1810s

Postcard depicting Tomb of Female Stanger (Credi: By Boston Public Library - Tomb of a female stranger, Alexandria, Virginia, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41983533)

The Female Stranger of Alexandria

Two hundred years ago, an unknown woman breathed her last in room 8 of Gadsby’s Tavern in Old Town Alexandria. Her husband prepared her body for death in secret and sealed her coffin personally. After seeing that she was placed in a local graveyard, he vanished. It’s the sort of story that would condemn a person to be lost to history, but the circumstances surrounding this woman’s death and interment sparked centuries of questions and outlandish theories. Even now, no one alive knows her name. She remains the Female Stranger of Alexandria.

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.

Emergency Quarters for Congress

August of 1814 was a pretty hot month, thanks to Mother Nature… Oh, and the British. After trouncing local militia troops at the Battle of Bladensburg, the redcoats burned the majority of important government buildings in D.C. and chased President Madison out of town. In addition to the White House, the fires destroyed the Senate’s wing of the Capitol and turned much of the Library of Congress’ books and manuscripts into smoldering ash. The intense heat melted the marble chamber into limestone, transforming the room into “a most magnificent ruin.”

Beyond cleaning up the damage, there was the obvious problem of getting the government back up and running. Sound familiar?

This is why we can't have nice things. (Painting by Tom Freeman. Source: The White House Historical Association.)

Impressions of Washington: By the Light of the White House being Engulfed in Flames

Washington, D.C. has had many visitors since it’s inception, but it cannot be said that everyone was a huge fan. Actually, in 1814, there were quite a number of people who were a bit upset with the Capitol. You might have heard of them… The British?

Yes, on August 24, 1814, the British attacked and burned Washington, D.C. One of their number, George Robert Gleig, apparently found enough time whilst attacking the city at night in the middle of a hurricane to take in the sights and form some opinions.