Cold War Reminder: The Tudor Place Bomb Shelter

by Mark Hudson, Executive Director

Tudor Place is most often associated with events in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nestled beneath the Garage, however, is a reminder of the Cold War era of the 1960s. The Bomb Shelter, completed in 1969, offers insight into the nation’s psyche at that time and the anxieties of Tudor Place’s final private owner, Armistead Peter 3rd. Whether built primarily as a shelter from a nuclear blast and fallout, or as a safe retreat from civil unrest, Mr. Peter took great care to ensure that the space would protect the Tudor Place household.

Read the full article here.

Francis Scott Key’s Desk and the Snow Riot

by Curator Rob DeHart

Partner’s Desk, probably WDC | MD, c. 1830-40. Walnut, tulip poplar, white pine, yellow pine. Tudor Place Historic House & Garden, 4049.01.

One of the standout pieces in the Tudor Place Collection is a partners’ desk that belonged to Francis Scott Key. Known primarily as the lyricist for the “Star-Spangled Banner,” Key was a prominent lawyer in Georgetown and served as District Attorney for Washington City from 1833 to 1841. The desk, which dates to the 1830s, likely saw Key through his district attorney years and witnessed one of the most violent instances of unrest in the city’s history.

In August 1835, an alleged threat by an enslaved Black man toward his female owner instigated days of rioting by whites that targeted Black businesses, churches and schools. Eventually called the “Snow Riot” after Black restaurateur Beverly Snow (whose business was destroyed by one of the mobs) it represented the culmination of years of racial and class tensions in the city and a central figure trying to resolve the effects of the chaos was Francis Scott Key. ¹

By 1835 the free Black population in Washington City had outgrown the city’s enslaved Black population. The city was becoming a destination for free Black entrepreneurs who desired access to African American-run institutions. This dynamic was one of many factors that combined to make the city rife with tension between whites and Blacks and ripe for the outbreak of violent riots that would erupt that summer. 

It began on the evening of August 4 when 18-year-old Arthur Bowen left a debating society meeting led by prominent Black educator John F. Cook, Sr. His meetings were regular events where free and enslaved Blacks could gather and discuss slavery, temperance and other contemporary issues.

Slavery was certainly on Bowen’s mind because he was  owned by prominent Washingtonian Anna Maria Thornton, whose late husband, Dr. William Thornton, had designed Tudor Place and the first U.S. Capitol building. Bowen learned how to read and write and moved about the city with relative independence, but much to the disappointment of his mother, Maria Bowen, his attentions were directed mostly toward horse racing and drinking.  After the meeting, a very inebriated Bowen returned to the Thornton house on the north side of F Street between  13th and 14th Avenues. Rather than go straight to bed, he picked up an ax and approached the door of the bedroom shared by Anna Maria Thornton, her mother and Bowen’s own mother. He opened the door with the ax under his arm and shouted to the startled occupants, “I’ve got just as much right to freedom as you!” While his mother tried to restrain him, Anna managed to escape and alert neighbors, whose arrival drove Arthur off. 

This incident played into the fears of many whites and slaveholders that free Blacks and abolitionists were loosening the chains of slavery in the city. To slaveholders, talk of emancipation only poisoned the minds of ‘docile slaves’ by giving them the impression that they could thrive outside the institution of slavery.

Evening Star Sept 25 1932

Evening Star Sept 25 1932

Four years earlier a rebellion of enslaved Virginians in Southampton County led by Nat Turner killed over 50 whites, validating (in the fearful eyes of white onlookers) the deadly risks of such ideas. The Bowen/Thornton incident was seen to further prove their fears correct. Bowen ended up in the city jail, but the fact that he had not harmed anyone was not enough to prevent a white lynch mob from descending on the jail. As District Attorney, Francis Scott Key deterred the mob by stationing a detachment of U.S. Marines at the jail. Their blood-lust thwarted, but still desiring to send a message to the city’s abolitionists and free Blacks, the mob took out its anger on Black owned businesses, homes and institutions, including Beverly Snow’s Epicurean Eating House on the corner of 6th and Pennsylvania Avenue. The destruction lasted for days and ended with the intervention of President Andrew Jackson.

