The Secret & Disturbing History of Washington D.C.
Today, Washington D.C. is an orderly layout of marble government buildings. But it was far from pristine during most of its early life in the 19th century.
On tours or in classroom lessons, many Americans are taught that George Washington asked French-American architect and Revolutionary War veteran Pierre L’Enfant to design the capital. L'Enfant laid out a visionary plan where important buildings were strategically placed by waterways and broad boulevards.
But from the plans to reality, a lot was left out.
J.D. Dickey, author of a new book "Empire of Mud: The Secret History of Washington, D.C.," tells us why L'Enfant called Washington “a contemptible hamlet” by the 1800s.
“The city as we know it today looks very different than it did in the 19th century,” Dickey says. “Back then, a lot of it didn’t exist. If you wandered west of the Washington Monument, you were underwater—all of that was filled in later.”
Dickey says that the nation’s capitol was filled with “muck” and maintained its traditionally humid climate. Though the land that the city of Washington currently sits on isn’t an actual swamp, Dickey says that the terrain is incredibly similar.
The areas currently occupied by the World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial were once known as the Potomac Flats—a place that was more septic tank than national point of pride.
“It was known for various mosquitoes and all kinds of infectious diseases,” Dickey says. “It was also the outlet of the much-feared and dreaded Washington City Canal, which is now Constitution Avenue. The city canal was originally designed to be a fine channel for bringing commerce from one part of the city to another. It ended up being an open sewer that ran right by the Capitol, through the middle of downtown, with its outlet near the Potomac Flats.”
Constitution Avenue wasn’t the only place in the nation’s capital that was like a cesspool.
“If we were going down Pennsylvania Avenue we’d probably be on horseback or in a carriage because the street was unwalkable,” says Dickey. “It had huge furrows of mud during certain seasons and dust in others. Some people claimed it was unpassable, and it was really an unfortunate aspect of the city that this great thoroughfare was in such terrible condition.”
Though many areas have improved since the 19th century, Washington, D.C. remains one of the most economically and racially segregated places in the United States. Dickey says these divisions have roots that can be traced back to the 1800s.
“Along each side [of Pennsylvania Avenue], we were developing some low rent neighborhoods and some populations of reasonable homes and manors, but really those extremes of wealth and poverty,” he says.
Dickey says that boarding houses were springing up throughout the nation’s capital—places where politicians would stay while Congress was in session.
“A lot of these boarding houses developed into brothels,” he says. “Brothels ended up being one of the major illicit industries of Washington City at the time. You also had your gambling halls, along with matches of blood sport—bear baiting and cockfighting. It was really a chaotic, interesting, and disturbing city that is very different from what we see today.”
While prostitution and cockfighting thrived, another loathsome industry flourished in Washington: Slavery.
“Slaves helped to build the city,” says Dickey. “They built the Capitol and their labor may have been used on the White House. They were digging trenches for the Washington City Canal, and all other aspects that you can think of that went in to the creation of the early city. People called it the ‘Great Man Market’ of the nation.”
Dickey says that slave markets would operate openly in the city of Washington, adding that “gangs” of slaves were regularly dragged through the streets on chains. At major hotels, Dickey says that slaves were chained to the walls of basements while their owners entertained guests on the upper floors.
“The legacy of slavery is a deep and disturbing one, and it’s one that’s really hard to get away from when you plunge into the history of the city,” he says.
As recently as 2012, Washington, D.C. has been thought of as one of the most dangerous places in America. Dickey says the city’s culture of violence also evolved out of the 19th century.
“Washington D.C. was an incredibly violent place, especially during its pre-Civil War and Civil War era, and up through the Gilded Age as well,” he says. “One reason it was so incredibly violent was because of the lack of police presence. You had a handful of constables who were expected to patrol beats that were miles long. Crime routinely broke out, mob violence, and all other aspects of bad and criminal behavior, as well as socially-accepted violence.”
It wasn’t just the locals that engaged in violent behavior. Dickey says that in 1832, former Tennessee Governor Sam Houston came to Washington and beat an adversary with his cane until he was senseless.
While the nation’s capital has come a long way, Dickey says that Washington still has a long way to go.
“I think the modern development of Washington, D.C. actually makes Pierre L’Enfant look pretty good,” he says. “His blueprint has come to fruition with the beautiful residences, the investments, and the original conception of gentrification—that you would put the gentry somewhere—has come to pass. But of course, this is only one aspect of the city. Co-existing with that is still a desperate poverty.”