Long before the invention of the airplane and a short time before trains were used for commercial transportation, congressmen traveling to Washington for extended periods faced a complicated issue: where would they live in the developing capital city while Congress was in session? Some wealthier members of Congress could purchase private residences or stay with a colleague, but this was not a realistic option for most. The most common solution by far, was to reside in one of the District’s many boardinghouses. Several former presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, found boardinghouses to be a phenomenally sufficient option during their congressional years— for a reasonable fee, a boardinghouse would provide you a room, quality meals, place to work, and lively conversation with fellow residents, many of whom were also politicians. Boardinghouses were scattered throughout the city, but the majority of them were located on Capitol Hill in the area where the Library of Congress stands today.
Anyone who reads The First Forty Years of Washington Society will form an image of Margaret Bayard Smith as a lively social butterfly and busybody. After all, her published letters seem like the nineteenth-century equivalent of a gossip column. What readers may not realize is that, just like her husband, Margaret was an accomplished writer. In nineteenth-century Washington, she was well-known as an author in her own right, not just a socialite.
On April 9, 1959, the year-old National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) held a press conference to introduce the first ever American astronauts to the world. The seven military test pilots chosen to make up “The Mercury 7” sat lined at a table in the ballroom of the first NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., as press and public looked on. Although the introduction of astronauts into American culture was historic in itself, the building in which it took place carried a legacy that predated NASA by nearly 140 years. Namely, the building that NASA acquired as its first residence in the District was the longtime home of the lively and revered first lady, Dolley Madison.
Deep in the basement of the U.S. Capitol Building, used to stand six bathtubs, hand-carved from Italian Carrara marble. These tubs were installed initially as a practical bathing option for Congressmen living in D.C. boarding houses with primitive bathing facilities. Although mostly forgotten by the 1890s once the new Washington Aqueduct provided running water to most homes in the area, these exquisite tubs were once a popular attraction for Congressmen and their visitors alike.
While Presidents of the United States have received all different kinds of honors and gifts throughout the years, there is one particular 19th century trend of presidential gift-giving that stands out…or maybe stands alone. Giant wheels of cheese have appeared at the White House multiple times in presidential history, starting in 1801 when Thomas Jefferson was gifted the 4 foot-wide, 17 inch-high, 1,235 pound Cheshire “Mammoth” Cheese from the citizens of Cheshire, Massachusetts. Funny enough, Jefferson’s Mammoth Cheese was not the last one to enter the White House. Andrew Jackson received his 1,400 pound New York-made Mammoth Cheese in 1835, and invited all of Washington to a party at the White House two years later to eat it.
When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, he decided he was going to do away with all the courtly nonsense of his predecessors, George Washington and John Adams. No longer would there be rules and regulations dictating behavior in social situations; not a single whiff of pomp or circumstance would be found in his administration. It was a rude awakening for visiting dignitaries including British minister Anthony Merry.
Washington was unprepared for its first murder trial in 1802. The trial took place in the Capitol building, for want of a courtroom, and the murderer was held in a temporary jail in an alley dwelling on 4 ½ street. All around, it turned out to be a difficult event for the city, but let’s start at the beginning.
Patrick McGurk was an Irish immigrant who lived on F Street, between 12th NW and 13th NW. He worked as a bricklayer and had a serious drinking problem. As too often is the case, his wife suffered from his bad habit. In the summer of 1802, McGurk beat his wife so badly that she and their unborn twins died. After being convicted at trial, D.C.’s first murderer was sentenced to hanging.
Charles William Janson was an Englishman who lived in and wrote about America from 1793 to 1806. He published the account of his travels in 1807, in The Stranger in America. The following is what he had to say about what was then called “Washington City”...
In the wilderness of early Washington, fancy hotels and salons were not yet available for the stars of the city to gather. Instead, prominent citizens gathered in a farmer’s cottage to “discuss crops and drink apple jack.” In 1803, an Irish celebrity joined them around the fire, and immortalized the scenery in verse.
You’ve heard of DUELING, now get ready for ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE. In the 1800s, more than a few disputes of personal honor were solved by shooting each other to death. But that’s what the gentry of the area did, so what did the common people do? Plain old hand-to-hand fighting and eye-gouging.