The Underground Railroad has deeper ties to the Washington DC area than many know. Escaped slaves are believed to have used the burial vault at Mount Zion Cemetery in Georgetown as a hiding place during their journey to freedom.
Those who think that the “Exorcist stairs” are the spookiest landmark in Georgetown clearly haven’t heard of the Laurie family. In the nineteenth century, in a townhouse where 3327 N Street NW stands today, two women known as “the Witches of Georgetown” were talking to ghosts and making pianos levitate. Or, at least, that’s what legend tells us.
The soundtrack of the summer of 1976 was a special one. Just after the USA celebrated its Bicentennial, one unlikely song, with its folksy style and airtight harmonization, soared past the countless disco tunes to the number 1 spot on the Billboard charts. No matter how you feel about it, “Afternoon Delight” was perhaps the perfect way to celebrate our independence. With lyrics referencing “skyrockets in flight,” the song (and the band behind it) has a very strong connection to the Nation’s Capital.
It all started in 1974, when musicians Bill Danoff and Margot Chapman stopped at Clyde’s in Georgetown for a meal...
In the summer of 1970, Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert were driving down Clopper Road to a family reunion in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Montgomery County was a much more rural place in those days, and the scenery inspired Danoff to repetitively sing “country roads, country roads, country roads.”
Under normal circumstances, this burst of creativity might have gone nowhere, but the couple happened to be a duo of professional musicians. So, with the help of John Denver, they soon turned the phrase into the earworm we know today.
At first sight, the old wrought iron fence on the corner of P and 28th streets appears indistinct from the many other railings that skirt Georgetown’s redbrick sidewalks. Upon closer inspection, however, it’s clear this fence is unique. Cracks in some of the pickets reveal that although each upright is hollow, the walls of the pickets are far thicker than is structurally necessary for a perimeter fence. Plus, a number of the pickets feature small nubs just below the attached spikes, which, even to the untrained eye, resemble gun sights. While the Gun Barrel Fence has long been a Georgetown landmark, the fence’s origins remain shrouded in mystery and misconception. Let’s bust some myths, shall we?
Dumbarton Bridge is nestled between Georgetown and Dupont Circle. Bronze Buffalo guard the approaches and 56 identical sculptures of a Native American man line the base of the bridge’s second tier of arches. Chosen to provide a distinctly “American character,” these design features are reflective of an artistic movement that idealized European settlement and western expansion. Ironically, the man depicted by the replicate busts spent his entire life fighting European settlement.
Decades before Venus and Serena Williams dominated women’s tennis on the WTA tour, the Peters Sisters — Margaret Peters, a.k.a. “Pete", and Roumania Peters, a.k.a. “Repeat” — from Georgetown, were unstoppable champions in the all-black American Tennis Association.
Let's take a moment 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.