Washington's Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales—Some of Which Are True

Sorting fact from fiction in the stories Washingtonians love to tell

By: Mollie Reilly

Some say you can see Robert E. Lee’s features carved into the back of Abe’s head at the Lincoln Memorial. All illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham

You may know that DC’s height limit has nothing to do with preventing buildings from overshadowing the Capitol. (A building can be only 20 feet higher than the width of the street it faces; Congress first established a height limit in 1899, mainly out of concern for fire safety in tall buildings.)

But what about Washington’s other myths, legends, and tall tales? We spoke with historians and other local experts, dug through newspaper and magazine archives, and looked at studies and books to sort out the truth behind the area’s famous stories.

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The Rumor: Robert E. Lee’s profile is carved into the back of Abe’s head at the Lincoln Memorial.
The Verdict: False

Look carefully, believers say, and you’ll spot Lee’s features in the tufts of Abraham Lincoln’s marble hair, gazing out toward Lee’s Arlington home. We’re sure if you look even closer, you also may see Santa Claus or Osama bin Laden. According to the National Park Service, any resemblance to the Confederate general was entirely unintended by sculptor Daniel Chester French.

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The Rumor:
There was an exorcism in Georgetown.
The Verdict: Not quite

The Exorcist made a staircase in Georgetown famous, but the real event took place in Mount Rainier, just over the DC line. According to articles that ran in the Washington Post in 1949, a 14-year-old boy in the Prince George’s County town was possessed by the devil—and successfully exorcised by a Catholic priest. Like his female film counterpart, the boy would break into violent tantrums, swear, and chant Latin phrases. (It’s unclear whether he also projectile-vomited à la Linda Blair.) The Post series inspired a Georgetown alum, William Peter Blatty, to write a novel based on the incident, which became the 1973 film.

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The Rumor: The term “Beltway bandits” was coined to describe defense contractors.
The Verdict: False

As Washington became a hub for companies taking advantage of government dollars, this phrase became popular. However, the term has roots predating the era of lucrative contracting deals. When the Beltway opened in the early 1960s, a burglary ring used the new highway as an easy getaway after robbing homes in Virginia and Maryland. A 1968 Washington Post headline referred to one of the indicted thieves as a “Beltway bandit.” According to Safire’s Political Dictionary by the late New York Times columnist William Safire, the term wasn’t used to describe government contractors until the late 1970s.

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Are those really bloodstains on stairs in the Capitol from a murder in 1890? Maybe.

The Rumor: The Washington Redskins have accurately predicted every presidential election since 1936.
The Verdict: True—95 percent of the time.

A winning record is a rare sight at FedEx Field these days—except when it comes to the football team’s ability to forecast the next President. The “Redskins rule” says that if the team wins its last home game before the general election, the incumbent party stays in the White House. And for decades, the rule held true.

Then in 2004, the Redskins dropped a Halloween home game to the Green Bay Packers. According to the pattern, incumbent George W. Bush would lose to John Kerry. Two days later, Bush won, putting an end to the 68-year streak. In 2008, the streak resumed when the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Redskins the day before the election, suggesting that Republicans would lose the White House and Barack Obama wouldn’t be a senator much longer.

We’ll have to wait until 2012 to see—but we bet President Obama will be rooting for the home team next fall.

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The Rumor: Pierre L’Enfant left J Street out of his 1791 city plan to slight his rival, John Jay.
The Verdict: False.

In a city where rules and order are a big part of the local business, it often comes as a surprise to newcomers that there’s no J Street in DC. According to lore, L’Enfant eliminated J Street as an insult to Supreme Court chief justice John Jay—or in some versions, Thomas Jefferson—whom he allegedly didn’t like.

While it’s possible they disliked each other, the real explanation is far less personal: The letters I and J looked too similar, so J was left out to avoid confusion. L’Enfant was fired from the project before the street names were added to the grid; the decision was never his. There is, however, a Jay Street; it runs through the Northeast DC neighborhood of Deanwood.

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The Rumor:
You can see bloodstains on a US Capitol staircase where a congressman was shot and killed.
The Verdict: Maybe.

In 1887, Louisville Times correspondent Charles Kincaid published a story about Representative William Preston Taulbee’s alleged adultery, effectively ending the congressman’s political career. Taulbee became a lobbyist, while Kincaid continued to cover Congress. The men often exchanged harsh words when they ran into each other. The rivalry came to a fatal finale on February 28, 1890, when the two met on a staircase leading from the House of Representatives’ eastern corridor down to the Capitol’s basement. After an argument, Kincaid left to get his pistol, then came back and shot Taulbee in the head.

