Monday, June 29, 2009

Sisters, Sisters

Though the Pearl Incident is not widely remembered in US History, it had profound consequences for both the slaves involved and for the abolitionist movement. In particular, it influenced the lives of two slaves, a preacher, and one feisty authoress: Mary Edmonson, Emily Edmonson, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The Edmonson sisters (At Left: Mary and Emily), Mary (1832-1853) and Emily (1835-1895), were 15 and 13 years old when they attempted escape aboard the Pearl with four of their brothers. Born in Maryland, Mary and Emily were both of fair complexion (a very desirable quality for female slaves), and as a consequence they had been hired out as house servants in Washington. Learning of the planned escape on the Pearl by other slaves, the Edmonson siblings decided the time was right to make their escape. As we know (see previous post), the slaves aboard the Pearl were captured and returned to the District. Their fate was to be sold, and live out a grueling life in the disease ridden swamps of the Deep South.

In Alexandria, the Bruin & Hill Company located on 1707 Duke Street, purchased the two sisters and their four brothers for $4500. Paul Edmonson, a freeman and father of the six Edmonsons aboard the Pearl, scrambled to find the money to purchase his children before they left for New Orleans. Joseph Bruin went around town boasting that he would make $1800 a piece for Mary and Emily. It became apparent that Bruin intended to sell the beautiful fair skinned sisters as mistresses or sex slaves in the popular New Orleans “fancy trade.” After all, the value of a young female slave at the time was closer to $600-800, only those in the “fancy trade” would sell for higher. Local abolitionists were appalled; they and along with Paul Edmondson worked to raise $1000 per sister. But Bruin wouldn’t sell; why accept $1000 when you could get $1800?

The money wasn’t raised in time. The brig carrying the Edmonsons arrived in New Orleans on June 14, 1848. They were held at a slave pen, and forced as fancy women to stand in the front windows to attract potential buyers. The sisters were poked and prodded and subjected to lewd comments from buyers. Fortunately, their luck changed as a yellow fever epidemic broke out in New Orleans. Fearing a loss in profit from the wrath of the disease, Bruin & Hill had the sisters shipped back to Baltimore. With assurance from Bruin that he would reduce the price of Mary and Emily’s freedom to $2500, Paul Edmonson went about raising money for their release. Hearing of their plight in Brooklyn, Henry Ward Beecher and his congregation took action to raise funds as well. Beecher spoke out on the horrors of slaves sold into prostitution by “human flesh-dealers of Christian girls.” His blistering sermons had women donating jewelry and men outbidding each other to donate to the increasingly popular abolitionist cause. By November the money had been raised, and the sisters were freed.

Rejoicing in their freedom, Mary and Emily travelled to New York to join a circuit of abolitionist speakers as celebrity guests. At rallies, Beecher spoke on the need for education for African-American and appealed to the audience to donate money to educate the girls. Mary and Emily told their story to large audiences and participated in mock slave auctions in attempt to further stir sympathy from Northerners.

Where is the feisty authoress in all of this? Ms. Stowe was Henry Ward’s sister, and in being so, she was well aware of the plight of the Edmonsons. In her book, Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she cited the Edmonsons and their escape on the Pearl as inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin--a book some credit with sparking the Civil War. Stowe intervened in the lives of the Edmonsons and had the sisters sent to Oberlin College, the first college to accept African-Americans. Sadly, Mary died of tuberculosis not long after her arrival at Oberlin. Distraught, Emily returned to Washington to be closer to her family and continued her studies at the Normal School for Colored Girls near Dupont Circle. She remained active in the abolitionist cause.

Sources: Josephine F. Pacheco, The Pearl: A Failed Escape on the Potomac.

Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the "Pearl".

