Empire of Mud: The Secret History of Washington, DC
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Washington, DC, gleams with stately columns and neoclassical temples, a pulsing hub of political power and prowess. But for decades it was one of the worst excuses for a capital city the world had ever seen. Before America became a world power in the twentieth century, Washington City was an eyesore at best and a disgrace at worst. Unfilled swamps, filthy canals, and rutted horse trails littered its landscape. Political bosses hired hooligans and thugs to conduct the nation's affairs. Legendary madams entertained clients from all stations of society and politicians of every party. The police served and protected with the aid of bribes and protection money. Beneath pestilential air, the city’s muddy roads led to a stumpy, half-finished obelisk to Washington here, a domeless Capitol Building there. Lining the streets stood boarding houses, tanneries, and slums. Deadly horse races gouged dusty streets, and opposing factions of volunteer firefighters battled one another like violent gangs rather than life-saving heroes. The city’s turbulent history set a precedent for the dishonesty, corruption, and mismanagement that have led generations to look suspiciously on the various sin--both real and imagined--of Washington politicians. Empire of Mud unearths and untangles the roots of our capital’s story and explores how the city was tainted from the outset, nearly stifled from becoming the proud citadel of the republic that George Washington and Pierre L'Enfant envisioned more than two centuries ago.
thrived in the �neighborhood—or that it had ever been a neighborhood at all. But in a previous age, before the wrecking ball arrived, life hummed along these streets. A ragtime band played in a music hall on one corner, a bordello piano on the next. Shouts and laughter from gambling dens and saloons filled the air. By contrast, these days, if you come to the area at night, you’ll only hear tourists running to catch the next subway train, as the wind whistles through the Triangle’s gaping arches
Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. 53, 56 (1953/1956): 2. 35 Bryan, History of the National Capital, 1:289. 36 Ibid., 288. 37 Heine, “Washington City Canal,” 3. 38 Green, Washington: Village and Capital, 28. 39 Clark, Greenleaf and Law, 257. 40 Law, “Observations on the Intended Canal,” 161–62. 41 Heine, “Washington City Canal,” 5–7. 42 Frederick May, Letter to William H. Crawford, Secretary of the Treasury, December 2, 1818. 43 Reps, Washington on View, 54. 44
series 8:1 (1951): 77. 20 David Hosford and Mary Bagot, “Exile in Yankeeland: The Journal of Mary Bagot, 1816–1819,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. 51 (1984): 36. 21 Crowninshield, Letters of Mary Boardman Crowninshield, 20. 22 Carson, Ambitious Appetites, 69–70. 23 Smith, Forty Years, 389–90. 24 Green, Washington: Village and Capital, 82. 25 Watterston, New Guide to Washington, 140. 26 Carson, Ambitious Appetites, 126–27. 27 Poore, Reminiscences of Sixty
District of Columbia: Short-lived experiment, from 1871 to 1874, to reorganize the District as a US territory under the control of a federal governor. Washington City: Independent city founded in 1802; synonymous with the federal capital for much of the nineteenth century and home to most of its key sites. Congress revoked its charter in 1871 and consolidated it into the District. Washington County: Largely unincorporated land surrounding Washington City east of the Potomac River and a
stagnant, it posed an active and ongoing health hazard. Rich with “putrescent and decomposing organic matters” that were “tough and viscous,” it was enriched by runoff from “the offal of kitchens, and the soil and filth from water closets which are brought in by the sewers discharging in the canal.” It was strewn with “carcasses of all kinds, from the bloated horse to the skeleton kidden which have found their way into the canal by divers modes.”22 The canal’s rank pollution extended beyond the