Was D.C. really built on a swamp? Was J Street skipped in the city grid because of a personal grudge? Professional tour guide and author Robert Pohl uncovers the truth behind some of the city’s most popular myths. We talk with him about makes an urban legend and how the city’s best stories have evolved–and persisted–over the years.

Guests

  • Robert Pohl Professional tour guide; author, "Urban Legends and Historic Lore of Washington, D.C."

Transcript

  • 12:06:37

    MR. TODD KLIMANFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington D.C., welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Todd Kliman sitting in for Kojo. We've all heard jokes about the fact that the nation's capital was built on a swamp, but is it a fact? Each year, millions of visitors pour into Washington D.C. to take a tour and see the sites, but many of the staples of D.C. history they hear, from where George Washington slept to why there's no J Street, have little basis in fact.

  • 12:07:12

    MR. TODD KLIMANThe many urban legends about the district have been embroidered and quoted over the years and many have taken on the ring of truth. In his new book, long time tour guide and author Robert Pohl, takes on the city's most colorful myths and finds that the truth maybe stranger than fiction. Robert Pohl's new book is "Urban Legends and Historic Lore of Washington D.C." Thank you for joining us in the studio.

  • 12:07:34

    MR. ROBERT POHLHi, you're welcome.

  • 12:07:36

    KLIMANYou've written that some of the most popular and persistent stories about this city happen to not be true. So as we slog through another Washington summer of sometimes oppressive humidity, I guess the obvious place to start is is there an explanation for that humidity? Was the Capitol built on a swamp?

  • 12:07:56

    POHLIt was not. There are small areas in D.C. that were swamp-like. First of all, along the riverfront, both the Potomac and Anacostia, are -- rise and fall with the tides in the Chesapeake Bay so you have these areas that are very much swamp-like. And then, there's some areas where there's a significant number of springs coming out of the water, Swampoodle just north of Union Station is one of those as well.

  • 12:08:29

    POHLSo you had areas that were swamp-like, but that's about 1 percent of the entire area of D.C., according to people who have spend years researching this. I just basically cribbed off their research, but fortunately people have been far more careful about this than I so I've managed to learn a lot from them. Most of D.C. actually looked like the land at Congressional Cemetery. If you've been out there, you'll know it's short rolling hills sort of rise up off the Anacostia River there.

  • 12:09:09

    POHLAnd that's really what all of D.C. looked like. Yes, there were higher places like Capitol Hill, but much of the city has been regraded and it did not look like a swamp. Now, the one thing -- and this is why I get a lot of pushback on this is that the area was referred to as a swamp, particularly in the early 19th century. And the reason for that is that the word swamp isn't necessarily the word swamp as we use it today.

  • 12:09:44

    POHLIt was not how they saw it back then. For us, a swamp is an area with standing water with growth out of it and some higher land that you can walk on, some stuff that looks like higher land that you can't walk on and a lot of water. That's a swamp, according to the current definition. But in the early 19th century, swamp could just mean an area with -- overgrown with weeds or something like that or with scrub brush.

  • 12:10:14

    POHLAnd so a lot of D.C. did look like that because what happened is that after 1790 and before the city -- before the federal government moved to the city, you cleared a lot of land and then kind of left it because it didn't grow as quickly as everyone had hoped. A lot of people went broke back then. And because of that, a lot of this land was unused so it re-grew and it just got covered with scrub brush.

  • 12:10:37

    POHLAnd that is what they called swamp. Finally, also, and related, there's the situation of the roads. Back then, of course, they weren't nicely tarmaced like they are today or should be today.

  • 12:10:50

    KLIMANA lot of mud.

  • 12:10:51

    POHLThere's a lot of mud.

  • 12:10:52

    KLIMANGooey mud.

  • 12:10:52

    POHLExactly. And so, again, people referred to that. There's a great quote about how -- I think it's the Pennsylvania Avenue, is the Great Serbonian Swamp or it's like the Great Serbonian Swamp. Now, I don't know where or what the Great Serbonian Swamp is, but it doesn't sound very good and I can imagine that a road that has been grated and cleared but not otherwise -- otherwise had stones or tarmac, obviously, added to it would be pretty swampy.

  • 12:11:23

    POHLSo the swamp that we're referring to today is not the same swamp that they were referring to back then.

  • 12:11:29

    KLIMANThat's fascinating. The way a word changes over time and yet the story stays the same.

  • 12:11:35

    POHLRight, exactly, exactly.

  • 12:11:37

    KLIMANWe're taking calls. What's the most intriguing historical tale you've heard about D.C.? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at kojo@wamu.org or get in touch with us through our Facebook page or you can tweet us at kojoshow. In a way, you could say that urban legends are kind of the original "going viral," only they went viral and have stayed viral.

  • 12:12:04

    KLIMANSo what makes a story an urban legend? What enables it to endure?

