing for the merriment in all sorts of ways.

What is your pleasure? Grilling out at Gravelly Point? A backyard gathering with family and friends? Braving the crowds on the National Mall to watch the fireworks? Or maybe you are more of the stay-at-home type. If so, we recommend watching the A Capitol Fourth concert on WETA Television. We hear it’s really good.

Well, 150 years ago, there weren’t so many options but Washingtonians still put on quite a celebration for the nation’s birthday.