World War I

The Dangerous Ghosts of WWI Research in Spring Valley

Photograph showing the mystery location of the 'Hades' pit in future Spring Valley neighborhood, where World War I munitions were buried after the war's end. (source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

On January 7, 1993, an alarming headline greeted readers of The Washington Post: “25 HOUSES EVACUATED AS WWI SHELLS EXAMINED.” The previous day, a backhoe operator digging a trench in the Spring Valley neighborhood of Northwest Washington had uncovered a suspicious object. The construction company called the D.C. Fire Department… who called the police… who called the bomb squad. Within hours, 25 homes in the upscale neighborhood had been temporarily evacuated as munitions crews from the Army Technical Escort Unit at Aberdeen Proving Grounds investigated. Their verdict? The objects were unexploded mortar and artillery shells – and there might be more in the area.

Cartoon from the front page of the Afro-American newspaper, July 25, 1919.

Red Summer Race Riot in Washington, 1919

By all accounts, Saturday, July 19, 1919 was a hot, muggy night in Washington, D.C. The stifling heat probably didn’t help the disposition of patrons in the city’s saloons which, in this era of early-Prohibition, could only offer the tamest of liquid refreshments. (Though, undoubtedly many barflies acquired stiffer drinks at one of the city’s many speakeasies.) It probably didn’t help matters, either, that many of the soldiers and sailors who had recently returned home from the battlefields of World War I were struggling to find work.

The day’s Washington Times reported that Mrs. Elsie Stephnick, a white woman who worked in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, had been assaulted by “2 negro thugs” on her way home from work the previous evening. The paper noted, “This is the sixth attack made on women in Washington since June 25 and while the police are working day and night in an effort to arrest the negro assailant of the women, only two suspects are in custody.”

The Women's Peace Party and Pacifism During WWI

American delegates to the International Congress of Women which was held at the Hague, the Netherlands in 1915. (Source: Library of Congress)

Two years before the United States entered World War I, women in Washington were gathering to protest the practice. As The Washington Post put it, “War was declared on war.”

The Women’s Peace Party was formed January 10, 1915 at a conference at the Willard Hotel. Speakers included Jane Addams, a pioneer of social work and feminism, Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the International Alliance for Women’s Suffrage, and other representatives from throughout the country, including two delegates from the District’s branch of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Over 3,000 attendees unanimously agreed on a “peace program,” to end the war practically.

Test tubes containing bovine tubercular bacteria. (Source: Library of Congress)

"Tony's Lab" and World War I Germ Sabotage in Washington

In the fall of 1915, Anton Dilger was looking for a house to rent in Washington. With the help of his sister, Jo, Dilger decided on a quaint white house in the 5500 block of 33rd St., NW, not far from Chevy Chase Circle. It was a comfortable place in a new neighborhood and had a basement that could serve as a home research laboratory. Anton proudly listed himself as a physician in the Washington City Directory, in effect putting out his shingle in the nation’s capital. However, Dr. Dilger didn’t see many patients. He was busy with more nefarious pursuits.

The Silent Sentinels

Women suffragists picketing in front of the White house on "College Day" in 1917. (Source: Wikipedia)

At 10 o’clock in the morning on January 10, 1917, 12 women from the National Woman’s Party took up posts outside the White House entrances. They stood in silence, wearing purple, yellow, and white ribbons, and holding large banners, which read: “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” By the fall, many of the picketers had been jailed and reports of prison abuse hit the newswires.

Advertisement poster for the American Red Cross circa. 1914-1918 (Source: Library of Congress)

Honeymoon on the Western Front

On January 30, 1915, a select few of Washington’s high society came out for the wedding of Edward Motely Pickman and Hester Marion Chanler. The two married in an intimate ceremony at the Meridan Hill home of Mr. Henry White, a former Ambassador to France, and his wife Margaret “Daisy” Stuyvesant Rutherford, a prominent New York socialite. (The Whites were distant relatives but close friends of Hester’s family.) The day before, Washington’s movers and shakers celebrated the young couple at the exclusive Alibi club where membership rolls included presidents, senators, chief justices, and ambassadors.

News of the wedding took the front page of The Washington Post’s Society section. However, it was not the guest list or the bride’s dress that made the Pickmans the talk of the town. Rather, it was their unusual honeymoon plans.

Back of peoples' heads in the foreground with a large boat in the background.

"More Tons, Less Huns": World War I Shipbuilding in Alexandria

World War I fueled a rapid buildup in industrial production and, in particular, merchant shipbuilding. America needed cargo vessels—fast—and, as luck would have it, Alexandria was prepared. Between 1910 and 1912, the Army Corps of Engineers had infilled a 46-acre bay and wildlife preserve – Battery Cove – near Jones Point Lighthouse. The land’s proximity to the Potomac River and its enormous size made it an ideal site for shipbuilding. Alexandrians rejoiced when the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation came to their city but the enthusiasm would not last.

Red Cross Demonstration in D.C. During 1918 Influenza Pandemic (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, 1918)

Then There Were No Coffins

In the fall of 1918, a deadly influenza epidemic raged in Washington, D.C. Entire families were wiped out; some people died within a day of showing symptoms. City officials, meanwhile, had a difficult job: figuring out what to do with the bodies.

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