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Duel of the Month Club: John F. Sherburne v. Daniel Key

At age 19, Daniel Key, son of Francis Scott Key, was a midshipman in the Navy. While on tour, Daniel had a dispute with fellow midshipman John F. Sherburne, the son of the former Register of the Navy. In a letter written to the Memphis Avalanche, witness to the duel Thomas Mattingly recalled that Sherburne was serving on the ship, while Key –a troublesome youngster—was merely a passenger on the ship after having been arrested on his frigate Brandywine for insubordination. On board Key developed a strong disliking for Sherburne and would go to great lengths to anger him. Reaching Norfolk, Virginia Key was held on bond in order to keep the peace. After his release, Key and his father went to Baltimore to argue his case in front of the Naval Board. With his father as district attorney of the Circuit Court in DC, Key got off without punishment, and the two returned to Washington.

Also returning to Washington was John Sherburne. When the two midshipmen learned of each other’s presence, tensions escalated. Around June 15th or 16th Sherburne demanded a duel, to which Key replied, “Sherburne is a damned scoundrel, and I will not meet him.” But after a few minutes to compose himself, Key agreed to a duel, provided it be done quickly.

The stage was set; the duel would take place that evening at 6:00 pm in Bladensburg, Maryland (recall that dueling was illegal within the District). The dueling grounds are pictured above. The two agreed on pistols as their weapons, and stood ten short paces apart. They fired. After the smoke cleared, it became apparent that both shooters had missed their mark. Key exclaimed, “Where did my ball go to; God damn it, load up quick and let us have another shot!” Sherburne complied, the two reloaded, and at twilight the command was given to fire again. This time Key was struck on the lower right side of his chest, he lived twenty minutes longer before dying where he fell. Sherburne escaped unharmed.

Key’s body was returned to his father’s C Street house between 13th and 14th Streets. The scene there was one of agony and profound grief. Francis Scott had lost his eldest son. The Knickerbocker (a New York Magazine at the time) remarked on the duel saying, “We know how to appreciate such a scene, for we know its counterpart—a mother bending in speechless agony of heart over the dead body of an only son, murdered in cool blood…The life, however, of a successful duelist, is a curse to himself. His punishment goes with him, in every step he takes in his journey to the grave.” Let that be a lesson to duelists.
Sources: The Knickerbocker (or New-York Monthly Magazine), vol. VIII , New York: Clark and Edson, 1836.
Thomas Mattingly, "Duel between midshipmen Key and Sherburne," from the Memphis Avalanche, printed in the New York Times, April 23, 1859.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Petition in Boots

Unemployment was everywhere. In places like Michigan, over 43% of the work force was jobless. Caused by market speculation, the Panic of 1893 led to a shortage of cash. Families were going hungry, and the conditions weren’t getting better. In Massillon, Ohio Jacob Coxey witnessed the poverty around him. A populist and a successful business owner, Coxey was also a self-made man, who at age 16 worked in the iron mills. To combat the economic depression, Coxey called on the federal government to build modern roads and community buildings and employ the unemployed to build them.

Coxey was joined by frontiersman and free-lance journalist Carl Browne. The odd couple, one a straight-laced businessman and the other a rough and tumble cowboy, needed to raise awareness for their cause. Browne proposed a march on Washington. It would be he declared, “A petition in boots!” They would call themselves the “Commonweal of Christ” (see above right: at camp) and thousands of the unemployed would join them along their march from Massillon to Washington, DC. On the steps of the Capitol they would call for sweeping legislation that would employ thousands and get the economy back on track. It would be glorious! Akin to the Second Coming!

Their expedition was sensationalized by the national press, who was struggling to report on the human effects of the depression—covering stock markets and unemployment rates was dull and frankly, it was depressing. Readers wanted excitement and humor! When Coxey and Browne left Massillon on March 25, the Commonweal of Christ had just 100 followers. Throughout their trip the two leaders struggled to make their protest look respectable. Their parade was led by African-American man, named Jasper Johnson, who carried the American Flag, followed by a marching band. Coxey, his wife, and Legal Tender, his newborn son—I would not want to be this kid at recess—rode behind in a horse-drawn carriage (at left: Coxey and his son, Little Legal Tender). The media immediately dubbed them as Coxey’s Army, and mocked it was an army of cranks, vagrants, and tramps.

