1850s

Sarah Agnes Rice Pryor (Source: Wikipedia)

Impressions of Washington: Sarah Pryor, 1859 - 1861

Sarah Pryor (1830-1912), the daughter of a wealthy Virginian family, lived in Washington from 1859 until the outbreak of the Civil War. In her memoirs written in 1909, she recounts the grand society of antebellum D.C. and the shift to war tensions.

On her earliest memories of Washington

Washington was like a great village in the days of President Pierce and President Buchanan…. my heart would swell within me at every glimpse of the Capitol: from the moment it rose like a white cloud above the smoke and mists… the moment when a point on the unfinished dome glowed like a great blazing star after the sun had really gone down. No matter whether suns rose or set, there was the star of our country - the star of our hearts and hopes.

More after the jump!

The Election Day Riot of 1857

1850s sheet music dedicated to the Know Nothing party. (Source: Library of Congress)

Those who look at the sorry state of politics in modern America can take solace in the fact that we do not face the savagery that took place in the name of democracy in 1850s Washington, D.C. During those tumultuous days leading up to the Civil War, Washington, and much of the country was in the grip of heated debates over slavery and immigration that often turned violent.

National Hotel c. 1920 (Source: Library of Congress)

A Five Star Malady

What better treat for a president-elect waiting to move into the White House than to stay in one of the swankiest hotels in the capital? Well, as it turns out, James Buchanan would have done better to have found less plush accomodations in the spring of 1857. He and hundreds of others fell victim to a mysterious ailment after staying at the luxurious National Hotel.

This sickness, because it came at the end of a harsh campaign against the victorious Buchanan, was thought by many to arise from a poison. Fingers were pointed at various political opponents; even the Spanish government in Cuba was blamed.

Impressions of Washington: “An overgrown, tattered village”

 

Not surprisingly, our nation’s capital has undergone some pretty radical changes since its beginning. 160 years ago, the landscape of the National Mall and surrounding streets looked vastly different than it does today. We’re talking an armory, one museum, the Washington Monument and not much else.

Speaking to the Historical Society in 1901, Presbyterian minister and Chaplain of the Senate Byron Sunderland described the Washington he remembered in the mid nineteenth century.

A Roma Americae stone. (Source: National Park Service)

The Mystery of the Pope's Stone

On the evening of March 5, 1854, nine men associated with the Know-Nothing party snuck up to the base of the Washington Monument and made off with a rather hefty hunk of stone. The men carried the stone to a boat waiting on the tidal basin, smashed it into pieces and dumped it in the middle of the Potomac.

You may be curious as to why they (or we!) were interested in an old — and probably really heavy — rock. Where exactly did this stone come from and why was it such a big deal when it was stolen and destroyed? Maybe it was the fact that it came from the Pope... Just a guess.

Sketch of Daniel Sickles shooting Philip Barton Key (Source: Historical Society of Washington)

Cold-Blooded Murder in Lafayette Square: The Sickles Tragedy of 1859

 

On the morning of February 27, 1859, Philip Barton Key was shot multiple times by the deranged Daniel E. Sickles in the middle of Lafayette Square. Sickles’ motive? …the discovery of an intimate affair between his wife and good friend.

Now Washington, D.C., has had its fair share of scandals, political pandemonium, and secret trysts over the years. But the Sickles tragedy provided a particularly scandalous dance between sex and politics even by Washington standards. After all, it’s not everyday that a Congressman commits cold-blooded murder in broad daylight on a city street.