Wicked Washington: Mysteries, Murder & Mayhem in America's Capital

Wicked Washington: Mysteries, Murder & Mayhem in America's Capital

by Troy Taylor


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An addictive and fascinating read that traces the criminal history of our nation's capital, from the bloody site of the city's most famous murder to dark deeds involving politicians from both sides of the aisle. Includes a look at the mysteries surrounding the Lincoln assassination, death by duels and the infamous Washington Vampire

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781596293021
Publisher: History Press, The
Publication date: 11/16/2007
Pages: 127
Sales rank: 1,232,515
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Troy Taylor is an occultist, supernatural historian and the author of seventy-five books on ghosts, hauntings, history, crime and the unexplained in America. He is also the founder of the American Ghost Society and the owner of the Illinois and American Hauntings Tour companies. Taylor shares a birthday with one of his favorite authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but instead of living in New York and Paris like Fitzgerald, Taylor grew up in Illinois. Raised on the prairies of the state, he developed an interest in things that go bump in the night"? at an early age. As a young man, he channeled that interest into developing ghost tours and writing about haunts in Chicago and Central Illinois. Troy and his wife, Haven, currently reside in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood."

Read an Excerpt


Politics Can Be Murder

The idea of a politician having a murderous streak must have begun with Alexander Hamilton. Even before his fateful duel with Aaron Burr, this member of the contingent of founding fathers had a penchant for bickering with just about everyone. He despised John Adams and actively disliked Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but his hatred for Aaron Burr bordered on pathological. Although Hamilton and Burr maintained a superficial relationship, Hamilton seemed bent on destroying his "friend" politically from the time Burr was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1791, if not before then.

No one knows what originally caused the rift between Hamilton and Burr, although Hamilton always maintained that it was purely political. Others have suggested that a romantic rivalry may have existed between them, with both men competing for the same woman. It should be noted that Hamilton and Burr were both unapologetic adulterers. Hamilton even had an affair with his own sister-in-law and was forced to make a public account of another affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds.

Whatever the cause of Hamilton's hatred, he criticized Burr relentlessly. He was particularly cruel during the election of 1800, when Burr was running for president. (Burr lost by a handful of votes to Thomas Jefferson in one of the most contested presidential elections in history, and coming in second, he became vice president.)

For years, Burr ignored Hamilton's writings and caustic jibes, but that changed in 1804 when Burr was running for governor of New York. He suffered an embarrassing loss, mostly due to Hamilton's efforts against him. During the campaign, a letter appeared in a newspaper that was unfriendly to Burr. Although it was not written by Hamilton, the letter noted, among other things, that Burr was "a dangerous man ... who ought not to be trusted." When the letter writer, Dr. Charles D. Cooper, was challenged on this statement, he defended his position and stated: "I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr."

No one has ever learned what this "still more despicable opinion" that Hamilton may have expressed was, but some have ventured that he accused Burr of incest with his daughter. Whatever it might have been, Burr decided that it needed clarification, and he demanded that Hamilton provide it. Hamilton was evasive in his replies and refused to state what he allegedly told Dr. Cooper. More letters were exchanged between the two men, growing more heated with each passing day. Finally, their animosity led to what has become one of the most famous duels in American history.

On the hot morning of July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States, and Alexander Hamilton, one of the country's most eminent statesmen, faced one another with pistols on a stretch of land overlooking the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey. Each man was seeking to kill or maim the other in what was referred to as "the court of last resort."

Hamilton had spent the previous evening preparing for his possible death at the hands of a superior marksman. He settled his affairs and penned letters that stated that he had no personal animosity toward Burr, only political. He concluded his letter: "I shall hazard much and can possibly gain nothing." This sentiment did not stop him from going to the field of honor with gun in hand the following day.

Perfect decorum was displayed at Weehawken. When Burr and his second saw Hamilton approaching the field with his own second, they stood straight, removed their hats and saluted in a gentlemanly manner. The seconds made the arrangements, measuring the distance between the combatants and carefully loaded the pistols. Then, Burr and Hamilton took their assigned places. At the moment of truth, Burr pulled the trigger. Hamilton lurched upward, spun to the left and fell on his face. When he hit the earth, his finger convulsively jerked the trigger and his pistol discharged into the air. The bullet clipped off a tree branch high over Burr's head.

While Hamilton bled into the earth (he died the following day), Burr was taken away from the site. He had survived the encounter and received the satisfaction that he sought. He paid the price for that satisfaction, however. He soon faced murder indictments in New York and New Jersey and faced the scorn of the nation, which was horrified by Hamilton's demise. Burr's political career was ruined, giving Hamilton in death what he had tried so hard to accomplish during his life.


It comes as a surprise to many modern readers that eminent politicians like Burr and Hamilton would engage in such a bloody business, but their duel was hardly an isolated event. Deadly duels were frequently fought throughout the country — from before America's independence to well after the Civil War — by some of our most esteemed citizens. Future presidents, members of Congress, judges, governors and generals often found themselves on the field of honor, settling real and imagined attacks on their dignity. Both Burr and Hamilton had been involved in other duels, as had many politicians close to them. On one occasion, Hamilton had nearly dueled with future president James Monroe, but (ironically) Aaron Burr stepped in and helped to settle the situation.

