Mike Williams

Mike Williams discovered his love of American history after viewing Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot in the early 2000s. Since then, he has taken an interest in the backcountry life of South Carolina and hopes to prove how a vigilante group in the 1760s may have contributed to the violence seen in the Carolinas during the American Revolution. Mike attempted a degree in computer science, but learned the hard way that 2 + 2 did not equal 5, so instead he received his Bachelor’s degree in History from George Mason University in 2012. He is currently at GMU pursuing his Master’s in History and New Media, with a focus on American history and the American Revolution. Mike is also an aspiring writer and hopes to one day turn some of his research into compelling historical fiction.

Posts by Mike Williams

Tivoli Brewing Factory

Robert Portner and Alexandria's Pre-Prohibition Brewing History

The history of brewing beer in the United States is a rich and storied one. Cities like St. Louis, Missouri and Milwaukee, Wisconsin resonate with most beer drinkers across the country as centers for American brewing. For Virginia residents, you might not realize how close Alexandria, Virginia came to being one of those brewing capitals. From the closing years of the Civil War until prohibition turned Virginia into a dry state, the Robert Portner Brewing Company was the leading brewery and distributor in the southeastern United States. Led by its visionary namesake, the Portner Brewing Company became the largest business in Alexandria and remains a fascinating tale of innovation.

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.

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.

U.S. Naval Torpedo Station in Alexandria, Virginia circa 1922

The Torpedo Factory Art Center: Alexandria's World War II Landmark

Sitting on the waterfront of the Potomac River, the 85,000 square foot Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria is a landmark of Northern Virginia history. Today, the building houses artist studios, galleries, art workshops, and even an archeology museum. Yet during the tumultuous years of World War II, workers produced something very different in the space — the Mark 14 submarine torpedo used by U.S. Navy personnel in the Pacific theater of the war. Over 70 years after its decommissioning as a munitions depot, the history of the Torpedo Factory is a fascinating tale of politics, faulty weapon engineering, and local spirit.

The Golden Age of D.C. Sportscasters

It was Super Bowl XVII in Pasadena, California. The Washington Redskins were set to take on the Miami Dolphins in a rematch from their meeting in Super Bowl VII a decade before. Outside of a Pasadena hotel designated for the media, a group of sixteen men jovially sang and hugged each other. At their center, a recognizable voice could be heard over the merriment.  “Ladies and gentlemen this is the class of ’83. These sixteen men ran up the highest hotel bill in the history of Western civilization.”

The voice belonged to Glenn Brenner, Washington’s comedic evening sports broadcaster from Channel 9 news, celebrating with his crew. The men did indeed tally up a massive hotel bill, yet there was one detail that Brenner left out of his speech. He had charged the bill to George Michael’s room, his rival sportscaster at Channel 4.