Claudia Swain

Claudia Swain's entanglement with local history began in her hometown of Norfolk, VA. Asked to write the history of her high school, Claudia discovered the dusty but always fascinating allure of regional history. She continued her newfound interest as an intern with the National Park Service, working on the Glen Echo Oral History Project. With each successive topic, Claudia gets drawn in deeper -- and her friends get even more tired of listening to her go on and on about it.

Posts by Claudia Swain

Postcard depicting Tomb of Female Stanger (Credi: By Boston Public Library - Tomb of a female stranger, Alexandria, Virginia, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41983533)

The Female Stranger of Alexandria

Two hundred years ago, an unknown woman breathed her last in room 8 of Gadsby’s Tavern in Old Town Alexandria. Her husband prepared her body for death in secret and sealed her coffin personally. After seeing that she was placed in a local graveyard, he vanished. It’s the sort of story that would condemn a person to be lost to history, but the circumstances surrounding this woman’s death and interment sparked centuries of questions and outlandish theories. Even now, no one alive knows her name. She remains the Female Stranger of Alexandria.

Broadhead-Bell-Morton Mansion. (Source: National Register of Historic Places)

D.C.'s Ill-Fated Wedding of the Decade, 1903

For Washington socialites, the most anticipated event of the winter season arrived on January 19, 1903. The rooms of the Russian embassy were full to bursting with the best of the Capital. The entire diplomatic corps, the Cabinet, and the Supreme Court were in attendance. While downstairs guests were being shown to their places, the crying bride was being dressed in her finery upstairs. The Parisian gown was made of white satin and gold brocade, and just dripping with pearls. A mantel of lace fell from her shoulders, over a full court train, and a “misty veil of tulle” was fastened to her head with a coronet of orange blossoms. A wedding gift from the groom, a magnificent diamond collar with ruby clasps, encircled Irene des Planques neck. It might as well have been a noose.

High society ladies at 1904 Bazaar to benefit the Russian Red Cross.

D.C.'s 1904 Russian Bazaar

“Don’t you know there’s a war on?” That’s the usual refrain when your country is at war. But for Countess Marguerite Cassini, daughter of the Russian ambassador to Washington, the 1904-1905 war between Russia and Japan was a reason to have a two-day party. And if you say it’s for charity, why not?

Portrait of Marguerite Cassini by Frances Benjamin Johnston. (Source: Library of Congress)

Countess Marguerite Cassini: D.C.'s Diplomatic Social Butterfly

When Countess Marguerite Cassini first arrived in DC in 1898 during the McKinley administration, she accompanied the first Russian Ambassador to America, Count Arthur Cassini, as his 16-year-old “niece.” An air of mystery shrouded her origins, but as the oldest female relative of the ambassador, the “Countess” was the embassy’s official hostess. At state functions, she would be seated in the proper place for the Russian hostess — at the top right below the British, French, and German hostesses. The wives of the diplomatic corps bristled to be placed beneath an unmarried teenager, who was thought to be “neither a [countess] nor, according to rumor, a Cassini.” To be fair, the Capital gossip wasn’t entirely wrong; young Marguerite wasn’t a countess, and the count was not her uncle. He was her father. But questions over her roots soon gave way to amazement over the Countess's command of the D.C. social scene, which she effectively ruled along with Alice Roosevelt.

Clara Barton: Angel of the Battlefield

Clara Barton during the Civil War. Photo by Matthew Brady. (Source: Library of Congress)

She was one of the first female government employees, she was the first woman legally allowed on the battlefield in America, she founded the American Red Cross, and she chose to live out her days in Glen Echo, Maryland. Clara Barton, the unstoppable force of the 19th century.

Anna J. Cooper (Source: Wikipedia)

Dr. Anna J. Cooper: MVP of D.C. Education

In the early 1900s, Dr. Anna J. Cooper, eschewed inherently racist notions that education for African American students should be solely vocational. Pursuing more classical studies, she pushed her students toward some of the best colleges and universities in the country, but her dedication raised the ire of the D.C. Board of Education.

Cissy Patterson (Source: Library of Congress)

Cissy Patterson: The First Lady of the D.C. Press

Born into wealth and privilege, no one can say Cissy Patterson started at the bottom, but she definitely ended up at the top of Washington's social scene in the 1930s. As the owner of the most popular newspaper in the city, Patterson defined who was who in D.C., sensationalizing political feuds in print and throwing elaborate parties at her Dupont Circle mansion. But despite being the brightest star in the sky, she was anything but universally beloved. Just ask her daughter, Felicia.

Etiquette of Social Life in Washington book cover

High Society Impacts of the Presidential Succession Act

Before 1886, presidential succession called for a special election if the President, the Vice President, the President pro tempore of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House all died. This left a lot of Washington hostesses high and dry. In the District, where official life totally overlaps with social life, knowing whether the Chief Justice took precedence over the Secretary of State is just as important to the President’s wife as it would be to the President. So, before the 1886 Act established a detailed list of who’s the who-est in Washington, how did the ladies do it? Usually with complicated treatises on political theory.

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