Historic Capitol Hill Neighborhood In D.C. Shines

James and I stayed in the Capitol Hill Neighborhood while recently visiting Washington, D.C.  Normally the place one stays is not all that interesting.  After all, one is looking for a safe place to sleep and shower.  But the wide swath of homes built in this area from about 1872-1893 and then later in the 1920’s is something most special.  So special, in fact, that it deserves some wider attention.

While the ever-growing boundaries of the Capitol Hill neighborhood are disputed, the historic district is clearly defined. As designated by the District of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Review Board, it touches H Street NE to the north, 14th Street SE to the east, M Street SE to the south and South Capitol Street SE to the west.  This is the area where we stayed for the duration of time on vacation.

At the time the homes were built a developer perhaps would purchase land for five homes and build them all the same and so close that they touched. Each would have two stories, some three, all however with unique and interesting shapes and ornamentation on the tops and along windows. Among the area’s roughly 8,000 buildings are houses with bay fronts, turrets, stepped Flemish parapets, Moorish balconies, gothic arches, dormers and many other features, sometimes in curious combinations. Most of the homes in the area we stayed had 1,300 square feet.

Over time this area went into decline but in the 1970s it turned the corner and people started buying the homes and refurbishing them so that this is now one of the best areas in the city to live.   The homes are often brightly colored and the small lawns are often planted with roses, hosta, and all sorts of flowers. Families abound with small children who live next door to older retired folks. It is a very walking friendly area with restaurants, markets, library and shops galore. One can get to congress in a 20-minute brisk walk.

Everyone—and I mean everyone–was so nice in the city–but especially in this neighborhood. While walking in the neighborhood we commented to a woman in her 70’s about her garden. After about 20 minutes of chatting Ruby said “well since you like older homes come inside and see mine”.

I was surprised an older woman would invite two men she just met to see her home. It was stunning to go inside and see all the touches common to the Federal Style built during parts of the Victorian era. She and her husband had bought the home in 1974 and paid $40,000, but today it is valued at $1 million dollars. Her husband, Mervin, was super nice and gave us some walking tour information of the neighborhood and told about how they each had been a part of the restoration effort of the area decades before.

Only a few blocks away the old D.C. jail had once stood where perhaps its most infamous prisoner was Charles Guiteau who shot President Garfield at a train station in the city.  Guiteau would be executed at that jail for his crime.

We ran into a mother out with her two-year-old daughter and talked about her sale sign on the property.   Her husband got a job in North Carolina and since it was close to her family the move was a happy event.   James inquired gently about the asking price. They had bought for $600,000 and were selling for almost $900,000.   It was all very nice but wow—who would want to sit on that payment book?

We loved the Eastern Market in this neighborhood, which is stationed in a long established brick building dating back to 1873. From the start it was a place for local food to be sold. Even now local vendors sell fresh cheeses, fish and a wide array of seafood freshly caught, homemade pasta, and vegetables. All this fresh food is sold 6 days a week. Each Saturday local vendors who make embroidered drying towels, paintings, or a wide range of other products set up a stand near the market.

It is a wonderfully diverse community with as many business-suited men as baby strollers.  I loved the entire area!

The Autopsy Of President Lincoln

After President Lincoln passed away his body was placed in a temporary coffin covered with an American flag, and returned by hearse to the White House, accompanied by a cavalry escort. At the White House, an autopsy was performed by Army Surgeons Edward Curtis and Joseph Janvier Woodward. Also in attendance were Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes and a few military officers, medical men and friends. During the autopsy Mary Todd sent a messenger to request a lock of hair; a tuft was clipped from the head for her.

At the National Museum of American History are these two displays of instruments used at that autopsy.

 

The Sad Story Of Clara Harris, The Lady Seated in Presidential Box At Ford’s Theater With President Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln was shot while attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater with his wife and two guests. The last words ever spoken by Lincoln were in conversation with his wife.

Mrs. Lincoln whispered to her husband, who was holding her hand, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” The president replied, “She won’t think anything about it.”

Well, what about Miss Clara Harris?  This is most interesting. 

On April 14, 1865, Major Rathbone and his fiancee Clara Harris accepted an invitation to see a play at Ford’s Theater from President Abraham Lincoln and his wife.  

While watching the play Our American Cousin in the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theater that evening, John Wilkes Booth fatally shot President Lincoln in the back of the head. When Rathbone attempted to apprehend Booth after the shooting, Booth slashed Rathbone with a Bowie knife from left elbow to shoulder. Rathbone lost a considerable amount of blood which stained Harris’ white dress, face and hands when she attempted to aid him.

Despite being seriously wounded, Rathbone escorted First Lady Mary Lincoln to the Petersen House where doctors had decided to take the mortally wounded President. Shortly after arriving at the Petersen House, Rathbone passed out due to loss of blood. Harris arrived at the house soon after and held Rathbone’s head in her lap while he drifted in and out of consciousness. A surgeon who had been attending the President finally examined Rathbone and realized his wound was more serious than initially thought. Booth had severed an artery located just above Rathbone’s elbow and had cut him nearly to the bone. Rathbone was taken home while Harris decided to stay with Mrs. Lincoln. Harris later stated:

Poor Mrs. Lincoln, all through that dreadful night would look at me with horror & scream, ‘oh! my husband’s blood, my dear husband’s blood’…It was Henry’s blood, not the president’s, but explanations were pointless.