Hearing reports of the march’s progress, Congress and Federal authorities watched from afar, skeptical that the protest would reach the Capitol but preparing for it in any case. This would be the first march on Washington in history and it raised questions regarding freedom of speech and assembly. Do citizens have the right to use the Capitol grounds as public space, as a forum for debate? Not in 1894. Both parties in Congress fully supported the Metropolitan Police’s decision to allow Coxey’s Army to march down Pennsylvania Avenue, but to halt them at the Capitol and forbid them to enter the grounds.

Coxey’s Army reached camp at Bladensburg, Maryland in the last week of April. They were ready to protest on May 1st. The day before the march over 6,000 people visited their camp to hear speeches from Coxey and Browne. On May Day, Coxey’s Army, now 500 strong, entered the District and marched to the Capitol. There they were met by police, who reminded them that it was illegal to enter the grounds. As a distraction, Browne and a supporter jumped over a low wall and began running across the lawn. Browne was immediately swarmed by the police, clubbed, and taken away. At the same, Coxey climbed 5 steps at the Capitol and began to give his speech. A police officer shoed him off the steps and escorted him back to his carriage. The protesters returned to camp.

The next day Coxey attended the bail hearing for Browne. At the hearing both men were arrested and charged with carrying banners illegally. In fact their “banners” were 3 by 2 inch lapel pins. They were also charged with walking on the grass at the Capitol. They received a 20 day prison sentence with a $5 fine. Their loyal followers waited anxiously in camps around the district. Conditions in the camps were difficult as the men soon ran out of food and took to begging on the streets. By the time of their release, support for Coxey’s army had dwindled. The press was focused on the Pullman Riots in Chicago. Jacob Coxey returned to Ohio to run for Congress (he didn’t win). Carl Browne continued to speak on the rights of man, becoming increasingly socialist. In 1913, at age 64, he was often seen standing on a soapbox on 10th and Pennsylvania, preaching to any who would listen. He was considered a crackpot.

Though Coxey’s Army failed to achieve its goal, it marked a significant turning point in U.S. democracy. It established the city of Washington as a place where public protest could get substantial media attention. Marching on Washington became a form of political expression. Later in the year of 1894, the suffragists would borrow Coxey’s tactics and march in Washington themselves; their protest was better received by the media.

In popular culture we remember Coxey’s Army for the role it played L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Considered an allegory for the Gold Standard and Populism, Dorothy, the Scarecrow (farmer), the Tin Man (industry), and the Cowardly lion (political leader) follow the yellow brick road to Oz ( got it!... Washington). So what do you think? Are those group of four misfits representative of Coxey's Army?

Sources: Lucy G. Barber, Marching on Washington.

Coxey's Army Dwindling Away". New York Times (May 11). 1894.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Politics, Politics

It turns out that four hundred years ago, Captain John Smith was the first (recorded) European to cruise up the Potomac. In doing so, he met lots of Native American tribes. The first lived on the south bank of the river, and down Chesapeake Bay. These Indians were part of the Powhatan Confederacy, with whom Europeans had been in contact for some time. Powhatan himself was suspicious of the English, and had (according to Smith, anyway) laid an ambush for the explorer on the banks of the Potomac. The intended attackers, however, did a poor job concealing themselves, and when Smith called them on their ruse, they came out, confessed that they had meant to attack the English, and went on their way.

Continuing up the river, Smith found that the other tribes he encountered were friendly without trying to kill him first. These Indians, on the north bank between the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay, were the Piscataway. Smith came to understand that these Native Americans were friendly for a reason: not only was the Powhatan Confederacy pressing north onto their side of the river, but the Susquehannocs upriver were aggressive as well. As such, the Piscataway, wedged as they were between two expansionist tribes, were anxious to find allies in their struggle along the banks of the Potomac.