The causes of the riot actually went much deeper than the Bowen/Thornton incident. While slaveholders feared the influence of abolitionists and free Blacks, it was white workers who did the actual rioting, and with different motivations than the slaveholders (though both freely used the city’s Black residents as scapegoats). White workers resented the city’s Black population because African Americans competed with them for jobs. White workers believed Black workers received more federal contracts because they accepted lower wages, perhaps not realizing that Black workers had little power to negotiate terms. Ironically, many white workers had equal disdain for the slave holding class, who they viewed as condescending and obstacles to the working class’s effort toward obtaining true political and economic power. In any case, white workers used rioting against the Black community as a way to vent these frustrations while risking minimal punishment.

Francis Key Scott. Photo: Library of Congress.

When order was finally restored, it was up to Key as District Attorney to ensure that justice would be served and prevent future unrest. He had recently moved from Georgetown to a home in Washington City on C Street near 3rd Avenue. From this base and his office in city hall, he formulated the prosecution of Arthur Bowen, members of the white mob, and an abolitionist named Reuben Crandall who had recently been arrested for possessing a trunk full of anti-slavery literature. Justice would be served, but it became clear that it would not be distributed equally. Despite the pleadings of Anna Maria Thornton that Bowen had meant no harm on the night of the incident, Key succeeded in getting a guilty conviction with the sentence of death by hanging. Not to be deterred, Thornton took her case to President Andrew Jackson, who eventually issued a presidential pardon that permitted Bowen to avoid the death penalty and be sold to a slaveholder in Florida. Shortly after the sale, Thornton and Bowen stopped corresponding and the eventual fate of Bowen is unknown.


Key also aggressively went after abolitionist Reuben Crandall. A white schoolteacher who had recently
moved from New York City, Crandall swore that he had no intention of distributing the abolitionist pamphlets that were found in his home. But Key and other slaveholders viewed abolitionists as even more dangerous than free Blacks for inciting rebellion in enslaved communities. Key himself was an advocate for colonization, the idea that the United States could end slavery by sending emancipated people to Africa. But he certainly did not believe in racial equality and feared what would happen if enslaved people were simply freed to live and function in white American society. In the end, Key was not successful with this prosecution; abolitionists funded Crandall’s defense and he was acquitted.  The results of Key’s prosecution of the white rioters were mixed. He achieved 10 convictions, but all were released with fines and no jail time. Worse still is that none of the Black property owners were compensated for their losses. In fact, the city imposed new restrictions on free Blacks: to move to Washington City, a free black person had to post a $1000 bond approved by five white residents. The city also tried to restrict free Blacks to the trades of cart and carriage driving, but so many refused to follow the law that it was eventually struck down by the courts.

Detail of Partner’s Desk.

Key’s simple, sturdy partners’ desk manufactured by an unknown Washington, DC maker is one of the few remaining pieces of material culture that reflects his role during this critical time in the city’s history. Key’s initials appear on the top of the two pedestals, on which sits a broad top; they also appear on the bottom of several drawers. After Key’s death in 1843, the desk ended up with his friend and legal contemporary, James Dunlop Jr. It descended in that family before being sold to Armistead Peter Jr. in 1917, and has remained at Tudor Place ever since. 

Peter desired the desk because of Key’s fame as the lyricist to the “Star-Spangled Banner,” but it also holds a much deeper meaning to Tudor Place today. Key’s role as District Attorney of a young and rapidly changing city, the Snow Riot and the successes and failures of Key’s justice are a poignant illustration of the city’s early and ongoing struggles with racism and inequality. Through it, we are offered an opportunity for reflection surrounding the efforts for equality that continue today.

 

 

 

[1] “Snow Riot” material drawn from Jefferson Morley, Snow-Storm in August: The Struggle for American Freedom and Washington’s Race Riot of 1835 (New York: Anchor Books, 2019); Chris Myers Asch & George Derek Musgrove, Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

 

 

 

 

The Peter Family’s “Portable Water Closet”

by Rob DeHart

 

When one looks at human history, the flushing toilet is a relatively new invention. Until the late 19th century, most answered nature’s call by using outdoor privies and latrines. To keep from constantly trekking outdoors, one would use a chamber pot in conjunction with a close stool (a piece of furniture that housed a chamber pot). Then someone would physically empty the contents of the chamber pot into a latrine or cesspool. Not only was this process inconvenient, it was unsanitary, unhealthy, and frankly, pretty smelly.