  • 12:12:09

    POHLSo people have been researching urban legends for years and, in fact, sort of one of the reasons I got interested in it was reading books by, like, Jan Harold Brunvand. And, in fact, he draws a direct line to the fairy tales of centuries past and so often, you know, these are called modern fairy tales or something like that. And what makes them interesting, what keeps them going is the strength of the story that people like -- people like stories.

  • 12:12:48

    POHLAnd they like good stories and they like stories with morals and they like stories where the bad guy gets his comeuppance and that sort of thing.

  • 12:12:58

    KLIMANNeat, tidy, clean stories.

  • 12:12:59

    POHLNeat, exactly. And so what ends up happening is that a story will sort of be modified over time and instead of, you know, you sort of think that, oh, okay, everybody makes, you know, adds something or leaves something out and that kind of stays in the center. You know, the wisdom of crowds thing about how everybody, you know, says air ball at exactly the same pitch. You'd think that that's what would happen, but no.

  • 12:13:27

    POHLBecause of people liking strong stories, the shift is always going to be towards the more dramatic, the more -- the scarier or whatever. Now the stories that I tell aren't actually perfect urban legends or real urban legend, actually tends to not have any basis in truth and tends not to be localized nearly as much as this.

  • 12:13:54

    POHLSo you'll hear the same story, but coming from many different places. The classic urban legend about the guy who wakes up after he's met a young woman in a bar and he wakes up the next day in a bathtub filled with ice and he calls the police and they say, yeah, check your back. Do you have two big scars there? And he says, yes, indeed. And they're like, oh, well, you just got your kidneys stolen.

  • 12:14:20

    POHLThat story tends to get told about whatever area people are scared of. So here in the United States, you tend to hear it about Mexico. In Germany, particularly -- I lived in Germany in the '90s and the scary place back then was Poland, which was changing dramatically and a lot of, you know, a lot of issues were coming because of that.

  • 12:14:41

    POHLAnd so, of course, it was some guy who went to Poland and met a young woman and woke up without his kidneys. So these stories sort of float around the world and get told about...

  • 12:14:54

    KLIMANWith slight variations according to the region it's in, yeah.

  • 12:14:56

    POHLWith slight variation according to the region, exactly, exactly. And, of course, you know, my stories are very much D.C. based so.

  • 12:15:04

    KLIMANIt's so fascinating, this idea of the fear becoming the thing that catalyzes everything.

  • 12:15:11

    POHLRight, right, right. Another strong element of urban legends in general, and again, not much here, is that bad things tend to happen to people who break societies rules, whether written or unwritten or whatever. But, you know, the people that do something contrary to accepted practice, they're the ones that...

  • 12:15:39

    KLIMANThat get their comeuppance, right.

  • 12:15:39

    POHLGet their comeuppance, exactly.

  • 12:15:41

    KLIMANAnd so there's that moral dimension that the story becomes a way for the community to reinforce its (unintelligible)

  • 12:15:47

    POHLAbsolutely, absolutely.

  • 12:15:48

    KLIMANHow is it that even after some of these myths have been debunked, they still live on? And many tour guides, for instance, continue to pass them off as truth.

  • 12:15:58

    POHLBecause they're good stories. But let me tell a longer story here because I think it really gets to the heart of the problem here. So I was researching the story about Ulysses S. Grant and the Willard Hotel and lobbyists there. And I'll tell it in just a second. So what happened was that I had a tour that was starting at the Willard Hotel and so I had a group together and, you know, we're waiting for the last couple of people so I figure I can start talking now since I'd just been researching this and I'm in the Willard Hotel, in the lobby of the Willard Hotel.

  • 12:16:36

    POHLI was like, okay, perfect. You know, this is the time to tell it.

  • 12:16:38

    KLIMANSo much history.

  • 12:16:39

    POHLSo much history right here. And so I start. So, you know, the story's always been that Ulysses S. Grant as president didn't like hanging out in the White House so after dinner he'd come right here to the Willard Hotel and hang out and, you know, smoke a cigar. And people found out that this was the case so they would come to the lobby of the Willard Hotel to ask him for favors or whatever else one asks of the president.

  • 12:17:05

    POHLAnd it's because of this that the word lobbyist -- that's where the word lobbyist comes from. Now, this has debunked for a long time, I continued. People have pointed out that the word lobbyist goes back to well before President Grant took office in 1869 and, in fact, one of the greatest takedowns of lobbyists in general was written by Olivia right before he took office.

  • 12:17:32

    POHLSo it clearly is -- not only is lobbyist was thing when he took office, but even the sort of negative connotations were there. But what about the fact that he hung out in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. And I was trying to find, you know, the source for this and I discovered a book from, I think, it's 1954 talking about the Willard Hotel and it quotes a newspaper from 1869 in which it says that, you know, in the evenings Grant comes to the Willard Hotel.

  • 12:18:01

    POHLAnd so that, you know, seemed to be fairly clear. The only thing is that I hadn't found any other indications that he's spent time there. So I happened to down at Washingtoniana, Martin Luther King Library, spent a lot of time there, and I found that newspaper that they were quoting and realized that they had misquoted it entirely.

