Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia

Laurel Hill Cemetery, 3822 Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is the second oldest rural cemetery in the nation. It was established in 1836 on 74 acres of land overlooking the Schuylkill River. Its lovely neoclassical gatehouse was designed in a Roman Doric style by architect John Notman (1810-1865). Laurel Hill was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998.

Brig. Gen. Hugh Mercer (1726-1777)

Brig. Gen. Hugh Mercer (1726-1777) was a Scottish-American physician who settled in Fredericksburg, Virginia and was a personal friend of George Washington. He fought in the French and Indian War and in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, where he was killed at the Battle of Princeton.

Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade (1815-1872)

Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade (1815-1872), nicknamed the “Old Snapping Turtle,” is most famous for commanding the Union Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Gettysburg. He commanded the V Corps during the Battle of Fredericksburg and replaced Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker as commander of the army. His star faded after Gettysburg, however, as General Ulysses S. Grant personally directed operations in the Eastern Theater. He made Philadelphia his home and died of pneumonia brought on by his old war wounds.

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Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum: West Virginia's Dark Tourist Destination

A menagerie of tortured souls is said to lurk in these corridors.

Designed by Baltimore architect Richard Snowden Andrews in Gothic and Tudor Revival styles, construction on the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum began in 1858. Its main building was laid out according to the Kirkbride plan, brainchild of Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane Thomas Story Kirkbride. Kirkbride theorized that exposure to natural light and fresh air would aid in curing the mentally ill, so he designed a long, narrow hospital with staggered wings extending outward from the center. The furthest wings were reserved for the most violent or disturbed patients.

In 1861, the Civil War’s outbreak interrupted construction on Virginia’s new asylum as Union troops seized its construction funds from a local bank (totaling nearly $30,000.00 in gold) and used them to help fund a pro-Union Virginia government in Wheeling. When West Virginia seceded from Virginia in 1863 and was admitted to the Union, the new state government renamed it the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane. Construction on the sprawling grounds, with everything the hospital needed to be a self-sustaining community, wasn’t completed until 1881.

Originally designed to accommodate 250 patients in relatively comfortable surroundings with plenty of natural light and fresh air, conditions at the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane slowly deteriorated into a horror show. During the 1950s, its population peaked at a staggering 2,600 patients, with state and medical officials resorting to lobotomy to reduce overcrowding. Lobotomy was a procedure designed to make patients docile by severing connections in the frontal lobe of the brain. Though I couldn’t find any concrete numbers, it’s believed over a thousand lobotomies were performed there.

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Does a ‘Female Stranger’ Still Linger at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum?

After more than 200 years, the mystery of the ‘Female Stranger’ continues to fascinate visitors to this Alexandria, Virginia landmark. Some say her ghost never left.

Alexandria, Virginia is an old town filled with historic buildings, populated by ghosts and legends. No less than 49 sites in Alexandria are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Perhaps the most legendary is Gadsby’s Tavern at the corner of Cameron and Royal streets. Its mysterious tale of the “Female Stranger” has confounded local historians and folklorists for over 200 years.

In the late 1700s, Alexandria was the social center of northern Virginia. Charles and Anne Mason first recognized the potential for a tavern and opened a business at the corner of Royal and Cameron streets. With the end of the Revolutionary War, an entrepreneur named John Wise built a new tavern in 1785 and a hotel in 1792, red brick buildings which still exist to this day. John Gadsby leased and operated the establishments from 1796 to 1808, when Alexandria became part of the new Federal District of Washington, DC.

In those early years, Gadsby’s Tavern hosted travelers from all over the colonies, including prominent men like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and the Marquis de Lafayette. It was considered a premier establishment, hosting parties and balls in its large hall. It was during this heyday when the legend of the mysterious “Female Stranger” took root.

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Is Peyton Randolph House the Most Haunted House in America?

A colonial-era home sits on a quiet plaza in America’s most historic town, but storytellers say something sinister lurks inside.

Without the misfortune of dying right before the Declaration of Independence, Peyton Randolph (1721-1775) would be considered one of our country’s most prominent founding fathers. He was elected president of the First and Second Continental Congress, before dying of a stroke while dining with Thomas Jefferson. His home, expanded and modified over the intervening decades, still stands in Colonial Williamsburg.

The Georgian-style house, at least the western wing at the corner of Nicholson and North England Streets, was built in 1715 by William Robertson. Sir John Randolph, Peyton’s father, purchased it in 1721 and willed it to his son, who took ownership at the age of 24. John had built a second house, what became the east wing, in 1724, and Peyton connected the two homes with a spacious hall, though the east wing still had to be accessed from outside.

