If you lived in nineteenth-century D.C. and wanted your picture taken, you couldn’t just whip out your own camera — you’d visit Pennsylvania Avenue NW, known locally as “photographer’s row.” This stretch of the avenue, between the White House and the nearly-finished Capitol building, was home to a cluster of photography studios and galleries. Between 1858 and 1881, the most fashionable and famous was Brady’s National Photographic Art Gallery. It was run by Mathew Brady and his manager, Alexander Gardner, whose partnership endured its own civil war.
Josiah Henson is not a well-known name in American history—or even in the Washington area, where he was enslaved for many years. Born into bondage in Maryland, he lived in Montgomery County before eventually escaping to Canada—there, he served in the army, became a preacher, and established a prosperous settlement for escaped slaves. He was immortalized in Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, serving as the inspiration for the titular character. But though the novel made him a well-known and popular figure in the nineteenth century, Henson was determined to tell his own story. As he says, the truth is stranger than fiction.
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.
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.
In the U.S. Senate's sculpture collection, there are plenty of busts of instantly recognizable historical figures such as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. But enshrined alongside them, there's also the lushly-bearded, bowtie-wearing likeness of an obscure 19th Century Italian-American artist. While Brumidi, who signed his work "C. Brumidi Artist Citizen of the U.S.," isn't a famous name, he left a lasting mark on the U.S. Capitol, by creating striking frescoes and murals that add charm and grace to the building's interior.
Brumidi's work, which can be found throughout the Capitol, includes the fresco The Apotheosis of Washington in the Rotunda canopy. But his masterwork is the hallways on the first floor of the Senate wing, an assortment of frescoes and murals known as the Brumidi Corridors. Inspired by Raphael's Loggia in the Vatican, Brumidi's art is distinguished by his blending of classical imagery with patriotic American themes. The Washington Post once described Brumidi as "the genius of the Capitol," and noted that "so many of its stateliest rooms bear the touch of this tireless brush that he shall always be associated with it." Art historian Francis V. O'Connor has called him "the first really accomplished American muralist." A journalist of his time went even further, labeling him "the Michelangelo of the U.S. Capitol."
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.
Not surprisingly, our nation’s capital has undergone some pretty radical changes since its beginning. One hundred and sixty 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-19th century.
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.
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 every day that a Congressman commits cold-blooded murder in broad daylight on a city street.