  • 12:18:20

    POHLThey'd made things up out of whole cloth. And, in fact, he had gone -- he would go riding after dinner. He did not go to the Willard Hotel. So basically, I was very, very excited at this point. I mean, I'm telling this story to this group. I'm very excited. I've managed to really, you know, really find everything about the story that seems worth talking about...

  • 12:18:40

    KLIMANYou're right there with him.

  • 12:18:40

    POHLI'm right -- well, yeah, until the woman in the back raises her hand and says, what was the story at the beginning? That's the one I want to tell. Yeah, and that's when I realized that it may be slightly hopeless what I'm doing here, but I had a great time doing it anyway, so.

  • 12:18:54

    KLIMANDestroying people's fantasies.

  • 12:18:56

    POHLExactly. And wrecking their good stories, you know, so.

  • 12:19:00

    KLIMANWe have got stories that are too good to be true and we want them desperately to be true.

  • 12:19:06

    POHLExactly.

  • 12:19:06

    KLIMANWe're gonna continue our conversation after a short break. Stay tuned.

  • 12:21:02

    KLIMANWelcome back. We're talking with Robert Pohl, a D.C. tour guide and the author of "Urban Legends and Historic Lore of Washington, D.C." You've talked about the way these stories become legend. They get perpetuated and they take on a life of their own and they live on through decades, and sometimes centuries. Does it benefit the tale teller to perpetuate an untruth, a myth?

  • 12:21:28

    KLIMANFor instance, a tour guide who knows the best way to score a tip maybe is to stir his group of tourists toward some great and fantastical tale or a rich story that's richly -- even more richly embroidered that is going to move people to pathos?

  • 12:21:49

    POHLThe -- I don't know directly. I do know that whether, you know, for tour guides, I certainly know where my laugh lines are. And I'm sure that is sort of the same thing, the stories -- you know which stories are selling and all that. But in fact, there's been research done, again, on stories and why people tell stories. And it's very much a making connections. Telling stories to each other is a way of making a connection with another person. So, yeah, there's -- that's what I'm trying to do when I'm tour-guiding.

  • 12:22:29

    POHLNow, what I, of course, try to do is add the fact that it's actually true what I'm saying, in most cases, when I'm doing that. But, yeah, I mean, I think that a tour guide would know which stories are coming across well, which ones get a reaction and, yeah, those tend to be the urban legends because they're the ones that are good stories. So, yeah.

  • 12:22:55

    KLIMANWe have a call on the line from Andrew, who has an interesting twist on the J Street story, which is one of the more famous urban legends in D.C. Andrew, you're live on the air.

  • 12:23:08

    ANDREWHey, can you hear me?

  • 12:23:09

    POHLYeah.

  • 12:23:09

    KLIMANI can hear you.

  • 12:23:09

    ANDREWOkay. So I've always heard that the reason there's no J Street was because Pierre L'Enfant, who designed the city, had a girlfriend and they broke up and he was scorned by the fact that they broke up. So he omitted the letter J. Is there any truth to that?

  • 12:23:27

    POHLNo. Actually that's an interesting variant of the story that I had not heard yet. The story -- the stories that I'd heard were that it was somehow related to John Jay, who was the chief justice of the Supreme Court at the time. And that Jay had stolen L'Enfant's girlfriend or something like that. Or that he was -- he didn't like -- that L'Enfant didn't like the way that Jay had negotiated the treaty -- some treaty or other.

  • 12:24:03

    POHLNow, the problem was that Jay wasn't even in Washington while L'Enfant was here. And so there was absolutely no overlap there. But the idea that it would be the girlfriend of him that would cause that, I like that. That's a good one. But, no, the actual -- the fact of the matter is that back in the 18th century, the letters I and J were considered interchangeable. If you look at a dictionary of the time, it will simply -- it will combine the words beginning with those letters into one segment simply labeled "I."

  • 12:24:43

    POHLAnd so, for instance, I found a dictionary that was -- that may well have been the one that L'Enfant had lying around his house when he did this, that -- when you start under "I," actually the first dozen words begin with "J," and it's only the 13th that is (unintelligible) something like that. I don't know. I can't even pronounce it. But so the bottom line is that "I" and "J" were kind of considered the same letter at the time. And so there was absolutely no reason to have two separate streets with that.

  • 12:25:21

    POHLObviously, it -- the two looked kind of similar and so having them next to each other would be a problem. In fact, we still see that to some extent, that issue today, when very often people will write Eye E-Y-E Street, because I Street could also be a lower case "L" or it could be a one or something like that. So to try to make sure that "I" is clearly that letter, than you do something about it.

  • 12:25:46

    POHLNow, there is a Jay Street in D.C. It's actually a J-A-Y Street. It's out in Northeast D.C., almost on the Maryland border, but there is a Jay Street. So -- and I believe it's actually named after Justice John Jay. So he gets back in there somehow.

