Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hidden History of Northern Virginia



Northern Virginia is Washington, D.C.’s front porch, and while the history of the entire nation has been made in Washington, Northern Virginia has a rich regional history flowing from its connection to the capital. For example, there would be no Washington, D.C., if General George Washington had not lived in nearby Mount Vernon, Virginia.

Included here are the often-overlooked stories of Northern Virginia from colonial to modern times—stories such as the Rebel blockade of the Potomac River, the imprisonment of German POWs at super-secret Fort Hunt during World War II and the building of the Pentagon on the same site and in the same configuration as Civil War–era Fort Runyon. And then there are the people—Alexandria-hometown boy Robert E. Lee, Annandale’s “bunny man” who inspired one of the wildest and scariest urban legend, slaves in Alexandria’s notorious slave pens, suffragists dragged from in front of the White House and imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse and many other folks who have left their imprints on the region and the nation.



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Monday, February 15, 2010

Murder in Colonial Virginia

Violence and murder between masters and slaves in colonial Virginia was not a one way street. Blacks sometimes found ways of quietly settling the score with cruel masters. The most common forms of black resistance were arson, poisoning and running away. Poisoning was especially terrifying to slave owners. The closeness of house servants to their masters, for whom they cooked and washed in the very house where the master slept, made the threat of poisoning terrifying. Nor was this fear groundless. The records of colonial Virginia document the trial of 180 slaves tried for poisoning.

In 1737, a case of poisoning in Orange County, Virginia, involved the murder of a master by a slave named Peter. The slave Peter was not only executed for the crime but subsequently, had his head cut off and displayed on a pole at the courthouse building, “to deter others from doing the Like.” Nine years after this, in January 1746, also in Orange County, a female slave named Eve was convicted of attempting to kill her master Peter Mountague by poisoning. Mountague suffered severe illness from August through December 1745 before recovering (and living until at least 1771). Although Montague recovered, Eve was convicted of poisoning him and was sentenced to death. The sentence was medieval. She was condemned to be burnt alive, a sentence carried out shortly after her trial. The case of Eve was considered particularly diabolical because she put the poison in Mountague’s milk. Virtually one hundred percent of the slaves living in central Virginia at the time were from eastern Nigeria, and were genetically predisposed to be lactose intolerant. No slaves would be drinking milk, there could be no unintended victims when milk was poisoned, only slave masters and their kin were in mortal danger. This was a calculated and premeditated attempt at murder stemming from deep hatred.



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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mormon Polygamy

In 1862, Congress passed a law prohibiting polygamy (plural marriage). This law was aimed directly at the troublesome religious sect that had settled Utah, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). The Mormons migrated to the Valley of the Great Slat Lake in 1847 to escape religious persecution brought about, in part, by the practice of polygamy.

Although prohibited in the Book of Mormon, the sect's underlying holy book, the idea of polygamy was accepted by the group's founder Joseph Smith and was pronounced by Smith's successor, Brigham Young, as "necessary for salvation." Brigham Young preached that polygamy was divinely sanctioned to enhance the church's population and to eliminate prostitution and adultery. Some women were dubious, coming to regard polygamy simply as a tool to satisfy the lusts of the older, more powerful male members of the sect. One woman wrote, "If Salt Lake City were roofed over, it would be the biggest whorehouse in the world."

Brigham Young practiced what he preached, having some twenty seven wives during his lifetime. Most of Young's wives lived in a New England style structure called the Lion House located in a central block of Salt Lake City. When Young decided upon a bed partner for the night, he made a chalk mark on the selected wife's bedroom door. He fathered fifty six children (the last when he was 69).

Young had an eye for the younger and prettier members of the flock. He used his position of leader to pressure these women into marrying him, "You cannot be saved by anyone else...If you refuse, you will be destroyed, body and soul." Twenty four year old Ann Eliza, Young's 27th wife, initially rejected the 68 year old patriarch's advances. Under heavy pressure from family and friends she finally gave way. In this case, however, Young got more than he bargained for. Ann Eliza nagged incessantly. She complained about inattention, of Young's cheapness and of his cruelty. Finally she fled Salt Lake City and filed for divorce.