Dueling began in medieval Europe and became popular over the centuries, especially in Ireland, where it became a sport as well as a means of settling disputes. The Code Duello, developed there in 1777, became a set of rules that covered nearly every American duel and contained a list of provisions for all aspects of civilized combat. It outlined the exact number of steps to be measured between combatants, rules about cowardice, proper behavior and more.

Across the country Americans enthusiastically killed one another with style, and nowhere was this more true than at the Bladensburg Dueling Ground. This place, located just over the Maryland border from Washington, became known as "The Dark and Bloody Grounds." There were more than fifty duels fought here during the first half of the nineteenth century, but perhaps the most famous involved naval hero Stephen Decatur. The conqueror of the Barbary pirates was at the height of his national popularity when he was shot to death by a bitter fellow officer, James Barron, in 1820.

Barron's hatred of Decatur stretched back more than thirteen years. Barron had been in command of the frigate Chesapeake when it encountered the British ship Leopold off the coast of Virginia. Britain was then in the habit of boarding American ships and kidnapping sailors, claiming that they were British citizens. Barron's ship was so unprepared for defense that he decided to pull down his colors, submit his vessel to be searched and allow several of his men to be taken. All of this occurred without the firing of a single cannon! The encounter outraged America and became one of the events that led to the start of the War of 1812.

Barron was court-martialed and suspended from service after a humiliating process that was presided over by Stephen Decatur. Over the course of the next several years many lengthy and venomous letters were exchanged between the two men. After much arguing, Barron issued a challenge to Decatur that the two men meet on the field of honor. It seemed a one-sided battle. Decatur was known as an expert marksman and Barron was extremely nearsighted — a troublesome handicap when dueling. Pistols at eight paces were agreed upon with the additional provision, in deference to Barron's eyesight, that each man would take deliberate aim at the other before the count.

Barron, Decatur and their seconds met at the Bladensburg Dueling Ground on the morning of March 22, 1820. After they had taken up their positions, Barron spoke to Decatur: "Sir, I hope on meeting in the next world, we shall be better friends than in this." Decatur, who had told friends that he only intended to wound Barron, replied: "I have never been your enemy, sir."

After the call, shots rang out in a single thunderous noise and both men fell, crumpling to the ground at almost the same time. Each man believed that he was dying, and lying in pools of blood only a few feet away from one another, they spoke. Stephen Decatur said: "I am mortally wounded; at least I believe so. I wish that I had fallen in the service of my country." Making his peace, Barron begged for forgiveness. Decatur forgave him but "not those who have stimulated you to seek my life."

The two men were carried from the field. Decatur was returned to his Washington home and he died from his injury later on that night. Barron, however, survived the duel, but he had little reason to celebrate. Like Aaron Burr, he lived to face the anger of a country that was grieving over its fallen hero.

The earth of the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds tasted more than its share of blood. A year before the duel between Barron and Decatur, another fatal battle took place between General Armistead T. Mason, a former senator from Virginia, and his cousin, Colonel John M. M'Carty. Mason had questioned M'Carty's right to vote at the polls in Leesburg, Virginia, an insult that so enraged the other man that he immediately challenged Mason to a duel. However, his challenge set the terms and conditions for the fight, which went against the Code Duello. The code specifically stated that only the challenged party had the right to place conditions on the fight. On that note, Mason declined but informed his cousin that he would gladly accept if a proper dueling offer was extended.

M'Carty ignored him and painted Mason as a coward. Mason now challenged M'Carty, but he was dismissed due to his earlier refusal to fight. Although seething with anger, Mason took the advice of friends and let the matter drop — until a future U.S. president convinced him to take up the matter again.

Andrew Jackson, a man who had spilled blood in many duels, bluntly told Mason that he needed to challenge M'Carty again. Inspired by the man they called Old Hickory, Mason wrote a note to M'Carty and informed him that he had resigned his commission in order to be free to challenge and fight a duel. He dispatched his second with the note and offered to M'Carty that any distance and any weapons that he chose could be used in the duel. Once again, M'Carty refused, citing Mason's original cowardice. It was only when Mason's second threatened to slap him that M'Carty reluctantly agreed to the battle.

Whether he was inspired by Mason's determination for bloodshed or afraid of it, M'Carty proposed that they settle their differences once and for all by jumping off the dome of the U.S. Capitol. Mason's second rejected this as a violation of the code (and obviously insane) and then M'Carty proposed that they blow themselves up with a gunpowder keg. Finally, he withdrew his ridiculous suggestion and accepted a fight with muskets charged with buckshot, at a distance of ten feet. Mason's second, based on his friend's instructions of any distance and any weapon, was forced to accept. It was bound to be suicide for both men, but thanks to a friend, the conditions were modified to twelve feet with a single ball.