  • 12:26:03

    KLIMANHe gets his street, but it's in an obscure part of town.

  • 12:26:05

    POHLExactly.

  • 12:26:06

    KLIMANWe're talking with Robert Pohl, a D.C. tour guide and the author of "Urban Legends and Historic Lore of Washington, D.C." Do you have any Washington stories you'd like Robert to confirm or debunk? You mentioned and the caller mentioned Pierre L'Enfant. There's so many stories about L'Enfant and his disdain for this country and this city. In your poking into this, this prying into these stories, this research, how much of that is true? How much of that reputation is deserved?

  • 12:26:38

    POHLThere's absolutely no doubt in my mind that Pierre L'Enfant was not an easy person to deal with. That's why he got fired from his work here in D.C. I also think that he was quite brilliant and he -- his plan, I mean, the remarkable thing is that today, almost 250 years after he made this plan, we refer to it continually whenever we're making a change in D.C. We're like, "Well, how does that fit with L'Enfant's plan?" I think that's sort of a remarkable statement about the guy.

  • 12:27:18

    POHLAs I said, he was difficult to work with. He -- one of the most famous things he did -- in fact, this is why he got fired, is Daniel Carroll, of Duddington -- so this is just southeast of the capital -- built a house in the middle of what is today New Jersey Avenue and what was in the time New Jersey Avenue as Pierre L'Enfant had drawn it on a map, but certainly didn't exist. I mean this is all empty fields back then.

  • 12:27:48

    POHLWell, Carroll had this building built and -- or begun at least. And L'Enfant was incensed and he actually sent people out in the middle of the night to tear it back down. Now, the problem is that here you have this guy who's quite a famous person in D.C. He's quite an important person in D.C. And suddenly he has this building torn down. It's unsurprising that L'Enfant got fired because of that.

  • 12:28:16

    POHLNow, I think that, from everything that I've read, L'Enfant's always very proud of the city and he enjoyed the laying out of it. The famous story about -- or the letter that he wrote to Washington after he found Capitol Hill and declared it a pedestal waiting for a monument, certainly indicates somebody who actually, you know, he really enjoyed what he was doing and was really…

  • 12:28:42

    KLIMANThe building of this…

  • 12:28:43

    POHLExactly.

  • 12:28:44

    KLIMAN…possibly great city. Sure.

  • 12:28:45

    POHLExactly. And, I mean, grandiose. I mean the city didn't really become -- it didn't really grow into the plan until -- I don't know -- the beginning of the 20th century. So it -- which is sort of remarkable. I mean the guy had vision. And so -- but, yeah, he must not have been an easy person to work with.

  • 12:29:05

    KLIMANWe've got an email from a woman named Ann, who says, "I've heard that the shields on the statues around Union Station were added to cover the statues' private parts. True or not true?"

  • 12:29:16

    POHLI have not heard that one.

  • 12:29:19

    KLIMANWell, you got another book in you.

  • 12:29:20

    POHLI got another -- yeah. Well, I mean, to be honest, one of the things that I enjoy about talking about the book is that I hear these new stories. I really don't know. I really would have to look at that. I'm -- I wouldn't be surprised. But then it's also the question where along in the process was it decided to put the shields in. You know, the story, it sounds as if they were about to unveil it and then they go, like, "Oh, no. We better put these shields there." Which is extremely unlikely because how do you add stone to the front of something?

  • 12:29:58

    POHLBut did somebody originally say, "Oh, yeah, we want naked people." And then somewhere along the lines someone said, "Oh, yeah, maybe not." It's certainly possible. I'd have to look into that.

  • 12:30:07

    KLIMANBut sometimes there's just enough that sounds like it could be the reason and that becomes…

  • 12:30:12

    POHLThat's exactly right. That's exactly right.

  • 12:30:15

    KLIMANSure.

  • 12:30:15

    POHLAnd I mean, you know, you think about the statues at the Department of Justice that what's-his-name, Reagan's attorney general, had -- Meese. Wasn't it Meese who had those covered?

  • 12:30:29

    KLIMANI think it was later. It was Ashcroft.

  • 12:30:32

    POHLWas it Ashcroft? It was. That's right. See, and that's how these things change. It's like I had the -- I know it's an attorney general of some Republican president. And Reagan, of course, is the more -- so boom. I suddenly…

  • 12:30:44

    KLIMANIt's within a 20-year period.

  • 12:30:45

    POHLRight, right, right. So suddenly the story has changed. And…

  • 12:30:48

    KLIMANAnd in 100 years it may be told as Ed Meese.

  • 12:30:51

    POHLExactly. So that's a real problem.

  • 12:30:54

    KLIMANHave you ever taken a tour of any of D.C.'s historic sites? And have you ever heard a D.C. tour guide make a claim that you don't believe? You can call us at 1-800-433-8850. Or email us kojo@wamu.org. You can get in touch with us also on our Facebook page or by sending us a tweet to @kojoshow. I want to get to one of the legends that I grew up hearing that delighted me endlessly, which was that Fidel Castro was offered a contract to play ball with the Washington Senators.

