You drop your phone in the toilet. You don’t get the job you wanted. You lose half a million men while retreating from Russia. Everybody has bad days, even Napoleon. Especially Napoleon. You can be sure every date on the calendar has been someone’s bad day. It’s a fact so true that D.C.-based author Michael Farquhar wrote a book about it. “Bad Days in History” is an upbeat catalog of defeats, faux pas and falls from grace that contributed to some very crummy moments. On Sunday at Politics and Prose, he’ll discuss the book and tell audience members the worst thing that ever happened on their birthdays (this reporter’s was the Napoleon thing). In preparation, we asked Farquhar to talk us through some of the worst days in Washington’s history. Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sun., 5 p.m., free.
March 5, 1854
If you visit the Washington Monument today, you’ll see slabs of stone donated by U.S. states that were built into the monument. What you won’t see is a black marble stone from the ruins of the Roman Forum that Pope Pius IX sent for the construction effort in 1854. That’s because of a flash-in-the-pan political party called the “Know-Nothings.” The group was against immigrants and Catholics and feared the pope wanted control of the United States. “These guys are taking Pope Pius’ donation as a declaration of war,” Farquhar says. On March 5, 1854, a group of Know-Nothings forced their way into the construction site and stole the Vatican’s stone. It was never seen again — though some accounts say it’s on the bottom of the Potomac.
February 27, 1859
Today, if a man with a gun chased another man across Lafayette Square, in front of the White House, the Secret Service would tackle him (hopefully). Not in 1859, when on Feb. 27, Rep. Daniel Sickles chased Philip Barton Key II — son of Francis Scott Key — through the square after discovering the younger Key was having an affair with his wife. “It’s the scandal of all scandals,” Farquhar says. “Sickles lives on Lafayette Square, Philip Barton Key shows up outside the house waving a white handkerchief.” This, before the advent of texting, was the signal for Mrs. Sickles to come down for a tryst. Instead, out came an enraged congressman. “He kills him in broad daylight,” Farquhar says. Sickles confessed to the murder and became the first person to use temporary insanity as a defense. It worked.
January 19, 1990
On this morning, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry appeared in court on charges of possessing cocaine. The night before, at a downtown D.C. hotel, a sting operation caught Barry on camera smoking crack cocaine with Hazel Diane “Rasheeda” Moore. That was the night Barry uttered the immortal words “B—- set me up.” “It became a national joke, a worldwide joke, but it wasn’t a joke to D.C.,” says Farquhar, a former Washington Post reporter and editor. Of course, one bad day isn’t the end of the world. And for Barry, it wasn’t even the end of his career. “We always in this country seem to forgive those who seek forgiveness,” Farquhar says. And sure enough, Barry asked the people of D.C. for forgiveness and was elected mayor again in 1994.