Are those dark spots on the staircase really left over from the murder? It’s hard to say. In 1966, Architect of the Capitol J. George Stewart released a statement on the matter. He acknowledged that there were stains in the exact place where Taulbee was killed and that the shape of the spots indicated they’d been created by some sort of liquid. However, he stopped short of confirming that they were blood. “These may be [the] bloodstains referred to,” he said, “or it may be one of the many legends which has been perpetuated.”

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The Rumor:
The Wheaton Metro station has the longest escalators in the Western Hemisphere.
The Verdict: True.

At 230 feet, this Red Line stop’s three escalators take about 2½ minutes each to ride. Across the globe, the escalators are eclipsed by those at Moscow’s Victory Park subway station, which span a remarkable 413 feet.

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Look closely and you may spot Darth Vader at Washington National Cathedral.

The Rumor: Ulysses S. Grant invented the term “lobbyist” to describe powerbrokers who approached him while he relaxed in the Willard Hotel’s lobby.
The Verdict: False.

There’s no denying the Willard’s historic legacy—it’s where Martin Luther King Jr. completed his “I have a dream” speech and where Abraham Lincoln stayed prior to his inauguration. And it’s true that while he was President, Grant was known to enjoy a brandy and a cigar at the DC hotel.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “lobbyist” appeared in London’s Cornhill magazine in 1863—Grant was President from 1869 to 1877. The term showed up even earlier in a Wisconsin newspaper and has roots in 17th-century England. Grant may have derided these petitioners as lobbyists, but the word was in use before his cigar-smoking was ever interrupted.

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The Rumor:
Darth Vader can be seen at Washington National Cathedral.
The Verdict: True.

As construction wrapped up in the mid-1980s, Washington National Cathedral invited schoolchildren across the country to design decorative sculptures for the west tower. Christopher Rader of Kearney, Nebraska, submitted a drawing of the Star Wars villain. His design came in third and was placed on the building’s northwest tower along with the other winning entries (a raccoon, a man with large teeth and an umbrella, and a girl with pigtails and braces). On your next visit to the cathedral, be sure to bring binoculars: Darth Vader is near the top of the 234-foot tower.

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The Rumor:
The Maryland/Virginia border is in the middle of the Potomac River.
The Verdict: False.

It’s been a source of contention for years, but the Potomac is Maryland territory—the Virginia boundary ends at the shoreline. The law dates back to an 1877 agreement that granted Maryland control of the river up to the low-water mark on the Virginia shore. In 2003, the boundary made local news when Maryland governor Parris Glendening refused to let Fairfax County extend a water-intake pipe to the river’s middle. The Supreme Court upheld Maryland’s sovereignty but ruled that Virginia was free to make improvements on its shoreline—allowing pipes to extend past the state’s official border.

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The Rumor:
A 13th hand helps raise the flag on the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington.
The Verdict: False.

Felix de Weldon’s bronze depiction of the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima is said to have an extra hand helping raise the flag, meant to represent either the hand of God or all the other Marines who made the moment possible. But there are only 12 hands on the statue—two for each of the six servicemen. According to a Washington Post story, de Weldon was bewildered by this myth. “Thirteen hands. Who needed 13 hands?” he said. “Twelve were enough.”

Next: The real reason there's no Metro in Georgetown

Was hot, humid DC really built on a swamp? Not quite.

The Rumor: No one is really from here.
The Verdict: False.

It’s a common dig at DC that it’s a place of transients with few true locals. But according to US Census data, that isn’t so. The 2005–2009 American Community Survey found that 46 percent of people living in the District were born here. That doesn’t include people who grew up in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs and then moved to DC, so there are a lot more native Washingtonians than many people think.

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The Rumor: A Bible is buried under the Washington Monument—just as Robert Langdon discovered in Dan Brown’s novel The Lost Symbol.
The Verdict: Probably.

Looks like Dan Brown had it right—at least partially. Whether or not the Bible is part of a New World Order conspiracy, a National Park Service spokesman says records indicate that a copy is likely buried in the monument’s cornerstone. Dedicated in 1848, the cornerstone’s time capsule also contains a copy of the Constitution, newspaper clippings, and other documents.

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The Rumor: “Kryptos,” a sculpture at the CIA’s Langley headquarters, features a secret code that remains uncracked.
The Verdict: True.

In 1988, the intelligence agency commissioned DC artist James Sanborn to create an installation for a space between the headquarter’s new and old buildings. Sanborn’s design, a nearly ten-foot-high copper sculpture that resembles paper coming out of a printer, features an 865-character code. People from all over the world set out to decode the message. It took more than seven years for a CIA employee to crack the first three sections, and to this day no one has solved the fourth.

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The Rumor: The District’s traffic circles were designed to stop an invading army.
The Verdict: False.

When you’re stuck in traffic, it may come as a comfort that the city’s many roundabouts have a function beyond throwing a wrench into your travels. It’s often claimed that Pierre L’Enfant included the circles in his plan for the city so that soldiers could position cannons to prevent an enemy attack.