  • 12:31:27

    KLIMANAnd that had his curve ball had a little bit more curve in it, and had his fast ball just a little bit more zip, history might have turned out differently. Did I grow up believing a myth?

  • 12:31:38

    POHLI'm afraid you did.

  • 12:31:39

    KLIMANYou're crushing my childhood.

  • 12:31:40

    POHLI know, I know, I know. There's -- yeah, this was an interesting story to research. Fortunately somebody did the real heavy lifting on this and actually went back to the newspaper archives of Cuba from the '40s and '50s. And tried to find any indication of Fidel Castro having pitched anywhere. And the answer was no. He found one game -- an intramural game at the University of Havana, I believe -- where an F. Castro pitched a game.

  • 12:32:20

    POHLI believe he lost. It's in the book, but I think he lost the game. So anyway, that's the closest that anyone's ever come to actually seeing Castro playing in an organized baseball game. Now, I believe that the genesis of the story comes from this guy who was a scout for the Senators. And he realized that Cuba was enormous talent pool. So essentially move to Cuba and became known for the guy who, you know, if anybody hit the ball out of the infield he would hear about it.

  • 12:33:00

    POHLAnd so he is the one that told this story, that, yeah, I almost got Castro. But my suspicion is that he was, I mean, he was kind of a dodgy character anyway. He certainly had his methods and I think he brought a lot of great player to Washington. But he also -- he was -- he liked to tell a story, too. And the fact is that, you know, it became known that Castro was a baseball player. He, in fact, would later play with a team they called Los Barbudos, the bearded ones.

  • 12:33:40

    POHLAnd he -- really, he loved baseball. There's no doubt about it. And so then, you know, this guy felt like, oh, well, if he was a baseball player in the '40s and '50s, well, then I should have known about him. And so I think that's where the story came from, is that he kind of liked to show that, oh, yeah, yeah, I passed on him because he didn't have what it took, rather than saying the honest thing, which is like, I'd never heard of this guy before. And so I think it's him trying to…

  • 12:34:07

    KLIMANConnect these dots. Right?

  • 12:34:09

    POHLYeah, and to bolster his own knowledge of…

  • 12:34:12

    KLIMANSure.

  • 12:34:12

    POHL…Cuban baseball that made that happen. Now, what's fun is that Castro did actually get the opportunity to play for the Senators when he came through as the new head of state from Cuba. This was before the Cuban Missile Crisis. And when Castro sort of took the -- Cuba into the umbrella -- under the umbrella of the Soviet Union. He came to the United States to try to convince them that he was the rightful president of the country.

  • 12:34:50

    POHLAnd somebody offered him the, you know, said, "Hey, you want to come play? The Senators are playing today." And he begged off. And I would be surprised that was partially because Mickey Mantle was playing that day. So I think he would have gotten pretty much destroyed.

  • 12:35:06

    KLIMANAnd U.S. history might have turned out even differently from that.

  • 12:35:07

    POHLExactly.

  • 12:35:09

    KLIMANWe've got a call from Sherry, in D.C., who has a twist on the story of Grant and the Willard Lobby. Sherry, are you with us?

  • 12:35:20

    SHERRYGood -- thank you. Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call. I had also heard that story or read it I believe in a brochure. But I read that it was President William Howard Taft who sat in the lobby of the Willard Hotel and people would come to ask him favors, not Grant. And I think President Taft lived -- before he became president -- I think he lived in the Willard Hotel. So that -- yeah, the version I -- of that story I heard was that it was President William Howard Taft who, yeah, who was in the lobby. And that's where the term lobbying started, you know, came from.

  • 12:35:56

    POHLWell, the fact of the matter is that Taft was president 30 years after Grant. So that makes it even less likely. It's interesting though to hear. I mean, Taft certainly…

  • 12:36:10

    SHERRYActually, I think it makes it more likely.

  • 12:36:13

    POHLWell, the problem is that the term lobbyist, as I said, I found uses of that in 1845 and probably goes even earlier in Great Britain. So the fact is that Taft didn't -- Taft wasn't responsible for the word lobbyist. Now, whether Taft spent time in the Willard Hotel, I don't know. It's quite possible that he stayed in the hotel before he became president. And Taft, of course, is responsible for two great legends.

  • 12:36:48

    KLIMANRight. You've got a great story that I think most of us who pass through D.C. and actually have been here for some time have heard -- the bathtub story.

  • 12:36:58

    POHLThe bathtub story. Exactly. So the story is that William Howard Taft, who was a big guy. Let's not mince words here. He got stuck in the White House bathtub on Inauguration Day, no less. And it took six men and a pound of butter to get him back out of it so that he could go and be inaugurated. Now, there's all sorts of flaws with that story. The first being that he wouldn't have been in a bathtub in the White House before inauguration, but the fact is that Taft knew exactly the issues that he had with bathtubs.

