The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, is dedicated to all the victims of racial terror lynching in this country. The memorial is made of hundreds of steel monuments with the names of all known lynching victims inscribed on the front. A monument representing Alexandria, Virginia contains two names: Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas. This is their story, and our community's history.
November 1, 1897 was a cold, rainy Monday in the District. “This may not have been propitious weather for some occasions, but it was hailed with delight by a certain class of persons when they arose that morning. They were not human ducks, either, for the affair in which they wished to participate was sufficient evidence that they were intensely human, and of an intellectual type.” This was the day that the new Congressional Library was to open, and allow eager readers into the Beaux-Arts style building for the first time.
By 1875, the old Congressional Library had completely exhausted its shelf space, and the Library's new building was not completed until February 1897. Although the 20 year wait for the physical structure was a long one, it seemed that the months between the building’s completion in February 1897 and its opening day on November 1, 1897 were the longest of all. Throughout these nine months, librarians and engineers joined together to try and solve one major problem: how would they move all of the Library’s contents the quarter of a mile distance from the Capitol to the new library without “loss, damage, and confusion.” The answer? Book chutes.
By 1875, the Congressional Library in the Capitol Building had outgrown its shelf space, forcing librarians to store incoming books, maps, music, photographs, and documents in stacks on the Library floor. Eventually, Congress approved a plan to move its Library into a new structure that would be built across from the Capitol, and by the end of the summer of 1897, all 800,000 books had been moved into the newly opened Library of Congress building, known today as the Jefferson Building. While the books now had plenty of space, a new challenge presented itself: how would the congressmen have easy access to their library if it was now a quarter of a mile away? The solution was a technological creation that seems futuristic at the very least: a special underground tunnel full of conveyor belts and pneumatic tubes that connected the two buildings, and had books zooming to and fro under First Street SE for nearly the next century.
In the 19th century, being overweight was still a sign of wealth and prestige. So, it's probably not surprising that fat men’s clubs started popping up across America. There were Fat Men’s Clubs from New York to California; they eventually reached “every state in the Union” as well as the nation's capital.
The D.C. fat men’s club scene was wildly popular and members would intentionally pack on the pounds at the time of membership renewal in order to remain eligible. They were proud of their weights, even boasting about how much they had gained each week. And, sometimes, it was serious business, like 1894 when a brawl broke out between two of D.C.'s biggest clubs.
You might be familiar with the story of the Bonus Marchers of 1932, the large group of World War I veterans who gathered from around the country in Washington, D.C., demanding their long promised benefits. For many veterans, the bonus money for military service was the difference between keeping a roof over their families’ heads or keeping the bank from repossessing their property. But this was not the first time disgruntled citizens descended on Washington seeking economic redress.
In the midst of an economic crisis that shook the nation in the mid 1890s, Ohio businessman Jacob Coxey, and his eccentric colleague Carl Browne organized a collection of unemployed men and women to march to Washington to present their plan. They left Massillon, Ohio on March 25, arriving in Washington, D.C. at the end of April. Along the way, they were joined by dozens of similarly affected men and women eager to find a solution to their economic plight.
If you're a Peter Sellers fan, you're probably familiar with this scene in the 1975 film Return of the Pink Panther, in which Inspector Clouseau fails to notice a bank robbery because he is questioning a street accordion player and his chimpanzee companion about whether or not they have the required permit. ("I am a musician and the monkey is a businessman," the accordionist explains. "He doesn't tell me what to play, and I don't tell him what to do with his money.")
You may not realize that there's a grain of truth in the comedy. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there actually were street musicians who performed with dancing simians in the streets of the nation's capital, and they actually sometimes got into similar beefs with District police.
In the winter months of 1893-1894, D.C. area folks were plagued with the fear of a mysterious man dubbed “Jack the Slasher.” Nicknamed after London’s infamous “Jack the Ripper” of 1888, this Jack silently entered homes at night and left just as stealthily as he came, leaving a violent mess behind him. Police were perplexed, women and children terrified, and men poured money into the protection of their houses. But before you start thinking the worst, know that he wasn’t that kind of slasher. Rather than human flesh, the target of his knife was textiles. He cut up furniture, clothing, carpets, and anything he could get his hands on, while taking little for himself. Why? Even after he was caught, no one was able to ascertain a real motive.
Jack’s robberies started in October 1893 at the home of Nick Young, President of the National Baseball League, in Mount Pleasant. He entered by cutting the slats of the shutters and sliding through a back window while the house was sleeping. Young woke to his residence in chaos: “the bric-a-brac and furniture therein [were] almost completely destroyed… The walls and pictures were besmeared with mud, while chairs and carpets were cut with a keen knife.” When police were called to the scene of the crime, they were mystified, remarking they had never seen anything like it. And Jack was just beginning.
Not to cast any doubt on the virtue of our historical statesman, but for the latter half of the 1800s, at least two major red light districts were right in the center of D.C., even “within sight of the White House.”
One of the most notorious of these was Hooker’s Division, on the west end of the federal triangle and right on the National Mall. With the White House to the north, the Capital to the east, and the business district within walking distance, it was pretty perfectly positioned. The area got its name during the Civil War, when Union General Hooker moved everything seedy in the capital to a choice few spots. The name also at least partially arose from how often Hooker’s men visited the district (hint: a lot). The Evening Star had this to say of Hooker’s Division in 1863:
There are at present, more houses of this character [ill-repute], by ten times, in the city than have ever existed here before, and loose characters can now be counted by the thousands.