While Rathbone eventually recovered from the attack, President Lincoln died of his wound the following morning. After the assassination, Rathbone blamed himself for not preventing Lincoln’s death. He spent the remainder of his life battling delusions and seeking treatments for other physical problems including constant headaches.

Harris and Rathbone were married on July 11, 1867. The couple had three children.  Rathbone, who had risen to the rank of colonel, resigned from the Army in December 1870.  The family settled in Washington D.C. where Rathbone’s mental health deteriorated. Rathbone’s behavior became increasingly erratic and he began drinking heavily, gambling and having affairs. Due to his behavior, Rathbone found it difficult to hold a job for an extended period of time.

Every year on the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, journalists would contact the couple with questions about Lincoln’s death furthering Rathbone’s feelings of guilt. Harris later wrote to a friend:

I understand his distress…in every hotel we’re in, as soon as people get wind of our presence, we feel ourselves become objects of morbid scrutiny…. Whenever we were in the dining room, we began to feel like zoo animals. Henry…imagines that the whispering is more pointed and malicious than it can possibly be.

As time went on, Rathbone’s mental instability worsened and he often became jealous of other men who paid attention to Harris and resented the attention Harris paid their children. He also reportedly threatened his wife on several occasions, convinced that Harris was going to divorce him and take the children. Despite his behavior, Rathbone was appointed U.S. Consul to the Province of Hanover by President Chester Alan Arthur in 1882. The family relocated to Germany where Rathbone’s mental health continued to decline.

On December 23, 1883, Henry Rathbone attacked his family in a fit of madness. He fatally shot his wife in the head and then attempted to kill the children, but a groundskeeper prevented him from doing so. Rathbone then stabbed himself five times in the chest in an attempted suicide. Rathbone was charged with murder but was declared insane by doctors after blaming the murder on an intruder. He was convicted and committed to the Asylum for the Criminal Insane in Hildesheim, Germany, where he died on August 14, 1911. The couple’s children were sent to live with their uncle, William Harris, in the United States.

Harris was buried in the city cemetery at Hanover/Engesohde. Her husband was buried next to her upon his death in 1911. In 1952, the Rathbones’ remains were disinterred and disposed of after cemetery management determined that their graves had not been visited or were no longer of interest to the family.

  • Clara Harris kept the bloodied white dress she wore on the night of assassination. Unable to bring herself to wash or destroy it, she eventually stored it in a closet in the family’s summer home near Albany. After experiencing what she claimed was a visit from Lincoln’s ghost, Harris had the closet in which the dress was stored covered with bricks. In 1910, Henry Riggs Rathbone, Harris and Rathbone’s eldest son, removed the bricks and had the dress destroyed reportedly claiming that it had cursed the family. The dress was later the subject of the 1929 book The White Satin Dress, by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews.
  • In 1994, Thomas Mallon released the novel Henry and Clara, a fictional account of the lives of Harris and her husband.

Last Words President Lincoln Heard

This is for history nerds.

The last words Lincoln heard were from the stage of Ford’s Theater during the play “Our American Cousin.” At 10:15 P.M., actor Harry Hawk, playing the title role, stood alone on stage and aimed a laugh-out-loud line at a female character who had just exited: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap!”

Then history was changed with this gun.

Please Make It Stop

Reflections

Notable Tombstones From Arlington Cemetery

Just a few of the countless tombstones that deserve recognition to be found at Arlington National Cemetery.

Charles Peter L’Enfant.

Senator Ted Kennedy.

Former justices and family of the Supreme Court

Reflecting On Abraham Lincoln At Ford’s Theater

It goes without saying spending any amount of time at Ford’s Theater will sweep a visitor back in time.  The museum that has been created about the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln is very well done. There is the vest and great coat that Lincoln wore at the time he was shot.  There is also the exact gun used in the attack.  One of the pillows discolored with the president’s blood and time is on display.  There is no way to hurry along through the exhibits as they almost demand to be not only viewed but pondered.

If there was any reason to grin it would be the detail one can find about the reasons for the Civil War being fought located only a few blocks from the White House.  Yet as we know some there are not sure why the national calamity came about.  Might I suggest a stroll to Ford’s Theater to find out the causes of the conflict?

We had tickets to see the Broadway show Ragtime containing a message from a remarkable script which is needed to be heard in this nation now more than ever.   While James had bought us tickets  to not only be in the front row, but more importantly below the presidential box where Lincoln sat on Good Friday 1865, meant that I had time to sit and think.   During the performance I found myself looking up and pondering about that night and the significance it meant for a nation on the cusp of reconstruction.    How our national story would be so different had Andrew Johnson not been allowed to ever sit alone in the White House.

There comes with each stop in Washington where Lincoln is memorialized or recalled for some historical event the deep recognition of his importance to our story that I contend is more central than any other figure.   It was Lincoln who knew the moral calling of his time and the necessity of keeping the Union whole that allowed him to let a war rage with horrific numbers of killed and injured.  He was a master political tactician and military strategist.   If ever there was an essential leader in this nation it was Lincoln.   What George Washington helped create Lincoln made sure would survive.

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