  • 12:37:35

    POHLAnd he would take showers if he was at all worried that the bathtub was too small. He had a special bathtub built for him, which he used in a ship before he became president. There used to be a much longer time between the election and the inauguration. So plenty of time to go take a long trip down to South America in a U.S. warship. And he actually had this bathtub built into that. There's pictures of it with four people sitting in it, quite comfortably, no less.

  • 12:38:08

    POHLI mean, this was a good-sized Jacuzzi. And actually much deeper than most Jacuzzis. So an impressive piece of equipment. The other thing is, like I was saying earlier, about how urban legends tend to get localized. And I found at least four different places in the United States, you know, hotels in different places, where Taft got stuck in the bathtub. So it's…

  • 12:38:33

    KLIMANIt's George Washington slept here with a perverse twist.

  • 12:38:36

    POHLExactly. And actually, he did manage to flood out a hotel somewhere up in the Northeast after his presidency, apparently the bathtub wasn't quite as big as he thought. And so water leaked over the sides and went -- started going down the stairs there and he had to go and apologize to all the people in -- that were trying to eat breakfast downstairs, afterwards. Everyone took that with a very good humor apparently.

  • 12:39:07

    KLIMANWe have Jenifer on the line. And Jennifer has a question that I've actually never heard before. And maybe our guest has never heard it before either. Jenifer Street -- you're going to tell us what is so unusual about Jenifer Street. Jenifer, are you on the line?

  • 12:39:28

    JENIFERYes. I'm sorry. Yes. So Jenifer Street is spelled with one "N."

  • 12:39:32

    POHLRight.

  • 12:39:33

    JENIFERI am a Jenifer with one "N." It, as you probably know, is an atypical spelling.

  • 12:39:38

    POHLRight.

  • 12:39:39

    JENIFERBut I think that in the hospital my mother sort of had a lapse or she just assumed that she was naming me after a street or that she thought that's how you spelled Jennifer. So I was curious -- because I've spent my life having to correct people on the spelling -- if you knew why Jenifer Street has only one "N."

  • 12:39:57

    POHLNo. Actually I do not. And, in fact, that would be interesting, too. Now, the streets up there, they tend to be famous -- the last names of famous people or important people, I guess. And so, I'm going to guess that it's somebody's last name. If anyone knows better, call in. But that's what -- that's where those tend to come from. And, of course, what happens is that people were important were these streets were laid out.

  • 12:40:35

    POHLAnd so everybody kind of knew who they were. And, you know, 100 years, 150 years later, nobody has any idea of who they were. My favorite in that regard is if you go to Arlington Cemetery, there's a very elaborate gravestone. And everybody going by that, like, stops and asks me who this person was and I have no idea, somebody who's important 120 years ago. But now, who knows? It's the Weeks Memorial just before you get to JFK grave.

  • 12:41:04

    POHLAnd, in fact, Weeks was, I think, actually a secretary of state or something like that in the early 20th century. Anyway, so Jenifer, I assume, is the last name of somebody who was important at some point.

  • 12:41:15

    KLIMANLost to history.

  • 12:41:15

    POHLRight.

  • 12:41:16

    KLIMANOr maybe not. We'll find out with your next book.

  • 12:41:17

    POHLWe'll find, exactly. Exactly, I'm taking notes here.

  • 12:41:20

    KLIMANWe're going to continue our conversation with Robert Pohl, author of "Urban Legends and Historic Lore of Washington, D.C." after a short break. Stay tuned.

  • 12:43:09

    KLIMANWelcome back. I'm Todd Kliman of Washingtonian magazine, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Robert Pohl, author of "Urban Legends and Historic Lore of Washington, D.C." And we are getting some wonderful emails coming in. From Anthony, "I was told by an intern giving a tour of Capitol Building that a painting was by Mussolini." We've got one from Mary, "Is it true that the lawn font design for D.C. leaves open a space for the devil to get through per the requirements of the masons?"

  • 12:43:40

    KLIMANAnd one from Laura in Cheverly, MD, "I attended Catholic University and the rumor was that exorcisms were once performed there. True?"

  • 12:43:51

    POHLOkay. First of all, Constantino Brumidi drew -- painted the paintings in the Rotunda or the most -- important ones there, not Benito Mussolini.

  • 12:44:00

    KLIMANBut Italian.

  • 12:44:01

    POHLBut Italian, yeah, exactly. So...

  • 12:44:03

    KLIMANClose enough.

  • 12:44:04

    POHLYeah. The mount -- I really wish that they would give every intern a copy of my book when they start work before they start giving tours. I'm not sure that this would get caught by that but maybe somewhat -- maybe they would -- there would be slightly better tours given by the interns. So, wait, the next one -- oh, yes, the devils and the masons. Okay, that's a new one on me. In fact, actually, I sort of didn't look at the whole Masonic business at all.