It is therefore no surprise that generations of inventors devoted a lot of time searching for ways to improve what was commonly known as a “water closet.” Englishman Sir John Harington invented a device in 1596 that looked very much like the modern toilet with a water cistern designed to flush away waste. Scotsman Alexander Cummings improved on this idea in 1775 by patenting the “S” bend beneath the water closet that prevented sewer odors from escaping into rooms.[1] But neither of these inventions were very practical until households could be connected to community water and sewer lines, and this did not begin happening in most cities until the latter half of the 19th century. In rural communities it happened even later.

So the in-between times of the chamber pot and the modern flushing toilet proved to be fertile ground for visionaries searching for an improved bathroom experience. Population growth and changing ideas about hygiene and cleanliness led to dozens of patents being filed between the 1830s and 1870s hoping to alleviate the odors and mess of chamber pots.[2] Some of these patents probably never made it to production, but tucked away in the attic of Tudor Place is one device that did have some success. Its inventor, another Englishman named Robert Wiss, called it a “self-acting portable water closet.” It provides some insight into a time when toilet design was moving toward a more hygienic world.

The inner workings of Wiss’s portable water closet are identical to the one at Tudor Place. Image from The Quarterly Literary Advertiser (London), January 1831. Also see a mention of this ad in a blog posted by the USS Constitution Museum at https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/2014/01/18/head-lines/

The first thing one notices when looking at this water closet is that its primary material is mahogany. This would have made it blend in with the typical furnishings of a middle class mid-19th century home. Lifting up the hinged lid exposes another sheet of mahogany, except this piece has a circular cut-out, which essentially served as what we call today a “toilet seat.” Beneath the seat is a blue and white transferware commode bowl that looks much more decorative than just about any toilet bowl made today. To complete the system a galvanized steel pail sits below the bowl to collect waste.

This portable water closet in the Tudor Place collection appears to be based on a design by British inventor Robert Wiss and might date to the 1840s.

The design described thus far is not too different from a common close stool, but Wiss makes it more hygienic by installing a galvanized steel cistern in one side of the cabinet. After the user finished their business, they operated a hand-pump that drew water from the cistern into the commode bowl. The weight of the water in the bowl opened a hinged pan at its bottom that emptied the contents into the pail. In principle it is similar to the workings of a modern toilet. With any luck the excrement washed into the pail where it would be sealed odor-free until it could be emptied.

Robert Wiss manufactured and sold his water closet from the 1830s until at least 1860 through his shop in London and other retailers, but in newspaper ads he routinely complained about “unprincipled imitators” stealing his design.[3] It appears that the water closet in the Tudor Place collection is one of these “imitators” because it displays no markings or patent numbers. The blue and white transferware ceramic commode bowl is very similar to the type used by Robert Wiss and appears English, but lacks his trademark. Everything else about the Tudor Place device is consistent with his design.

A set of brass handles on the cabinet made the device easier to move, thus the word “portable” in its title. But our idea of “portable” is substantially different than it was in the 19th century. While the Peters could theoretically have traveled with this water closet, it would have taken up quite a bit of luggage space. Manufacturers focused on convenience and the respectability attached to having such a device in a household. They also highlighted the need for a portable water closet in case of sickness, suggesting the device could be moved around in a household to provide better bathroom access to an ill family member. During a time when an entire household might have access to just one privy, one can see the advantage of having a commode that could be moved up and down stairs and from room to room.

Yet it is hard to imagine that this water closet worked very effectively. The water pressure provided by the hand pump was probably inadequate to completely empty the bowl, thus creating the same odor problems that came with other close stools. The fact that it is in exceptionally good shape begs the question as to whether it was used much. The only significant damage to the piece is that the hinged pan has broken off of the bottom of the commode bowl, but this could be the result of time and gravity in storage rather than use. Still, indoor plumbing did not come to Tudor Place until the 1870s. So it is easy to imagine the Peter family, with their reputation and resources, investing in such a contraption in an attempt to “modernize” the bathroom situation at their Georgetown mansion.

 

[1] A good history of all things plumbing-related is sponsored by the Arizona Water Association at www.sewerhistory.org.

[2] M.D. Leggett, Subject-Matter Index of Patents for Inventions Issued by the United States Patent Office from 1790 to 1873, Vol III (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1874), 1664-1665.

[3] Two examples are The Morning Post (London), July 11, 1836 and The Times (London), May 24, 1850. Wiss also claimed that his design was patented, but there is no such record of this in the British index of patents.