The two cousins met at the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds on the morning of February 6, 1819. Even though the grounds were blanketed with snow, M'Carty stripped to his shorts and rolled up his sleeves. Mason stood watching him in a heavy overcoat. They were presented with their weapons and warned not to fire before the count of three. With the muzzles of their weapons almost touching, the men fired at the same time. Mason fell dead, his aim apparently thrown off by his heavy coat. M'Carty's shoulder was shattered as Mason's ball entered his wrist and tore a path through his arm. He survived the duel but he lost the ability to use his right arm. In the years that followed, he never forgot that horrific, blood-soaked morning and he eventually lost his mind.

In spite of all of this, the seconds who were present that day were able to report that "the affair, although fatally, was honorably terminated."

Those same words could not be used to describe the pathetic 1836 duel that took place between two congressmen, Jesse Bynum of North Carolina and Daniel Jenifer of Maryland. Jenifer had denounced in the House what he felt was the poor course of President Jackson's party, which caused Bynum to leap to his feet and declare that it was ungentlemanly of Jenifer to say such words. Jenifer insisted that Bynum take back his words, but the other man refused. Minutes later, they were on their way to the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, with fellow congressmen serving as seconds and witnesses.

Both men stood on the field, ten feet apart, and each boasted of what a fearsome marksman he was. The first shots were fired but neither man was hit. The pistols were reloaded three more times, but after the fourth volley of shots both men were still standing, unscathed.

Before the sixth shot, Bynum's pistol discharged, probably accidentally, and one of Jenifer's seconds prepared to shoot the man. This was a rigid rule in the Code Duello, stating that if a man fired early, his opponent's seconds had the right to shoot him down. But Jenifer ordered the man not to shoot, and he took aim himself, fired — and missed again! After six missed shots, the duel was, mercifully, called a draw.

More and more blood continued to be spilled on the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds and public concern began to rise about the continuation of this legalized murder. Unfortunately, Maryland laws did not apply to the residents of Washington, so even if a law was passed to prohibit duels at Bladensburg, it would not have any effect on those who used the grounds with the most frequency. Then, finally, in 1838, an incident occurred that caused such a public outcry that Congress was forced to act.

A popular congressman from Maine named Jonathan Cilley was shot to death by another congressman, William Graves from Kentucky. Graves had been a stand-in for a New York newspaper editor named James W. Webb. Cilley had accused Webb of corruption, and Graves, a close friend of the editor, took exception to the accusation.

Graves, knowing weapons quite well, challenged the inexperienced Cilley to a duel. Cilley believed the whole thing foolish and never expected the duel to actually take place. But on the morning of the duel, he found himself at Bladensburg with a rifle in his hand. The two men took up positions eighty yards apart and both fired, but no one was struck.

The shots were repeated, and still no one was hit. The seconds reached an agreement that each man would receive one final round. If no one was hit this time, the duel would be declared a draw. The agreement proved fatal for Cilley. His leg was shot out from under him, cutting away an artery, and he died in a matter of seconds on the cold ground.

This fatal encounter caused a national uproar. The fallen congressman was young and left a wife and three small children behind. In the minds of many, Graves had killed him in cold blood. Newspapers called the duel "horrid and harrowing," and even former President Andrew Jackson, who had seen more than his fair share of blood and dueling, stated:

I cannot write on the murderous death of poor Cilley. If Congress does not do something to wipe out the state of the blood of murdered Cilley from its walls, it will raise a flame in the public mind against it, not easily to be quenched. Cilley was sacrificed.

And Jackson was right. Public outcry was strong after Cilley's funeral and it forced lawmakers to do something to appease it. The next session of Congress was forced to make dueling, or accepting or making a challenge, a criminal offense.

The law appeased the public, but it did not bring an end to the dueling. The challenges were declared in secret and the duelists met at Bladensburg under the cover of darkness for many years after dueling was declared illegal. It would not be until the Civil War before the "sport" of dueling would die out completely.


The first recorded physical clash between congressmen started over spit. In 1798, Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont ran across the floor of the House and spit into the face of Connecticut's Roger Griswold. He did so because the Connecticut man had made fun of his Revolutionary War record. A resolution to expel "Spitting Lyon" didn't pass, but Griswold managed to get his own revenge.

Two weeks later, Griswold walked over to where Lyon was sitting and struck him over the head with a large hickory cane. Stunned and bleeding, Lyon managed to get to his feet, grabbed some fire tongs and began swinging back at his attacker. They tumbled on the floor, swung, scratched and pummeled one another for a few minutes before this undignified mêlée could be broken up. The two men signed a pledge the next day, promising not to commit any act of violence toward one another again.

This battle ended peacefully, but there is no denying that a precedent had been set.


Excerpted from "Wicked Washington"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Troy Taylor.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Politics Can Be Murder,
2. Legally Insane: Murder and Daniel Sickles,
3. Washington's Greatest Conspiracy: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln,
4. The Forgotten Assassination: The Death of President James Garfield,
5. Presidential Scandals,
6. Bloody Washington: Strange Tales of Crime, Murder & Death,

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