  • 12:44:43

    POHLI think that my next book or if I write another urban legends book, I will have an entire chapter on the masons. But I just didn't get around to that. The closest I did is that there's actually 33 chapters -- 33 legends that I look at in my book. That's my nod to the masons there. But as far as that's concerned, no. There's a lot of stories about why the city was laid out the way it was.

  • 12:45:10

    POHLAnd the one that I've heard is that the circles were built so that it would be easier to defend the city. It's a little bit different from keeping -- letting the devil go through. But the fact of the matter is that what Pierre L'Enfant was trying to do was make nice sight lines. And you can definitely still see that today. One of my favorite views in D.C., if you go at Maryland Avenue, right there at the end the hotel there.

  • 12:45:46

    POHLAnd you turn towards the Capitol and you see right down -- Maryland Avenue sort of it's broken up multiple times between there, but you have a straight view of the Capitol. It's a really nice view there. And you'll see that in a lot of different places along the way. And that's actually what L'Enfant was trying to get at. And as far as the circles themselves, well, they're kind of, you know, if you're going to run avenues at angles through the city, you're going to get a lot of intersections.

  • 12:46:17

    POHLAnd the obvious thing to do there is the circles. L'Enfant's plan, and you can read this on the plan itself, was that each one of these circles or squares or whatever where you have these big intersections would be named after a state and that that state would buy the land around that and that they would be responsible for that. And so, each state, the idea being that the states would have a little competition there about how nice they could make the circle or square.

  • 12:46:46

    POHLAnd that, you know, that would be less that the city would have to deal with as far as upkeep is concerned. So the real answer is that the avenues are made for sight lines and people believe that the changes that were made after L'Enfant actually destroyed some of his plan there. And the second thing is that the circles, the idea was that those would be used by the states. Of course, the only thing that we ended up with there is that the avenues themselves were named after the states.

  • 12:47:19

    KLIMANVery complicated. And I'm sure he never envisioned all this traffic pouring through and all these confounded drivers coming from other states.

  • 12:47:26

    POHLExactly, exactly.

  • 12:47:29

    KLIMANWe have Susan on the line in Bethesda. And Susan believes she has the answer to the spelling of Jenifer Street.

  • 12:47:36

    POHLAll right, let's hear it.

  • 12:47:38

    KLIMANSusan, are you with us?

  • 12:47:39

    SUSANYes, I am.

  • 12:47:40

    KLIMANGo ahead.

  • 12:47:41

    SUSANOkay. I'm originally from Waldorf, MD and there is a primary school, I think elementary or middle school that is named Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer spelled with one N. And I believe that he is a signer of the Declaration of Independence or possibly the Constitution.

  • 12:47:56

    POHLOh, that sounds very likely. And, yes, and now, the question is, of course, where did that name come from but that gets it to...

  • 12:48:06

    KLIMANThat I don't know what St. Thomas Jenifer means, but I called, you know, with the one N and it corresponded with the street in northwest that is with the one N.

  • 12:48:14

    POHLRight. and I mean, of course, the problem was that finding names of people beginning with J isn't that easy, especially it had to be three syllables. So you can use Jefferson, there's not that many. I mean, J is just not that popular a letter. So, yeah, that sounds extremely likely.

  • 12:48:34

    SUSANOkay.

  • 12:48:35

    POHLThank you so much.

  • 12:48:36

    KLIMANThank you.

  • 12:48:37

    SUSANSure thing. Bye.

  • 12:48:38

    KLIMANI imagine that the job of tour guide is part teacher, part entertainer and probably a little bit scout leader. Is that at all close to the reality? And if so, how do you juggle those roles?

  • 12:48:52

    POHLThat's -- let me put it this way, first of all, yes, you're absolutely correct. I mean, I'm constantly juggling and time management is probably the biggest thing. Trying to see the maximum number of sites in the city given the parameters of when things are open and rush hour and all these other things does take you away from what I always feel my primary job, which is to actually impart information.

  • 12:49:29

    POHLWhich is why I -- the parts of the tour that I most enjoy are when I get to take them out of the bus for an extended of time and go look at a number of memorials, whether, you know, Vietnam, Korea, Lincoln or on the other side there, MLK, FDR, and then Jefferson. And where I finally can sort of tell more of a complete story instead of having to worry about whether the bus needs to take a left or a right at the next corner or whether there's going to be a parking spot for the bus to squeeze into when we get to our next stop.

  • 12:50:07

    POHLSo, yes, also a knowledge of what the park police are currently worried about is definitely part of the job, too. You'll get these frantic messages from fellow tour guides, watch out, there's a guy at Jefferson who's being really careful about it. So make sure you just drop it and run. That kind of thing. So, yeah, there are a lot of parts of being a tour guide. The parts that I enjoy are the actual teaching and telling of stories.

  • 12:50:40

    KLIMANWell, you mentioned teaching. There's probably going to be a time very soon when test-taking will be part of the job. Correct? The federal appeals court tossed out a law...

  • 12:50:52

    POHLYeah. Right.

