The day I took Anthony Pitch’s walking tour of the homes of Lafayette Square, Francisco Duran allegedly sprayed the White House with gunfire. We missed the commotion by an hour or two, but stumbling onto a full-bore firefight between a gun nut and the Secret Service would have been only fitting considering the subject of Pitch’s walk: “The Curse of Lafayette Square Park.”
According to the 55-year-old journalist and historian, the neighborhood defined by Pennsylvania Avenue, Jackson Place, Madison Place, and H Street NW has experienced a run of horrible luck. It peaked in the days prior to the construction of the Court of Federal Appeals, when the town houses were home to Washington’s political and social elite—Lincoln’s friends the Rathbones and Henry Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams. This was long before the Kennedy and Johnson administrations razed several homes to build new executive offices near the square. (Thanks to Jacqueline Kennedy’s intervention, plans to demolish additional town houses were shelved.)
Pitch calls Clover Adams—Henry’s wife—one of the cursed. Grief-stricken by the death of her father, she committed suicide in her home at H Street and Jackson Place NW in 1885. The Rathbones had the unfortunate honor of accompanying Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln to Ford’s Theater on the night of April 14, 1865, an evening poor Henry Rathbone never got over. It seems that he struggled with John Wilkes Booth in the theater box and was slashed on the arm. He survived his injuries only to become increasingly moody and despondent as the years went on. Rathbone and his family eventually moved to Germany, where he lost his mind, murdered his spouse, and finally died in an asylum for the criminally insane. Coincidence? The simple consequence of belonging to the powerful and spoiled upper crust? Doesn’t bad luck eventually befall everyone? Perhaps, but the catalog of misery, tragedy, and violent death that Pitch has assembled makes a Lafayette Square curse the most logical—or at least the catchiest—explanation.
Lafayette Square Park was an apple orchard and private cemetery, owned by the Pearce family, before PierreL’Enfant came to town and devised a plan for the capital that placed the White House south of the parcel and decreed everything from the front door to H Street the president’s front lawn—or President’s Park. Today’s political protesters, who have made Lafayette Square an urban campsite, can trace their squatter lineage back to the square’s earliest residents. Shacks were erected to house the men who built the park, and later, local militia camped there before the War of 1812. When President Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, he believed that presiding over so much property was too ostentatious for a president of the people, so he retroceded the land.
The park received its current name in 1824, when the Marquis de Lafayette visited the capital for the first time since lending a hand in the Revolutionary War. This and $200,000 was compensation for his effort in the American victory over Britain. The park’s corners are dotted with statues, paying tribute to four foreigners, including Lafayette and Gen. Thaddeus Kosciuszko of Poland, who fortified Saratoga and West Point. In 1853, the renowned statue of Andrew Jackson astride a horse was erected in the middle of the park.
Although no private domiciles survive on Lafayette Square, it was once one of Washington’s most fashionable neighborhoods. Besides the Rathbones and the Adamses, homeowners included John McLean, one of the early owners of the Washington Post, and William Wilson Corcoran, the namesake of the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Daniel Webster owned the home first and Corcoran eventually rented it out to the unlucky Adamses). Dolley Madison had a home on Madison Place and H Street alongside the abodes of assorted admirals, Secretaries of State, and members of Congress.
Pitch is a proponent of what he calls anecdotal history, focusing on the personal lives of historical figures, which helps explain why he uses the device of a “curse” to tell the story of Lafayette Square Park.
“History is not a couple of dead documents. Once you know the past, it fleshes out the present,” he says. “The deeper I dig, the more I find out about individuals.”
In addition to the $6 curse tour, which premiered in June, Pitch has led a free tour of Adams Morgan for the past 16 months, and he boasts of having enlightened a total of 2,000 tourgoers.
The impetus for Pitch’s magical history tours dates back to his beginnings in journalism. Raised in England and Africa, Pitch worked for the Associated Press in Africa, London, and Philadelphia as a broadcaster in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He went on to the book division of U.S. News & World Report, where he wrote on the origins of the Vietnam War. When the division closed in 1982, Pitch vowed never to work for anyone again.
