LOCAL LORE: “Gypsies" in Edgewood

While researching the history of Edgewood and Metropolis View, I came across an 1895 story in the Washington Times headlined “Where the Gypsies Live.” Although the term “gypsy" is today considered an ethnic slur by many, it has long been a common term used for any dark-skinned nomadic peoples, whether of Romani origin, or from Turkey or South America or even Ireland. In this particular story from 1895, three different colonies had set up camp in what was then called Berry’s Woods, near Glenwood Cemetery in present-day Edgewood.

1888 photo  from the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection at the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge. 

I had never fully realized just how extensive the nomadic life was in this country at that time, nor how regular was the occurence of these encampments in the Washington area. Bladensburg, Congress Heights, Rock Creek and Berry’s Woods were all places where many clans frequently spent the winters.  

Another surprise for me was the tone of the article in the Washington Times. It was a feature piece that displayed local residents' fascination with an intriguing, exotic culture. Going to a gypsy encampment to get one’s fortune told was a very popular pastime and provided a major source of income for the nomads. Though allegations of thievery and myths of child kidnapping had long been associated with gypsies, there was no sense of distrust or suspicion in the article. In fact it pointed out their patriotism, the neatness of their wagons and campsites, the diversity of the different colonies. The reporter took the streetcar up 4th St NE, where he could see the colorful wagons and tents:

LOCAL LORE: Two Stories About Colonel Brooks - True or False?


As I’ve researched Brookland and vicinity over the years, I’ve come across a number of interesting little stories that don’t quite rise to the level of a full post. Here are a couple of nuggets about Colonel Jehiel Brooks (left), for whom Brookland was named. I think it’s safe to say the colonel was a man with a prickly temperament. Cantankerous, litigious, a lover of horticulture and a hater of most everything else, Brooks liked to be perceived as a wealthy gentleman, though the wealth in his family resided with his wife, Ann Queen, who inherited the property from her father. Jehiel himself was constantly worried about finances.

I discovered an interesting little story when I was researching the post on the Burnes family graves, which were on the Brooks property. Those graves were first mentioned in an article in the Evening Star in 1887, attributed to a writer named “Eastus.” In addition to alluding to the gravesite, he describes an interesting event told him by Colonel Brooks:  

The founder of this place was Col. Jehiel Brooks…. Often have I listened to him with pleasure,  for he was a page from the past, abounding in reminiscences of [Henry] Clay, [John] Calhoun, [Daniel] Webster, John Randolph, Davy Crockett, and others whose names have become historical…. President Tyler was a frequent visitor and made himself thoroughly at home, throwing off the cares of office and becoming the ordinary citizen; and indeed, did this President’s simplicity carry him to such an extent that on one occasion it came near getting him into a ludicrous position. It was a fine day, and Mr. Tyler, visiting at the Brooks’ mansion, was abandoning himself to the delights of outdoor country life, entering fully into the spirit of its freedom. While he was thus forgetting political cares a party of Congressmen called. After receiving his visitors Col. Brooks went in search of the President and found him sitting in a wheelbarrow, with a pretty girl, a relative of the family, pushing him about the grounds.

‘Mr. President,’ said the colonel, ‘a party of gentlemen are at the house who wish to see you.’

Jumping from the rude vehicle, Mr. Tyler exclaimed:

‘Did they see me?'

Upon first reading this story, I wondered whether it was true, or a tall tale invented by the Colonel. It’s difficult to imagine the thin, austere John Tyler (right, Library of Congress) gallivanting around in a wheelbarrow. It turns out that “Eastus” was the pen name of James Eastus Price, whose sister married a son of Col. Brooks, so he was part of the extended Brooks family. And looking through some of the Brooks papers held at the Catholic University Archives, it does appear that Brooks and Tyler were friendly, if not necessarily close friends. 

ON THIS SPOT: A Home for America’s Bad Boys

Including one wayward youth named Charles Manson.

wikiMap fort lincoln

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I am fascinated by old maps. Especially maps of our neighborhoods here in the northeast part of the city. I like to see how the region developed over time, and often get ideas for the blog by noticing something intriguing on one of them. That’s the case with this post. Any number of maps from the 1870s onward show “The United States Reform School Farm,” or “The National Training School for Boys” at the site of the present-day Fort Lincoln neighborhood at the intersection of Bladensburg Road and South Dakota Avenue NE. Curiosity aroused, I started doing some research into it.

1891 Hopkins map showing the Reform School. Library of Congress. Click to enlarge. 

In the early days of this nation, there was no separation between juvenile and adult criminals, a situation loaded with obvious problems. Social reformers soon took up the task and in 1825, the country’s first House of Refuge for lawbreaking children opened in New York City. The idea quickly spread. Houses of Refuge were usually large institutional buildings located in urban areas, and designed primarily to simply house delinquent and often poor children as well. By the second half of the 19th century, education and training began to be emphasized, as seen in this illustration from 1868:

ON THIS SPOT: The Mysterious Rammed Earth House

I drive south on 13th Street often, so regularly pass through the intersection of 13th and Rhode Island Avenue NE at the southern end of Brookland. Every time I look at the big empty lot on the northeast corner I wonder why nothing has been built there in over 20 years. I don’t know the answer to that question, nor do I know of any current plans for the future of the site. I do however know a bit of the history of that location, and it’s pretty interesting. 

Source: Apple Maps

When I first started to research Brookland history, I saw fuzzy references to a “rammed earth” house that once existed on that spot. The original builder was unknown, though it was thought the house dated from the colonial era, before Washington DC had been founded. It was no longer standing when I moved here in the late 1960s, but I’d occasionally hear an old-timer mention it. 

Once I started digging a little deeper I discovered Farmers' Bulletin No. 1500 from the US Department of Agriculture, published in 1926. It was titled "Rammed Earth Walls for Building,” and the very first illustration was of the house at the intersection of 13th and Rhode Island Avenue: 

LOCAL LORE: Bill Jones, the Avenger

National Hero or Neighborhood Eccentric?


November 19, 1881, 3pm: The most hated man in America sat uncomfortably in the police wagon as it rattled along the streets of the Capitol grounds. Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield, was being returned to his jail cell after a day in court. Often called a “disappointed office seeker,” that term doesn’t paint a full portrait of the man. Guiteau was mentally unstable, a narcissist of the first order who felt he deserved an ambassadorship despite having no qualifications whatsoever. He stalked Garfield for months, then shot him in the back at the Baltimore & Potomac train station near the Capitol. Garfield lingered for almost two months before succumbing to the wound and inept medical treatment. Guiteau was then formally charged with murder. His trial was the kind of media sensation we would recognize today, fueled by Guiteau’s own wild statements in court and interviews he gave the newspapers regularly. Public hostility toward him was increasingly palpable. (Illustration above from Puck Magazine, July 13, 1881. Library of Congress.)

As the police van lumbered across the streetcar tracks at 1st and East Capitol Street, a lone horseman rode up next to the wagon, peered inside, and fired one quick shot. The bullet almost met its mark, nicking Guiteau’s arm, but otherwise caused no harm.

© Robert Malesky 2017