Peyton’s sister, Susannah Beverley, lived in the home until her death circa 1754, and Peyton’s window retained it after his death. It served as temporary headquarters to French general Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau during the Siege of Yorktown in 1781. It was sold at auction in 1783, and served as a military hospital at the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862 during the American Civil War.

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A Trip to the U.S. Capitol Building

No visit to Washington, DC is complete without seeing the U.S. Capitol Building, which is open to the public and more accommodating to visitors since the addition of a multi-million dollar visitor center in 2008. There are restricted areas, of course, and places you can only go with a congressperson or senator, but you don’t have to have any special connections to see public areas of the building, including the crypt and rotunda.

My mother-in-law was able to score us a tour with her congresswoman’s intern, which was preferable to standing in line. He graciously took us through the tunnels, which features a display of student artwork from all 50 states, and all public areas. Senators and congressmen travel to and from their offices and the Capitol via underground tunnels, so they don’t have to share the street with peasants like us.

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A Trip to the White House

Home to our chief executive, the White House is a treasure-trove of historic artifacts and artwork rivaling the country’s best museums.

I recently had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour the White House in Washington, DC. Its simple neoclassical architecture and humble name hide the beauty within. Inside is a treasure trove of history and art rivaling the best museums in the country. Getting in, of course, is difficult but only requires submitting a request through your Member of Congress. Tours are free and security is tight–I couldn’t even bring my regular camera and had to settle for using my cell phone camera.

The self-guided tour starts in the East Wing, which was built in 1942, and goes past the presidential movie theater and a small gift shop into the ground floor. Visitors are allowed to view but not enter the Vermeil Room, China Room, and Library, before heading upstairs.

On the ground floor, visitors walk through the East Room, which is a large open hall, to the Green, Blue, and Red rooms (all decorated in their respective colors), through the State Dining Room, to the Entrance Hall. The Cross Hall, where the President sometimes holds press conferences or makes announcements, was roped off during our visit.

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Fort Fisher State Historic Site in New Hanover County, North Carolina

The fall of Fort Fisher in January 1865 marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy in North Carolina.

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The Union Army and Navy made two attempts to capture Fort Fisher during the American Civil War. The first, in December 1864, was unsuccessful. The second battle, fought from Jan. 13 to Jan. 15, 1865 between Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry and the Confederate garrison commanded by Maj. Gen. W.H.C. Whiting and Col. William Lamb, was a complete Union victory.

After Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s embarrassing failure in December 1864, Generals Adelbert Ames, Alfred Terry, Charles Paine, and Admiral David Porter were determined to take Fort Fisher and close the Confederacy’s last trading port. These supplies were critical to keeping Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of North Virginia fighting in the trenches around Petersburg, Virginia.

On January 12, 1865, the Union fleet returned, this time carrying approximately 9,600 troops and 2,260 sailors and marines. Alfred Terry planned a three-pronged assault: a division of United States Colored Troops commanded by Charles J. Paine would attack Confederate Maj. Gen. Robert Hoke’s division south of Wilmington, Adelbert Ames’ division would attack Fort Fisher from the north, and 2,000 sailors and marines would attack from the sea.

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Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park in Leesburg, Virginia

A small park and cemetery memorializes one of the most lopsided and controversial battles of the American Civil War.

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The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was fought on October 21, 1861 between Union forces commanded by Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone and Col. Edward D. Baker and Confederate forces commanded by Col. Nathan “Shanks” Evans near Leesburg, Virginia during the American Civil War. The battle was a humiliating defeat for Union forces, including the loss of a U.S. Senator, and led Congress to establish the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

After the First Battle of Bull Run ended notions of a quick Union victory, President Abraham Lincoln authorized Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan to form the Army of the Potomac and plan another advance into Virginia. Leesburg, Virginia was a strategic town on the Potomac River, so McClellan ordered Brig. Gen. George A. McCall to investigate Confederate troop movements in the area. McClellan was under the impression that Confederate Col. Nathan “Shanks” Evans had abandoned Leesburg, when in fact his withdrawal was temporary.

On the night of October 20, 1861, Col. Charles Devens of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry sent a patrol across the Potomac River to recon the area. A jittery officer sent word that he had seen a Confederate camp, so Devens sent a raiding party of 300 men across the river the next morning. Though there was no camp, Colonel and U.S. Senator Edward Dickinson Baker, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, ordered more Union troops to reinforce the 15th Massachusetts.

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