According to Jane Freundel Levey, historian for Cultural Tourism DC, his idea was to sell the circles to the states and have the states set up “embassies” and businesses around their circles. L’Enfant’s vision was overly ambitious—the states were too busy developing themselves to be concerned with developing the capital as well.

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The Rumor: District residents live on a swamp.
The Verdict: Not quite.

Everything from our humid summers to the murky character of certain politicians has been blamed on George Washington’s decision to build the federal city on a swamp. The area has always been water-rich, with tributaries of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and Rock Creek crossing the land where DC now stands. But was it ever a swamp—defined as an area of standing water where trees grow? Historians say the land near the rivers would best be described as a “tidal marsh,” prone to flooding but not technically swampland.

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It’s true some residents didn’t want a Georgetown Metro stop, but there’s more to the story.

The Rumor: The Roman legionnaire statues in Union Station’s main hall have shields to protect their modesty.
The Verdict: True.

The station’s ornate main hall, designed by architect Daniel H. Burnham, opened in 1907. Around the balcony of the 96-foot-high ceiling sit 36 legionnaire figures equipped with decorative shields. The protective gear wasn’t part of Burnham’s original vision. The plaster statues were first cast as nudes. Railroad authorities feared passengers would be offended and insisted that strategically placed shields be added.

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The Rumor: DC’s many equestrian statues indicate how the memorialized person died.
The Verdict: False.

Go on a guided tour of the capital and you’ll likely hear how a horse with one hoof raised means the rider was wounded, two hooves raised reveals that the rider died in battle, and all hooves on the ground indicates that the rider died later in peace. This holds true for some—General Philip Sheridan, who died long after leaving the battlefield, is memorialized on Massachusetts Avenue, Northwest, riding a horse with all hooves down. But many other statues don’t follow the rule.

Take Andrew Jackson, whose statue sits across from the White House in Lafayette Park. His memorial depicts a horse with two hooves raised—suggesting that he died in battle—yet Jackson survived the War of 1812 and went on to be the seventh President.

Where does this misconception come from? Head approximately two hours north, where most of the equestrian statues at Gettysburg adhere to the hoof code.

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The Rumor:
Georgetown residents blocked the construction of a Metro station to keep riffraff out of the community.
The Verdict: False.

Georgetown’s lack of a Metro station is usually chalked up to a classic “not in my back yard” victory. In the 1960s, the story goes, the neighborhood’s residents successfully campaigned against a proposed station because they feared it would bring in criminals from other parts of the city.

According to Zachary Schrag, author of The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, Metro planners did consider a Georgetown station in the early ’60s. And some Georgetowners did express opposition, but Schrag says planners decided to scrap the route for other reasons. Not enough people worked in the neighborhood to make it a commuter hub, and digging under the historic streets would have been problematic, as Georgetown sits too close to the water to build a station deep enough to connect with a Potomac-crossing tunnel.

Schrag notes that the Georgetown Metro opponents may have taken credit anyway.

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The Rumor: Like many other federal buildings here, the White House has a marble facade.
The Verdict: False.

The building is made from Aquia sandstone, a light-gray material from a quarry near Aquia Creek in Virginia’s Stafford County. Because the creek flowed into the Potomac, the stone was relatively easy to transport to the site, and the stone’s malleability made it an ideal building material. After construction was completed in 1800 on what was then called the President’s House, the stone began to discolor and crack. To remedy this, the entire structure was coated in glossy white paint. That’s when the residence became colloquially known as the White House—the name was made official in 1901.

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The Rumor:
While Washington sat under two feet of snow after a 1987 blizzard, DC mayor Marion Barry was enjoying the California sun at the Super Bowl—with the only key to the District’s snowplows in his pocket.
The Verdict: False.

As the Denver Broncos took on the New York Giants in Pasadena on January 25, 1987, DC’s streets sat unplowed and cars were stranded. Barry’s response? According to Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. by Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe as well as other sources, the mayor stayed in LA another day, drinking Champagne and cognac, playing poker, and getting a manicure at the Beverly Hills Hilton. Later that evening, he was taken to a hospital after allegedly experiencing a bad reaction to cocaine at a private party. Meanwhile, Barry’s public-works department bungled the cleanup, enraging snowed-in residents. While there was never a key thoughtlessly stored 3,000 miles away, Barry’s response remains an example of his unique leadership style.

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The Rumor: The Washington Monument’s color changes a third of the way up because that was the high-water mark of a “great flood.”
The Verdict: False.

When construction began in 1848, the monument was privately funded. In 1854, the money ran out. With the start of the Civil War, interest in completing the structure fell by the wayside. It wasn’t until 1879, after Congress appropriated funds, that work resumed. The builders couldn’t find the same stone initially used, so they chose stone that became slightly darker as it weathered. The change starts about 150 feet up.

This article appears in the September 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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