Five Stories of Influential and Fierce Women — and the DC Sites Associated with Them (Part 1)

[Note: This is a guest post contributed by JoAnn Hill, a DC area educator and author of the book “Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.”  She has shared many lesser-known stories and aspects of the DC area with us, which you can view here.]


Women’s History Month reminds us all to pay tribute to the countless trailblazing women who have paved the way for so many, as well as encourage us to continue to pave the way for more women to lead, inspire, and create. Here are five fascinating stories about some of the fierce and influential women who have helped shape Washington, DC, and our nation as well as information about local sites associated with them.  (And because it’s impossible to limit the number of bold women who have impacted our world and our beloved capital city, this is part one of two blog posts dedicated to some the powerful women who have had significant roles in DC and our country’s history.)

Check out local DC author JoAnn Hill’s book Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure to learn more about these hidden histories — and to discover dozens of additional gems and off-the-beaten path locales in and around the Washington, DC, area.


Portrait Monument at the US Capitol: “We’re Waiting for You, Madam President”

Upon entering the imposing U.S. Capitol Rotunda, visitors are immediately surrounded by opulence, history, and an abundance of testosterone. Most statues and busts in the Rotunda are primarily of presidents, including Dwight David Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, and Ronald Reagan. One of the few exceptions is the prominent Portrait Monument, which proudly pays tribute to women’s suffrage, honoring trailblazers Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. These three remarkable women were the leading forces behind the women’s movement and led the crusade for women’s right to vote. While the monument to these pioneering women is impressive, perhaps its most intriguing aspect is the fact that it seems to have been intentionally left unfinished.

Towering behind the three busts is an indistinct and eye-catching uncarved block of marble — an enigma that has led to a great amount of speculation over the years. According to urban myth and many Capitol tour guides, the uncarved lump is reserved for the first female president. In recent years, many visitors have wondered if Hillary Clinton would one day hold the spot. It’s been theorized that the monument’s sculptor, Adelaide Johnson, purposely left the statue unfinished to symbolize that women still had a very long road to acquiring equal rights and left the block uncarved to represent all other women’s rights leaders — past, present, and future.

A year after white women’s suffrage was finally achieved, the statue was moved underground. It was hidden in a broom closet in the basement and remained there for 75 years.

Read All About It: Learn more about how the Portrait Monument was finally relocated to the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on pages 136-137 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: Currently the Capitol Visitor Center is closed. Once it reopens, visitors are welcome to enter the building through the Capitol Visitor Center, located underground on the east side of the Capitol.


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Seances at the Soldiers’ Home: “First Lady Seances at the Soldiers’ Home”

Today President Lincoln’s Cottage, a national monument situated on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, is the esteemed setting of the Armed Forces Retirement Home. In the 1800s, however, the Soldiers’ Home served as a meeting place for spirit circles, known as seances, where bereaved individuals would gather to communicate with deceased loved ones. Perhaps the most recognized attendees were Mary Todd Lincoln and her husband, President Abraham Lincoln.

After the death of their son Willie in 1862, a grieving Mary Lincoln began to attend these seances, where a medium would help those gathered communicate with lost loved ones. Spirits communicated in various ways, including scratching, rapping, playing instruments, pulling on clothing or hair, and pinching participants. While there were many skeptics, spiritualism appealed to many, regardless of class, particularly following the heavy death toll during the Civil War.

Despite increased popularity of seances, Mrs. Lincoln’s involvement attracted gossip and condemnation, not just of her, but of Abraham Lincoln, who periodically joined her. Historians maintain Lincoln frequented seances out of curiosity or support for his wife, not out of credence. President Lincoln was dubious of mediums, particularly of one named Lord Colchester, a man who claimed to be the illegitimate son of an English duke. Lincoln summoned Dr. Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian, to investigate the questionable medium.

Read All About It: Learn more about Mary Todd Lincoln’s participation in seances and her belief in the occult on pages 18-19 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home is located at the Armed Forces Retirement Home: 140 Rock Creek Church Rd. NW, Washington, DC.