The law passed by Congress in 1862, banning polygamy, was fanatically prosecuted. Men and women were fined and imprisoned until the Mormon's finally submitted in 1890 in a manifesto issued by the church's President, " Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside, to have them do likewise."



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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Virginia Moonshine

After the American Revolution, the new federal government faced the problem of paying off the national debt incurred in fighting the war, and of generally paying its ongoing bills. Among other things, a new federal tax was imposed on liquors and spirits. People were not pleased. Several hundred were so angry about the new tax that they openly rebelled, threatening an attack on Pittsburgh. President George Washington personally led an army of thirteen thousand which crushed the so called Whiskey Rebellion.

Resistance to the tax went underground. Farmers, especially in Kentucky, Virginia and the Carolinas could survive a bad year by turning their corn into profitable whiskey. Small stills sprang up and were operated at night by the light of the moon (hence the name “moonshining”). The ongoing battle between moonshiners and federal revenue agents became legendary throughout the South.

On January 29, 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment to the Untied States Constitution was ratified and one year later on January 17, 1920, in accordance with the provisions of the implementing law, America went dry. Moonshiners were delighted to find that prohibition furnished a large market for their product. It was colorless, it looked like water, and it was often one hundred proof. High school boys, flaunting the law, went out into the woods, met moonshiners, and then brought a pint of moonshine to the school dance. More staid citizens were able to get a prescription from the family doctor for a bottle of liquor. Local drug stores stocked pints of scotch and bourbon for medicinal use.

By 1932 most in the country were ready to repeal Prohibition. The promised benefits, such as the elimination of crime, never emerged. In fact things got worse as the growth of organized criminal gangs produced just the opposite result. In the 1932 presidential election, Franklin Roosevelt promised to end Prohibition. Prohibition was overturned at the national level by the 21st amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As America became more urbanized moonshining largely died out, but is still even now practiced in remoter rural areas.


 
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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston




The disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of disgraced U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr, is one of history’s continuing mysteries.

Theodosia was considered an intellectual prodigy in a time when women rarely received anything but a marginal education. At the age of eighteen she married James Alston who would become the 44th Governor of South Carolina. In 1807 her father, Aaron Burr was tried for treason, and although found innocent, went into self imposed exile. Theodosia acted as Burr’s agent in America, raising money and raising support among the political elite for his return to America.

In December 1812 Theodosia boarded the schooner Patriot bound from South Carolina to New York. Neither Theodosia nor anyone onboard the Patriot was ever heard from again. Legend has surrounded her disappearance ever since, including tales that: (1) she was captured by pirates and became the mistress of a pirate captain; (2) she was made to “walk the plank” by the pirate Dominique Youx; (3) she was discovered by a Karankawa Indian chief on the Texas Gulf Coast in the hulk of a wrecked ship but died before she could be returned to civilization;and (4) Theodosia Burr Alston may have been the Mysterious Female Stranger who died in Alexandria at Gadsby's Tavern on October 14, 1816. The Female Stranger was buried in St. Paul's Cemetery with a gravestone inscription:

To the Memory of a
FEMALE STRANGER
whose mortal sufferings terminated
on the 14th day of October 1816
Aged 23 years and 8 months.
This stone is placed here by her disconsolate
Husband in whose arms she sighed out her
latest breath and who under God
did his utmost even to soothe the cold
dead ear of death.
How loved how valued once avails thee not
To whom related or by whom begot
A heap of dust alone remains of thee
Tis all thou art and all the proud shall be
To him gave all the Prophets witness that
through his name whosoever believeth in
him shall receive remission of sins.
Acts.10th Chap.43rd verse



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