Local and Lurid: Read All About It
Sunday, August 19, 2007
If you're compiling a list of local scandals a nd the people behind them (and, really, how can you resist?), it quickly becomes clear that the Washington area is a capital region in more ways than one. From Deborah Jeane Palfrey and Jack Abramoff to Robert Hanssen and Marion Barry, there's no shortage of colorful characters whose deeds have set local, and even international, tongues wagging. As it has been around the globe and throughout time, "wherever you've got a lot of money and power concentrated, you're going to find somebody to abuse it," notes Zachary Schrag, a historian and assistant professor of history at George Mason University. No wonder Washington is such a hotbed of hanky-panky.
But just in case you think we live in a particularly scandal-ridden era, we took a look at some of the early -- and lesser known -- names in the local guide book of questionable behavior. Some were victims of their time -- engaging in behavior we'd scarcely bat an eyelash at today -- while others have no one to blame but themselves. Whether they were following their hearts or their wallets -- or something else below the belt -- they'll all be remembered for giving D.C. something to talk about.
Henry Clay (1777-1852)
Dealmaker accused of making a corrupt bargain
Although a Senate committee in 1957 crowned Clay one of the five greatest senators in U.S. history, his persuasive skills sometimes got him into hot water. Take, for example, the presidential election of 1824, a nasty race that failed to produce an electoral-vote majority. The House of Representatives was given the task of deciding who would be president -- Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams or Treasury Secretary William Crawford. Odds were on Jackson, who had won the popular vote and received the most electoral votes. But behind the scenes, Clay -- then speaker of the House and a presidential candidate who was fourth in electoral votes -- was hard at work, persuading fellow members of Congress to put Adams in the White House. Once elected, Adams promptly awarded Clay the position of secretary of state, a move that led to an outcry of quid pro quo. Critics claimed Clay and Adams had struck a deal, and Jackson labeled Clay "The Judas of the West."
Postscript: Clay vigorously denied that any deal had been struck. Still hoping to land the top job, he ran for president again in 1832, losing to Jackson, and in 1844, losing to James Polk.
Margaret 'Peggy' O'Neal Eaton (1799-1879)
Wife who split the Cabinet
Margaret O'Neal Timberlake joined the ranks of the notorious shortly after the death of her first husband, when she tied the knot with John Henry Eaton, a senator and patron of the boardinghouse and tavern owned by her father. Her "friendship" with Eaton before her husband's death had raised some eyebrows, and when her new husband was appointed secretary of war in 1829, a cabal of D.C. political wives had had enough. They disdainfully nicknamed her "Peggy" and closed ranks against her. President Andrew Jackson sided with Eaton, but many members of his Cabinet stuck by their spouses, creating a divide in the executive branch. The acrimonious scandal caused Jackson to replace nearly the entire Cabinet. Eaton went on to become governor of Florida and ambassador to Spain, where his wife was a big hit.
Postscript: After Eaton's death, Margaret married a young dancer who wiped out her fortune, divorced her and eloped with her granddaughter, no doubt leaving her longing for the days when society sniping was her biggest worry.
Baron Alexander De Bodisco (1786-1854)
Elder statesman looking for love (in the schoolyard)
When he arrived in Washington in the late 1830s as the Russian minister, De Bodisco settled into 3322 O St. NW and began meeting the locals. Tops on his list was Harriet Beall Williams, a 16-year-old he pursued romantically, if somewhat awkwardly. (The story goes that he sometimes carried her books to school.) Despite being in his 50s, De Bodisco managed to convince the girl -- and her family -- that marriage was a good idea. The two wed in 1840 in a lavish ceremony that drew the city's elite, including President Martin Van Buren.
Postscript: De Bodisco and his young wife had a happy marriage (and seven children). After his death, she married a younger man.
Daniel Sickles (1819-1914)
Congressman with a deadly temper