[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, including the first part to this series, which you can view here.]
This second installment featuring influential and fierce women highlights numerous women who have changed the course of our country’s history. While most of these women have positively impacted on our nation, some have altered our country in irrevocably devastating ways.
[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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 dcglobejotters.org 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.
[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.” ]
With the winter season upon us, perhaps there’s no better time to stay indoors and explore DC’s extensive museum scene. While many locals and tourists may be familiar with these historical and art havens, the bizarre and lesser-known stories behind them are likely not as widely as known.
With the ever-changing restrictions and challenges currently facing the city, it’s a good idea to visit each of these museum’s websites for updates regarding operating hours and admission requirements. Except for the Phillips Collection, all featured museums are free and just begging to be explored.
The next time you find yourself satisfying your love of art and getting your fix of Picasso and Monet paintings, take some time to locate the two markers that denote the site of President James Garfield’s unusual assassination. The markers are situated near the south entrance of the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, which is where the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station previously stood.
On July 2, 1881, the United States’ 20th president, who had only served as president for four months, was shot by lawyer Charles J. Guiteau, a resentful and unstable man seeking to gain political power, notoriety, and revenge. Guiteau had stalked Garfield for several months prior to that night. After delivering a few small local speeches supporting Garfield during the election, Guiteau believed that he was responsible for Garfield’s victory. He began sending Garfield letters and eventually moved from Chicago to Washington. He made demands of the president, including for a post in Paris even though he had no prior experience and did not speak French. Angered and fueled by Garfield’s dismissal and rejection, Guiteau set out to shoot Garfield at the present-day site of the National Gallery of Art.
Read All About It: Dive deeper into this odd story surrounding the assassination of President Garfield on pages 42-43 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: The National Gallery of Art is is open daily, 10am – 5pm. Admission is free.
Where: The National Gallery of Art is located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets along Constitutional Avenue NW.
Smithsonian American Art Museum: “One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Masterpiece”
Magnificent “trashy” art on display
As the adage goes: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. James Hampton, Director of Special Projects for the State of Eternity, took that timeless sentiment to heart, proving that many everyday discarded items can be converted into stunning objects of art.
After receiving religious visions, Hampton devoted over 14 years of his life to constructing a monument to God, eventually known around the world as The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, which is prominently displayed in The Smithsonian’s American Art Museum.
In 1950, Hampton undertook this elaborate project in hopes of preparing for Christ’s return to earth. He created his grand showpiece in a rented carriage house, transforming its dull interior into a magnificent workspace. He assembled coffee cans, jelly jars, flower vases, lightbulbs, metal, scrap wood, plastic, and tinfoil into something magical. He also incorporated old furniture and various office supplies into the brilliant structure. The Throne is comprised of two levels. A cushioned throne in the back is a central point for the extremely symmetrical array. Objects on the right represent the New Testament and Jesus; those on the left portray the Old Testament and Moses.
Read All About It: Read more about James Hampton’s masterpiece on pages 12-13 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: The museum is currently open Sunday – Wednesday, 11:30am – 7pm. Admission is free.
Where: The Smithsonian American Art Museum is located at 8th and F Streets NW.
Phillips Collection: “Sorry for Stealing, But Please Tighten Your Security”
Inside The Phillips Collection
Mention the words “art heist” and there’s a good chance that a slew of action-packed movies like The Thomas Crown Affair and Entrapment conjure up to mind. Well, it turns out that art museum thefts aren’t exclusive to Hollywood films; sometimes they occur right in your neighborhood, sometimes the stolen masterpieces turn up in unexpected places, and sometimes the thefts are executed to teach the museum a lesson.
Located in DC’s prestigious Dupont Circle neighborhood, the Phillips Collection is home to more than 5,000 pieces in styles ranging from French impressionism and American modernism to contemporary art. The collection includes works by an array of renowned artists such as Georgia O’Keefe, Edgar Degas, and Pablo Picasso. It is regarded as the nation’s oldest modern art museum.