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Espionage at the Old Capitol Prison: “US Capitol Turns Supreme”

Since its inception in 1789, the U.S. Supreme Court has had a resounding impact on countless aspects of our lives. From public school integration to voting rights, the highest court in the land has been an integral part of the very fabric of our nation. The site of the Supreme Court, however, was not always a place of distinction and justice. In fact, it has quite a long and sordid history.
After the British torched the U.S. Capitol during the War of 1812, Congress built a brick building to serve as a temporary capitol. Once Congress was able to move into its permanent dwelling, the temporary building, now regarded as the Old Capitol, was soon transformed into a boardinghouse. The outbreak of the Civil War, however, left it abandoned and dilapidated. The government removed the fence surrounding the building, replaced the wooden slits above the windows with iron bars, and converted it into a prison.

Many prestigious individuals served prison time here, including Confederate generals, Northern political prisoners, and spies. Many of the spies were women, often playing integral roles in the Confederate victories.

Read All About It: Read more about the female spies who were imprisoned at the Old Capitol Prison on pages 148-149 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: The U.S. Supreme Court is located at 1 First Street NE.  It is currently closed to the public, but welcomes visitors  Monday – Friday from 9am – 4:30pm when it is open.


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Congressional Cemetery, Dolley Madison and the Public Vault: “Keep It in the Vault”

Over 3,000 individuals have been interred in the Congressional Cemetery’s Public Vault, including three presidents, one vice president, and two first ladies. Many stay here for only one to two days since it was never intended to be used for long-term stays. So, why was Dolley Madison interred in the Public Vault for two years, making her the longest known internment of the vault?

Dolley Madison was a trailblazer. She helped define the role of First Lady, was often credited with helping advance James Madison’s career, and perhaps most notably, saved a historic portrait of George Washington from being burned by British troops during the War of 1812. While the Madisons were among the elite, they weren’t immune to falling on hard times. As James Madison’s health began to deteriorate, he prepared his presidential papers to help secure financial security for Dolley after his death. Their son Payne’s recklessness, however, destroyed their finances. Payne’s alcoholism, frivolous inheritance spending, and struggles with employment forced Dolley to sell the family’s properties to pay his debts. After selling part of her late husband’s papers, she was finally able to rise out of the family’s deep financial woes and set the remaining money aside in a trust and out of Payne’s reach. Ultimately, her efforts weren’t enough to shield her against further financial despair.

Read All About It: Learn more about the Madison family’s financial woes and Dolley’s two-year stint in the public vault on pages 36-37 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: Congressional Cemetery is located at 1801 E Street SE. Congressional Cemetery is open daily from dawn to dusk.


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Clover Adams Memorial: “They’re Creepy and They’re Kooky: The Adams Memorial”

Inside DC’s Rock Creek Cemetery sits a creepy, and (according to some) haunted statue of Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams. Hooper Adams was married to Henry Adams, a descendent of John Quincy Adams and John Adams. A prime example of art imitating life, the eerie sculpture is as dismal as the woman it portrays.

Clover Adams was a talented individual praised for her incredible photography, writing, and volunteer work in the Civil War. Sadly, she was often described as unwell, and in 1885, at 42 years old, she committed suicide by swallowing potassium cyanide, a chemical she often used in her photography. Speculation surrounded the motive of her suicide; some thought it was the result of her father’s recent death, while others felt it was because her husband was interested in another woman. Henry mourned the loss of his wife, and in many ways the way he grieved was almost as perplexing as his wife’s death. He destroyed nearly all her photographs and letters, and it was said that he never spoke her name again. Moreover, Henry never even mentioned her in his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams.

The next year, however, after traveling to Japan, Henry commissioned artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens to sculpt a memorial to his late wife.

Read All About It: Learn more about the eerie Clover Memorial on pages 154-155 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: The Adams Memorial is in Section E of Rock Creek Cemetery in Northwest DC.


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JoAnn Hill, author of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure, has affectionately called Washington, DC, home for over 20 years. She has written extensively about DC living, its food, and her world travels on her blog and other mediums and publications. Through her writing and research, she shares hidden histories, off-the-beaten-path locales, and lesser-known stories that inspire the insatiably curious explorer. Her next book, DC Scavenger, will be released later this year. She lives in DC with her husband Thalamus and dog Jackson and is the co-founder of Capitol Teachers, a tutoring company servicing the greater DC area.

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