  • 12:50:53

    KLIMAN...in the District requiring tour guides to pass a test?

  • 12:50:56

    POHLWell, no, no. It's actually the other way around. It's that I actually have to pass a test to become a tour guide. And the idea is to weed out, you know, make sure the people who are giving tours actually kind of sort of know what they're talking about. So it wasn't a very difficult test, but it did -- you know, you did need to kind of know what you were taking about, know your way around D.C. to some extent.

  • 12:51:22

    POHLAnd this actually goes back to about 120 years, I believe. Actually right when tourism sort of became a thing at all. So around the turn of the 19th, 20th century. You would get huckster that would come up to people and say, hey, I'm a tour guide, I can show you around here. And they would know absolutely nothing and basically they're only -- the only thing that they were interested in was pleasing people.

  • 12:51:48

    POHLAnd so that's when the city decided, oh, well, we should have some kind of a minimum competency requirement for tour guides. And since then you've had to take this test. Well, a group, Segway Tours, who apparently like to hire college students or recent grads or whatever and not pay them a lot said that this was infringing upon their First Amendment rights or something like that.

  • 12:52:19

    POHLAnd, of course, you can always find somebody who's willing to argue against government regulation. And so, yes, this decision just came down, which means that you no longer have to get a license. It's a little unfortunate to me, because certainly, you know, obviously I have a license, so, you know. But often when I get -- I will get hired by somebody who really doesn't know who I am.

  • 12:52:45

    POHLBut if I can say, yes, I'm a licensed tour guide, I've been doing this for five years, here are some people that I've worked with, those are all important things for them to know about me.

  • 12:52:54

    KLIMANSure. We're going to go to Linda from Potomac who wants to interrogate the source of a story she's heard for a pretty long time. That source is her mother. Are you with us, Linda?

  • 12:53:08

    LINDAYes, I am. Both of my parents were raised -- born and raised in D.C. and in the early '20s. And I think my mother has always said, and I think it was probably when she was growing up and in her late teens, that -- and before the war -- that if you are a D.C. resident, you were not to use the world allowed. You were not allowed to work for the government. And I do know that there were people of her age that worked for the government printing office.

  • 12:53:39

    LINDAAnd I was recently at a funeral where the person who had died, who was over a hundred had also been born and raised in D.C. and he had written 10 years ago his own eulogy. And in it, he mentions something about I got a job at this point at the government printing office, which was unusual because people living in the District couldn't work for the government.

  • 12:54:05

    POHLInteresting. Yeah, I mean, obviously -- in my research, I found lots of people that were D.C. residents that worked for the government. And what my -- what I believe tended to happen is that you would be -- you would get that job from somebody in the government, a senator, representative, whatever, and that in order to that they had to say that, oh, they're from somewhere else, they're from my town or district or whatever.

  • 12:54:47

    POHLAnd so, Florence Cooble (sp?) was her name. She got a representative into trouble. She worked for someone -- anyway, I'd have to look at some of the stuff. It's quite -- so to sum up, I believe that it is possible that in order to get a job, you had to be brought in by somebody who worked for the government and that in order for them to do so, they had to say, oh, yes, this person is from my district.

  • 12:55:21

    POHLSo that had happened frequently. It wouldn't surprise me at all. After all, you had a large number of well qualified people right here, why bother bringing them from Kentucky if they're right here. So eventually, of course, we got the civil service reform and anything like that was taken away. But as long as getting the government job was kind of a patronage thing, yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if at least nominally that was the rule. Of course there was no representative from D.C. that could hand out any patronage.

  • 12:56:04

    KLIMANYou belong to an internet news group, people who are fascinated by these stories, it's called alt.folklore.urban. I'm interested to know what effect the internet's had on urban legends.

  • 12:56:18

    POHLYou know, it's interesting. You have much better chance of finding out the truth of a legend, but you also much better opportunity to spread these stories. And I'm afraid that the spreading continues to go much more rapidly than the debunking. And so although there's fantastic resources out there, Snopes.com is probably the best of the lot or if you want to see more of the discussion getting there, yeah, definitely login alt.folklore.urban and search them.

  • 12:57:05

    POHLIt's still -- you got to know to go there. And those messages from your crazy uncle keep flowing into your inbox and you know that they're going to everybody else's inboxes as well. So it's -- it made it much easier to research the stuff and find out the real truth. But, unfortunately, it's also a great way to send these messages out. Now, on the positive...

  • 12:57:32

    KLIMANSo it can simultaneously debunk and perpetuate.

  • 12:57:34

    POHLExactly, exactly. And so, certainly when -- one thing that that is good for is that I could find people repeating these stories easily.

  • 12:57:47

    KLIMANWonderful. Well, it's a good place for all our listeners who've written in with wacky and wonderful questions and all of you out there listening to turn to alt.folklore.urban. Robert Pohl, thank you very much. Robert's book, again, is "Urban Legends and Historic Lore of Washington, D.C." Go out and pick it up. I'm Todd Kliman sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.

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