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

Evening Star article from March 25, 1882.

The Disappearing Corpse of D.C.'s First Murderer

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.

That's when things started to get weird.

Owls, named "Increase" and "Diffusion", who lived in the West Tower of the Smithsonian Institution Building, perch on a ledge. (Source: Smithsonian)

When Owls Guarded the Smithsonian

In the 1960s and '70s, renovations in the Smithsonian Institution’s Castle sought to restore the building to its Victorian beginnings. Secretary of the Smithsonian S. Dillon Ripley, didn’t think architecture was quite enough to restore the #aesthetic. No, what the castle really needed was a few live-in barn owls, just like the old days.

Marcia Van Ness (Source: the-athenaeum.org)

The First Leading Lady of Washington: Marcia Van Ness

In the historic society of Washington, there has always been a woman at the top. Sometimes she rules with an iron fist, sometimes it’s with charm, but she does rule. And the very first of these ladies was Marcia Van Ness. This future “heiress of Washington” got her start as Marcia Burnes, the daughter of David Burnes, a stubborn Scottish farmer. In 1790, the new location for the capital was chosen, George Washington got to know Mr. Burnes very well. Possibly too well, in the president’s opinion.

portrait of Prince Arthur, the youngest son of Queen Victoria.

Washington Pulls Out All the Stops for Prince Arthur, 1870

As the nation's capital, Washington has a long and illustrious history of hosting important guests, but in 1870 the city's fashionable set pulled out all the stops for the seventh child of Queen Victoria, His Royal Highness Arthur William Patrick Albrecht. Called Prince Arthur, the fashionable prince made quite an impression on the press and the city's Treasury girls.

William Henry Harrison

President Harrison's Fateful Inauguration

Sometimes, the most memorable thing someone can do is die. William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States was the first U.S. president to die in office, and, having died only a month in, that's about all he did in office. Harrison's other claim to fame, his lengthy inauguration speech, is also what killed him.

March 4, 1841 was an wet, overcast day with a cold wind. John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary that the celebrations of the day were the biggest seen in the country since 1789. Harrison, nicknamed “Tippecanoe,” had run a campaign on an image of log cabins and hard cider and his supporters were a boisterous sort. A magnificent carriage had been constructed and presented for Harrison to ride to the Capitol. The old general declined and instead rode a horse along the avenue.

The First Treasury Girls

 Female clerks leaving the Treasury Department

Of all the Union government departments during the Civil War, the Treasury in particular was working overtime. In 1862, Congress passed the first Legal Tender Act, which gave the federal government the authority to issue currency. But with so many men off to war, who would make the money? Treasurer Frances E. Spinner took a note from the US Patent Office (which had a few female clerks) when he decided in 1862 to hire Jennie Douglas to trim money. Douglas would be the first of many young women to work for the government and, while most accepted them, these pioneers faced some unique challenges.

Civil War Alexandria's Knights of the Golden Circle

An alleged secret history of the Knights of the Golden Circle published in 1863

During the Union army's occupation of Alexandria from 1861 to1865, young Confederate ladies would have had no one around to drop a handkerchief for other than Union soldiers. Well, that wasn’t going to work, not when "the slight difference of color [between gray and blue] symbolized all the difference between heaven and hell." So what's the next resort? Obviously, forming a local branch of the secret society known as the Knights of the Golden Circle.

The Stranger in America by Charles William Janson. (Photo source: Internet Archive)

Impressions of Washington: Charles William Janson, 1807

Throughout the history of the capital, people have thought of it as ... a pretty bad place, honestly. From Lead Belly in 1937, to Mark Twain and Charles Dudley in 1873, to Nathaniel Hawthorn in 1862, to Byron Sunderland in the 1850s, to Charles Dickens in 1842, to a British Chaplin in the War of 1812, to Abigail Adams in 1800, it seems like pretty much everyone disliked the District. If you don’t want to read one more, skip to the bottom to check out the people who, somehow, against all odds, actually like the city — if not, read on!

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”...

Painting of Thomas Moore from National Portrait Gallery. (Source: Wikipedia)

Ireland's National Poet Visits Washington, 1803

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.

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