Benjamin Shaw

Benjamin Shaw is a history and English major at the University of Maryland. Growing up just outside DC, in Prince George’s County, he was the kid who gave tours of the Smithsonian museums to visiting relatives, and trained to dress up as a docent at the site of the Battle of Bladensburg. He has discovered a passion for research through a variety of recent avenues: first as part of Glen Echo Park’s oral history program, then in a stint at the National Archives sorting oversized materials (Archives II has everything from 70-year-old barley samples to portraits of Hitler from New Jersey), and now at WETA. Ben enjoys hiking, Ursula K. LeGuin, and the DC music scene, and is continually astonished by how little newspaper editorials have changed in the past 200 years.

Posts by Benjamin Shaw

The Wright Brothers Prove Their Worth in Arlington and College Park

Wright Military Flyer flying at Ft Myer in 1909. Photo courtesy of the College Park Aviation Museum.

Ohio and North Carolina often get into a dispute about who can “claim” the Wright Brothers. The former was where the two lived and conducted most of their research, but the latter was where they actually took to the air for the first time. The debate rages on, with shots fired in forms from commemorative coins to license plates. But the place where the Wright Brothers really fathered the American aviation age was right here in the DC area, where they taught the first military pilots to fly, proved to the American public that their machine was real, and took to the air at what is now the oldest airport in the world.

Damaged records from the 1890 census. Most of these records ended up being destroyed. (Image source: National Archives)

Just Stick It in the Basement: Before the Archives

Today, the founding documents of America - the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights - are on display at the Charters of Freedom exhibit in the Rotunda of the National Archives. Tourists from across America and the world make pilgrimages to see the most revered documents in American history. Extensive preservation measures have been put in place. But this wasn’t always the case. For most of our nation’s history, these charters, now considered priceless, were kept with the United States’ other government documents - that is, shoved wherever officials could find space. Before the National Archives was founded in 1934, these documents were stored essentially at random, in basements, on walls, or even piled in hallways.

"The Whitest Huddle of Any Team in the League"

The Washington football team in 1961. (Image source: RedskinsCardMuseum.com)

The Washington Redskins are being accused of insensitivity and intolerance. The government is taking steps to intervene if the team doesn’t change its ways. Sound familiar? That’s because today’s name-change controversy echoes the situation over fifty years ago, when the Redskins were the last all-white team in the NFL. By 1952, every other team in the league had African-American players, but Washington team founder and owner George Preston Marshall refused to integrate, and dragged his feet for ten more years until his hand was forced.

Fire and Rain: The Storm That Changed D.C. History

British soldiers set fire to Washington on August 24, 1814, prior to the worst storm that had been seen in Washington for years. (Image Source: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)

D.C. has had more than its fair share of extreme weather lately, setting records for the highest number of days over 90 degrees and the most rainfall ever recorded in a single day, as well as being the site of a toothier type of storm. One day in 1814, however, combined all three - extreme heat, rainfall, and wind - surprisingly, somewhat to the District's advantage.

On August 24, 1814, for the first and only time in our country's history, Washington, D.C. was overrun by an invading army. The British army had easily defeated inexperienced American defenders, and set the city ablaze. The President had fled to Brookeville, MD, and many of the citizens had fled along with the army. Those few residents of the capital who hadn't already fled may well have prayed for anything that could stop the flames. What they got, however, was something far more than they were hoping for: a "tornado" more powerful than any storm in living memory.

Witch Hunts in the DC Area - Older Than You Think

An extremely dramatic depiction of the 1692 Salem trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft. Presumably there was considerably more order in the court when Rebecca Fowler was tried in Maryland seven years earlier, but she and George shared the same fate. (Image source: Library of Congress)

 

When you think of witch trials, Salem, Massachusetts usually comes to mind, as the site of a rash of accusations and mass hysteria that ended with hundreds accused and twenty people executed for witchcraft in a span of a few weeks. The DMV was never gripped by a panic of Salem’s scope; for one thing, the District was founded in a significantly less witch-paranoid century. However, the area was not quite a stranger to witch trials. In 1635, the Maryland Assembly adopted England’s Witchcraft Act of 1604, declaring witchcraft to be a felony, punishable by death in some instances. Before, witches were the province of the church; now both church and state would punish witches. While this law was seldom used, a few witches were actually put to trial, including Rebecca Fowler, the unfortunate Marylander who was the only person to be executed for witchcraft in the state’s history.

Hobson with his station wagon and trademark pipe and fedora, ready to harangue the multitudes. (Source: Evening Star)

Julius Hobson Gets Out of the Rat Race

If you lived in DC in August of 1964, you might have seen Julius Hobson driving through downtown with a cage full of enormous rats strapped to the roof of his station wagon. Frustrated by the city government’s refusal to do anything about the rat problem in Northeast and Southeast DC, and about the District’s more affluent citizens’ apathy about the issue, he said that if Southeast was having this problem, then Georgetown should share it too. Hobson caught “possum-sized rats” in Shaw and Northeast, and transported them up to Georgetown, promising to release the cage full of rats in the middle of the wealthy district unless the city government acted to curb the epidemic. Since he was, as a piece in The Washingtonian put it, “[a]ware that a DC problem usually is not a problem until it is a white problem,” he decided to go ahead and make it a white problem.

The Confederate Army's "Old South Ball" at the University of Maryland: Fact or Fiction?

A depiction of a stereotypical "Old South Ball."

The University of Maryland being close to the then-Confederate border with Virginia made it a site of some significance in the Civil War, when the Union and the Confederate army both stayed on campus within a three-month span; the latter would throw the University into controversy when it was accused of throwing the Confederate officers a ball. It's an established campus legend, but is it historical fact? We delve into the encampment, the Confederate sympathies at the University, and the subsequent government investigation under the cut.

Mrs. Woodhull Goes to Washington: The First Female Presidential Candidate Petitions For Women's Suffrage

Victoria Woodhull speaks in front of the Judiciary Committee on January 11, 18. I

Hillary Clinton may have been the first woman to win a major party's presidential nomination. However, she is far from the first woman to run for president. That distinction belongs to Victoria Woodhull, a spiritualist, suffragist, and stockbroker who ran for president on the Equal Rights ticket in 1872. We look into her campaign and her visit to DC in order to argue for women's suffrage before the House Judiciary Committee.

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