Smith did not fail to make note of this, and thus it was that the English settlers of the region landed on Piscataway land. Aiding the Piscataway, the English colonists made enemies, but had the friendly tribes as a sort of buffer between them and the hostile Susquehannocs to the north. When Powhatan died, chaos in the region ensued, and the colonists supported a range of tribes, most of whom were warring with each other in the aftermath of the disintegration of Powhatan's Confederacy. Thus, the colonists effectively manipulated the shifting political balance of the region in order to keep the surrounding tribes weak as they adjusted to the land and grew stronger.

Political turmoil must flow along the Potomac.

Oh, by the way, the Potomac is named not after any one Native American tribe, but after the nature of the region. Situated at the confluence of a river that flowed past mountains, forest, and valleys alike, the settlers were among Indians who valued trade. The word, "potomac" was Algonquin (the root language of all the area's Indians) for "something brought," as in "something brought to be traded."

Source: Frederick Gutheim, The Potomac (New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1949), 21-31.
Image Source:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Attempted Exodus

It turns out the largest attempted escape along the Underground Railroad occurred by sea rather than land. On Saturday, April 15, 1848 seventy-six slaves left their owner’s homes in Washington and attempted to gain their freedom by stowing away on a schooner named the Pearl.

The group’s conductor was Daniel Drayton, who was a bit of a zealot, drifter, and abolitionist. For urban slaves, who in general lived a relatively more comfortable life by being employed as domestic servants and skilled labor, the biggest fear was being “sold South” to New Orleans or Natchez. There, in the Deep South, grueling days in the heat of the cotton fields coupled with a higher occurrence of disease led to a decreased life expectancy. Learning of the plight of a slave family about to be separated and sold South, Drayton travelled to Philadelphia to seek out a boat that could ferry the family to freedom. At the docks he met a ship pilot named Edward Sayres, who having no cargo to haul, agreed to sail from Philadelphia to DC and back for the low sum of $100.

Sayres and Drayton, along with the cook Chester English arrived in Washington on April 13th. After selling a load of wood at the 7th Street docks, the Pearl sailed a little further down the Potomac to a place called “White-house Wharf,” which was known to be more secluded than an open dock. Shortly after sunset slaves, hearing of the departing ship by word of mouth, boarded the schooner. They came from all over the city. Among them was a house maid owned by former first lady Dolley Madison.

With a full cargo hold, the Pearl attempted to set sail, however, the Potomac is a tidal river below the Great Falls. Unable to fight the current, the Pearl was forced to anchor near Alexandria. They were loosing precious time; their masters in Washington would soon notice their disappearance. As daylight broke, they were able to sail out toward the Chesapeake. Though the Pearl made progress, luck was not with them. A storm with great winds forced them to weigh anchor yet again, this time at Cornfield Harbor, just above Point Lookout, Maryland.

Back in Washington, the alarm had been raised by church time on Sunday morning. A posse organized to find the missing slaves and set sail to catch the slaves on the Salem, a steamer. Around 2:00 am on Monday morning, passengers on the Pearl heard the blow of a steamer’s whistle. The game was up, the posse had found them. Boarding the Pearl, the posse proclaimed their discovery shouting, “Niggers, by God!” The escaped slaves considered fighting, but they were unarmed and to resist was futile. All passengers aboard the Pearl, were bound and transferred to the Salem.

As the Salem passed Alexandria, crowds on shore cheered to see the captured slaves on the decks. They were greeted at the 7th Street docks, by throngs of people calling for beatings and lynching—particularly the lynching of Drayton. Paraded through the streets, several of the captured slaves wept, but proclaimed that they did not regret their attempt at freedom. The captives were placed in the jail at Judiciary Square, their fates uncertain. Bail for each slave was set at $1,000. For Drayton, Sayres, and English bail was set at $76,000, a nearly insurmountable sum at the time.