“I wanted to be on my own—in journalism, you’ve got to be…under somebody,” he says.
He started a publishing company in 1983, Mino Publications Inc., and produced an ad-supported tourist map of D.C., a Washington guidebook (of which he has sold 150,000 copies), and a trilogy of books on D.C. trivia. He also wrote Harper & Row guidebooks on Italy and Israel and a book on his experiences as a reporter in Zambia. And in 1990, he wrote Chained Eagle, a biography of the Vietnam War’s longest-held American POW, Everett Alvarez Jr. But all the while, Pitch was becoming a zealous D.C. historian.
The Adams Morgan tour evolved out of a neighborhood map that local merchants asked Pitch to publish. While he researched the area, Adams Morgan came to symbolize all of Washington to him.
“By the time you are finished with the walk, [I want] you to feel as comfortable in [the neighborhood] as you would in an old shoe,” he says. “In some cases, I hope that people feel that they actually built the bricks, you know, put the bricks up, one by one, because I bring the bricks to life. I show where famous people live, I tell stories about famous people, I show where movies are made, I tell stories of old-timers and newcomers….By the end of the tour, people have the feel for the city and for this neighborhood, and that’s what I enjoy and I know it’s coming across to them.”
Pitch’s Lafayette Square Park tour follows a carefully orchestrated script, with jokes subtly interjected. Ever the self-promoter, Pitch offers at tour’s end to accompany customers to the nearest bookstore, where he’ll gladly sign copies of one of his books. But the tour is more about raising historical consciousness than raising his income.
During the curse tour, Pitch tells the story of the Nov. 1, 1950, assassination attempt on President Truman. Truman was residing in Blair House during White House renovations when two Puerto Rican nationalists moved in on Blair House as he napped. Secret Service Officer Leslie Coffelt was killed by one of the assassins in the ensuing gun battle. Truman was unharmed. Almost exactly 44 years later, shots were fired again outside the White House.
Nobody was injured in the latest round of gunfire, but that’s not true of the 1859 shooting of District Attorney Phillip Barton Key. Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, had been having an affair with 23-year-old Theresa Sickles, the wife of Lafayette Square Park resident Rep. Daniel Sickles (D-N.Y.). Having played the cuckold long enough, the pistol-packing Sickles confronted Key in the middle of Lafayette Square and shot him dead. Some may argue that it was Phillip and Theresa who were cursed, not Sickles, who got off after pleading temporary insanity. But kismet caught up with Sickles: He won a Medal of Honor but lost a leg to a cannonball at Gettysburg. The shattered leg today rests on display at the Walter Reed National Museum of Health and Medicine, a gift from Sickles himself. He lived long enough to squander his money and die penniless at age 94 in 1914.
Rose O’Neale Greenhow met a more gruesome end. A Confederate spy who lived in a town house on the square in 1861, Greenhow was detained on espionage charges and placed under house arrest. When allowed to return to the South, she immediately sailed to Europe to drum up funds for the Confederate cause. Returning to South Carolina, Greenhow demanded to be rowed ashore during inclement weather. The boat overturned and she sank to the ocean floor—weighed down by the 300 gold sovereigns in a pouch around her neck and other donations that were sewn into her clothes. A Confederate soldier later found her body washed ashore, robbed the corpse of its cash, and pushed it back out to sea. Later, upon discovering the body’s identity, the soldier confessed, returned the coins, and Greenhow was laid to rest in Wilmington, N.C., far from her Yankee home.
Pitch talks of future tours of Kalorama Circle, saying there is plenty of old congressional dirt in that neighborhood. But his next big project is a book on the burning of Washington in 1814, a story rife with anecdotal history—and surely some new Lafayette Square lore.
“I think I’m onto something big here,” he claims, “I think this is what I’m going to do for years and years.”
For information about Anthony Pitch’s tours, call (301) 294-9514.