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

National Hotel c. 1920 (Source: Library of Congress)

A Five Star Malady

What better treat for a president-elect waiting to move into the White House than to stay in one of the swankiest hotels in the capital? Well, as it turns out, James Buchanan would have done better to have found less plush accomodations in the spring of 1857. He and hundreds of others fell victim to a mysterious ailment after staying at the luxurious National Hotel.

This sickness, because it came at the end of a harsh campaign against the victorious Buchanan, was thought by many to arise from a poison. Fingers were pointed at various political opponents; even the Spanish government in Cuba was blamed.

The Petticoat War

You’d better believe there have been "mean girls" since the beginning of time, or at least the early 1800s. Rigid social structures dictated the behavior of Jacksonian high society; it was the height of rudeness, for instance, if a lady did not return your call. However, in a social war that engulfed the beginning of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, society’s rules were discarded and the national government ground to a halt all for one woman: the beautiful and intelligent Margaret “Peggy” O’Neil.

All the Single Ladies

Around the turn of the century, Washington, D.C. had a distinct lack of single men. In any era before, the women of the city might have resigned themselves to the life of the scorned “old maid” in a corset and lived a boring existence with their parents before finally dying. But not these ladies. No, starting in the late 1890s, many women in the capital city began to push for a more open society, pursuing higher education, living alone, and managing their own affairs. This was the dawn of the Bachelor Girl age.

Bachelor girls were a point of controversy in the Washington press. Some columnists were shocked and appalled with these independent ladies’ leaps into the future.

The Tight Laced Ladies of Washington

Women’s fashion is a complicated subject, but one doesn’t usually think of it as deadly. However, the fatal dance between health and beauty was a reality for Washington women in the 19th century.

The “corset problem,” or the “corset question” as it was called in the press, was the phenomenon of tightly lacing corsets to constrict the waistline to about 16 inches and sometimes even as small as 13 inches; basically, the smaller the better. These miniscule waists, also called “wasp waists,” were in style in the first half of the 1800s, reaching their peak in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Starting in the latter half of the century, the style began its descent and area newspapers began to debate the practice.

Herndon’s Laura Ratcliffe: A “Very Active and Cunning Rebel”

It is generally an accepted practice of militaries around the world to not tell the enemy what you plan to do. It’s also a good idea to avoid passing secrets to enemy spies, especially if you know they are enemy spies. Apparently, however, Union troops stationed in Herndon, Virginia didn’t get the memo. Either that or they were too mesmerized by local belle Laura Ratcliffe to think straight. She was a smooth operator to be sure.

In February 1863, Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby was riding with his soldiers near Ratcliffe’s home scouting the enemy position and hoping to best whatever Union troops came his way. Mosby had wreaked havoc on the Yankees before but this time they were ready for him. They set up a picket on Centreville Road near Frying Pan Church and then hid a much larger force in the woods around it, hoping draw the Gray Ghost into an ambush.

Impressions of Washington: Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1862

Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, visited Washington, D.C. in 1862, as the Capital was gearing up for war against the Confederacy. If you remember Hawthorne at all from school, you won’t be surprised to find he had a lot to say.

He was particularly taken by the artist Emmanuel Leutze's painting "Westward the Course of the Empire Takes Its Way" in the U.S. Capitol and lamented what might happen to the work and the nation should the Union lose the war.

Shine Bright Like Oscar Wilde

This man knows how to rock a cape. (1882 photograph of Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony. Source: Wikipedia Commons)

You know who was just too fabulous for Washington. D.C. to handle? Oscar Wilde. This fellow caused quite a stir when he visited in the January of 1882 as part of a lecture tour on the “Philosophy of Aestheticism”.

The general theory of ‘aestheticism’ seemed to be living in beauty, and Oscar Wilde practiced what he preached; half of any article about him was devoted to his devilish style. Newspaper reporters practically fawned over him, and we’re not going to blame them.

Painting of the white house on fire, Summer 1814

Impressions of Washington: By the Light of the White House being Engulfed in Flames

Washington, D.C. has had many visitors since it’s inception, but it cannot be said that everyone was a huge fan. Actually, in 1814, there were quite a number of people who were a bit upset with the Capitol. You might have heard of them... The British?

Yes, on August 24, 1814, the British attacked and burned Washington, D.C. One of their number, George Robert Gleig, apparently found enough time whilst attacking the city at night in the middle of a hurricane to take in the sights and form some opinions.

After the Pearl was captured and returned to Washington, many of the slaves on board were sold to the deep South. Emily and Mary Edmonson (above) had a better fate when their freedom was purchased with funds raised by Henry Ward Beecher's Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

The Pearl Incident

1848 was a busy year for the residents of Washington, D.C. The Washington monument was under construction and Congress was hotly debating the question of slavery in the new territories.  Closer to home, most white Washingtonians favored slavery though many had objections to actual slave-trading taking place in the capital. D.C.’s large free black population, which contained a great many marriages between enslaved and free, sought freedom for those who didn’t yet posses it, and were spurred by an increasing number of abolitionists flocking to the city.

To put it mildly, Washington was a tense place in April 1848, and it was about to get even more so. Enter the Pearl.

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