After a time, owners of the slaves conferred. It was agreed that all slaves would be sold South. The very fate the runaways feared most had now come to fruition. Families were separated, and not much is known about them once the slaves were sent to New Orleans (The exception to this is the Edmondson sisters, who deserve a posting of their own, so I’ll save their story for another time). English, who had no knowledge of the plot prior to the departure of the schooner from DC, was released. Drayton and Sayres got off relatively easy, considering they could have been hanged. Appeals of their conviction reduced their sentences, and the two were imprisoned for failure to come up with the money for their fines. After four years in prison, abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner appealed to President Fillmore to pardon the men. Both were released in 1852.
But wait! There’s more. After all, how did the posse know to look for the runaways by sea? Especially when escape by land was much more probable? The answer to this may lie with a hack driver. Judson Diggs was a free man of color, who reportedly gave word of the escape plans in exchange for money. Whether or not he was actually the informant has been disputed, but in any case a group of young black men found him after the escape in a square bounded by L, M, 18th Streets and Connecticut Avenue. In anger, the men forced Diggs from the cart, rolled him in to a nearby stream (now actually running beneath the pavement) and stoned him. Surviving the encounter, Diggs was shunned by the black community for the rest of his life.

Sources: Daniel Drayton, Personal Memoir of Daniel Drayton.

Josephine F. Pacheco,
The Pearl: A Failed Escape on the Potomac.

Mary Kay Ricks,
Escape on the "Pearl".

Picture Source: Northern Illinois University, "Slave Auction," Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Office Space

**This one is dedicated to my coworkers. **

The building (at right c. 1936) located at 1350 Connecticut Avenue, NW was designed by Mirhan Mesrobian. Originally used as apartment space, the building converted to offices in 1942. The building is considered to be Moderne in style and features art deco embellishments on the outside.

The architect was an Armenian born immigrant, who moved to the United States and served as an in-house designer for real estate developer Henry Waldman. Other notable Mesrobian designs around Washington include the Hay-Adams Hotel and Sedgwick Gardens.

And that's about all I got on this building...feel free to comment if you have more info on Mesrobian or 1350 Connecticut.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Another Cane Beating, This Time By a Cave Dweller

“Not many huge fortunes were ever made in Washington, but a great many made elsewhere were spent there” – David Brinkley

With social status depending on presidential administrations, appointments, and elections, Washington Society has never been conducive toward an “Old-money” crowd. That said, someone had to build the city, and though they are an elusive and restrictive bunch, I’ve found them.

Known as the “Cave Dwellers” due to their invisibility around town, these permanent establishment types made their homes in the Kalorama neighborhood of northwest DC. It was an isolated neighborhood; residents had their chauffeurs take them around town and their children attended private schools. When we see street signs in DC, it’s these characters for which they are named. Many of the Cave Dwellers descended from the original families in the area, dating back to 1634. DC was on their land, and they considered themselves to be caretakers of the federal government and the nation by extension.

Long used to having a say in government, President of the Riggs National Bank Charles Glover—of the Glover Park Glovers—used to walk across Pennsylvania Avenue to discuss financial affairs with the Secretary of the Treasury. Truth be told, he was such a common sight that the Secretary gave him a desk in the building. In 1915 a new comptroller ordered the desk removed, believing it bad federal policy for a private banker to have a personal desk at the Treasury building. This did not go over well with Charles Glover, who walked up to the comptroller and hit him on the head with his cane.

The event signaled the removal of Cave Dwellers from government affairs. The final nail in the coffin was the arrival of FDRs New Dealers, seen as young, idealistic, academic, social workers, guilty of wearing the wrong colored shoe at dinner. The Washington families wanted nothing to do with the “communist” New Dealers, and in turn the New Dealers were happy to avoid the “fascist” Cave Dwellers. Oh sure, the Cave Dwellers could still be seen at the Metropolitan or the Chevy Chase Country Club, but after the 30s, the Cave Dwellers mainly kept to themselves. And from what I hear, they still do. But then, I can’t say I’ve ever seen them.

And on a final note I'd like to ask what is it with Washingtonians and politicians hitting each other with canes in this city? I probably should have posted this under the Duel of the Month Club...

Sources: David Brinkley, Washington Goes to War.

Gregor Dallas,

Randall Bennett Woods,
Fullbright: A Biography.