New Lafayette Square marker highlights role of slavery in building White House

Three new plaques in Lafayette Square note the contributions of enslaved people to the building of the White House, the location of the park as a protest zone and former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s role in preserving the park and creating the White House Historical Association.  Featured on the plaques are photos of paintings created by Peter Waddell, Artist-in-Residence at Tudor Place, for the White House Historical Association in 2010 and 2007.

Read the full article from the Washington Post here.

Photo: Peter Waddell, Lafayette Square, Washington DC 2021

Honoring the enslaved people who resisted bondage in ways large and small: Juneteenth 2021

Photo: Tudor Place Archive, A1.305

A day known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865 when Union troops brought news of emancipation to Texas, ending slavery in the US. As a historic site that bears the scars of slavery, Tudor Place also remembers the enslaved people who resisted bondage in ways large and small.  John Luckett, the Tudor Place gardener for 44 years, shared his self-emancipation story with his employer, Armistead Peter Jr.:

“I was a slave…at Lewinsville, Va. That evening, a bunch of Yankees came along…The following morning, I was ordered to drive a pair of mules that were hitched to an army wagon. In the afternoon, we could hear the booming of the guns at Bull Run…Three of us deserted. We traveled at night and hid in the day-time, for we had no passes to be on the road. One night, when we were near Lewinsville, a bunch of Yankees picked us up and took us to headquarters…Fortunately, they let us go…I just kept on…” 

Click here to learn about John Luckett and others who worked at Tudor Place.

Click here to learn about slavery at Tudor Place.

Click here to learn more about emancipation in the District of Columbia.

For questions or more information, please contact us at education@tudoplace.org.

Jockeying for Position: Horseracing among the Early Washington Elite

 

 

The elite of early Washington talked politics at the Jockey Club and horses in the U.S. Senate Chamber. The most famous horses in American history, like Secretariat and Man o’ War, are tied to some of the most famous men in American history.  Join Tudor Place Curator Rob DeHart and Dr. Lindsey Apple, historian and member of the Advisory Board of Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate in this dynamic discussion about the early DC horse racing industry and correspondence between Tudor Place’s Thomas Peter and Secretary of State Henry Clay of Kentucky about the sale of a prized racehorse.  Learn how Henry Clay, Thomas Peter and their contemporaries like Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren jockeyed for position — mixing politics, business and pleasure.

Photo collage: Ephemera, Tudor Place Archive; The Farmer of Ashland engraving of Henry Clay, Henry Clay Memorial Foundation.

Click to watch video.

Beautifying Every Corner: The Georgetown Garden Club

The Georgetown Garden Club helped rehabilitate the Box Knot at Tudor Place.

At the 2021 Garden Party on September 22,* Tudor Place will honor the Georgetown Garden Club for nearly a century of service to the community and decades of support for garden projects at Tudor Place. The relationship between the two organizations runs deep, going back to the earliest days of the Garden Club.

Click here to read the full article from the Tudor Place Times. 

 

* The 29th Annual Garden Party will be held September 22, 2021 and honor the Georgetown Garden Club. Additional gala details can be found here. The 28th Annual Spring Garden Party on May 20, 2020 was canceled.

Take a Virtual Tour of Tudor Place

Enjoy a virtual visit to Tudor Place.

The words of past owners Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon and Armistead Peter 3rd will guide you on an inspiring video tour of Tudor Place Historic House & Garden.

Happy Holidays from Tudor Place 2020

Here at Tudor Place we had prepared an illuminated garden for you this December. But given the recent rise in Covid-19 cases in our region, and our deep concern for the health and safety of our visitors and staff, the outdoor “Merry & Bright: Tudor Place Garden at Night” event was canceled. We wish you Happy Holidays and look forward to seeing you next year.

Standing in Solidarity: A Message from Mark Hudson, Executive Director

Events of the past week serve as painful reminders of our nation’s legacy of racism and the struggles that remain with us today. As an historic site that bears the scars of slavery, Tudor Place seeks to look this injustice in the eye. In acknowledging this part of our story, we pursue a common understanding that may help our nation and our community transcend its troubled past.

We mourn for all those who have suffered at the violent hand of racism and stand with those whose voices cry out for justice, longing for the day when protests will no longer be needed.

-Mark S. Hudson
Executive Director