In January 1983, the typically quiet museum was anything but; instead, it became the center of an art heist, bustling with commotion and confusion. A museum guard became suspicious when he noticed a man leaving the museum with his arms wrapped around a bunched-up tweed coat. It didn’t take long for the museum to realize that the man, accompanied by a female companion, had stolen “Virgin Alsace,” a 1920 statue by Antoine Bourdelle valued at $35,000.
Read All About It: Learn more about this unusual art heist on pages 46-47 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: The museum is open Tuesday – Sunday, 11am – 6pm. Admission is $16/adult, $12/senior, $10/student, free/age 18 & under. Special promo: Tickets are pay-what-you-wish for the first entry time of each hour, available first come, first serve via online reservation.
Where: The Phillips Collection is located at 1600 21st Street NW.
Smithsonian National Postal Museum: “The Dog Days of the US Postal Museum”
Owney with RMS clerks (photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
In 1888, a scruffy mutt was abandoned by a postal clerk in an Albany, New York, post office. Postal workers wrapped him in postal bags to keep him warm, and so began the launch of Owney’s path toward becoming the unofficial mascot of the US Postal System. The dog is so beloved by US Postal System that he landed a prominent spot in the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.
Described as a dog who was attracted to the texture and scents of mail bags, Owney soon began following mailbags everywhere. Over the next decade, he travelled by train and accompanied mail clerks around the world, traveling a staggering 140,000 miles. He soon became a good luck charm to the mail clerks who travelled with him. At a time when train accidents were common, no train that Owney had traveled on was ever in an accident. To commemorate Owney’s extensive travels, he was adorned with medals and tags labelled with city names. When Owney would return to Albany, the clerks there would save the tags. When Postmaster General John Wanamaker, a fan of Owney’s, discovered that Owney’s collar was weighed down by the accumulating tags, he gave Owney a vest where postal workers could pin his extensive tag collection.
Read All About It: Read more about Owney and how he became postal royalty on pages 76-77 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: The museum is currently open Saturday – Tuesday, 10am – 5:30pm. Admission is free.
Where: The National Postal Museum is located at 2 Massachusetts Avenue NE.
National Museum of Health and Medicine: “Calling All Stomachs of Steel”
An “inside” look at the National Museum of Health and Medicine
Washington, DC, is host to an incredible wealth of museums, housing everything from national treasures, famous paintings, and historical artifacts. While museums belonging to the world- renowned Smithsonian conglomerate often receive the most acclaim and visitors, there are a plethora of smaller and lesser-known museums also deserving of attention and time. The fascinating and quirky National Museum of Health and Medicine is undoubtedly one of them.
Founded at the start of the Civil War, the museum was created to further the research of military field surgery. Surgeon General William Hammond commanded Union doctors on the battlefield to send him “specimens of morbid anatomy…together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed.” The Army Medical Museum (the museum’s original name) was led by doctors, and it quickly acquired a bevy of gruesome artifacts for the staff to examine on their way to the front. While the museum is no longer run by medical doctors, exhibits depicting the history of military medicine continue to be a mainstay. These exhibits, along with several medical specimens, continue to attract visitors each year. So, what are some of the grisly items on display? A few of the main attractions include a conjoined twin specimen preserved in alcohol and a human hairball that was removed from a 12-year-old girl who compulsively ate her hair for six years.
Read All About It: Read more about this museum dedicated to the history of military medicine and medical oddities on pages 78-79 of Secret Washington, DC:A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: The museum is currently open Wednesday – Sunday, 10am – 5:30pm. Admission is free.
Where: The National Museum of Health and Science is located on 2500 Linden Lane, Silver Spring, MD.
JoAnn Hill has lived in Washington, DC, with her husband Thalamus and dog Jackson for over 19 years. An avid traveler and foodie, JoAnn writes about their DC living and dining experiences, as well as their global travel adventures, on her blog dcglobejotters.org. Her writing has been published in BELLA Magazine, Escape Artist, and Triptipedia. JoAnn served as a DC Public Schools teacher for 17 years before co-founding Capitol Teachers, a tutoring company servicing the greater DC area. Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure is her first book.