The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A curious manuscript sends Tudor Place’s archivist on a history hunt

Tudor Place in Northwest D.C.
Tudor Place in Northwest D.C. (Library of Congress)
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The first clue to the story behind the papers discovered in the basement of the Georgetown mansion was who didn’t write them.

“It was not in any of their handwriting,” said Wendy Kail, the archivist at Tudor Place, home for decades to members of the Peter family. “I know all their handwriting at this point.”

That would be six generations of Peters, starting with Thomas Peter, who married one of Martha Washington’s granddaughters, Martha Parke Custis.

Tudor Place houses many items — correspondence, journals, books and photographs — that trace the history of the family and the city. And then there was the sheaf of papers in a box whose contents had not been collated.

“I saw this on the very bottom of it,” Kail said. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. This looks interesting.’”

The world’s archives, libraries, attics and basements are full of stories that lay dormant in musty documents. Most of those stories won’t rewrite history. But each is a little tile in the mosaic that is the past.

And so it was with Kail’s discovery. The handwriting was on 99 pages of lined 7½-by-9½- inch paper. There was no signature, but it was clear the manuscript was a draft for a visitor’s guide to Washington.

The title page read, “The Federal Metropolis, or: The Story of a Century.” And the preface began: “One hundred and three years have now passed away since the law was adopted by Congress, looking to the establishment of the Federal metropolis on the banks of the river Potomac. It is this fact which has induced the writer to try and prepare a volume that might be in keeping with the event in question, and of interest to the lovers of historic lore.”

There was no name, but on the back cover was a scribble. Kail held the scribble up to a mirror and read a signature: Charles Lanman.

“I think he had just signed something and it bled through,” Kail said of the reversed handwriting.

Charles Lanman turned out to be a successful artist and author who was born in 1819 in Michigan and died in Washington in 1895. To confirm he wrote the manuscript, Kail bought one of his letters from a Delaware bookseller. The handwriting matched.

As a young man, Lanman was what we might today call an outdoors writer. He wrote about his adventures canoeing up the Mississippi and hiking through the Allegheny Mountains. He sketched Native American encampments.

“My idea,” Lanman wrote, “was to cultivate in the minds of the American people, as far as possible, a love for the wonderful scenery of their country, and for art itself.”

In 1848, the editor of the New York Express newspaper hired Lanman and sent him to Washington with the advice, “don’t believe anything that you hear, and not more than one-half that you see.”

Lanman settled in the capital. On June 12, 1849, he married Adeline Dodge. That’s not especially interesting, but this is: Three of Adeline’s siblings also wed that same day. After the quadruple wedding, all four couples left for a joint honeymoon in New York City.

Lanman eventually became the personal secretary to Secretary of State Daniel Webster. One reason Webster hired him: Lanman was a fellow angler. The two would occasionally leave the office and walk to Great Falls to fish together.

In 1859, Lanman began producing biographical directories of congressmen. I find it fascinating that the writer who found such joy in nature early in his career turned to politicians later in it. But perhaps he was just interested in wildlife in its natural habitat, whatever that might be.

Lanman’s life is detailed in an article Kail wrote that is posted on the Tudor Place website. (You can find it at tudorplace.org under “Georgetown and the Federal City” in the “Reading Room” section of “Research & History.”)

But how did the manuscript end up there in the first place? In 1958, the master of Tudor Place was Armistead Peter III. As president of the Progressive Citizens Association of Georgetown, he took an interest in development in the neighborhood. Peter opposed plans to tear down a pair of houses at 30th and P streets NW. One was the house Lanman had lived in.

Peter was unsuccessful in his attempts to stop the demolition, but Kail wonders if he walked over to Lanman’s old home — empty and derelict — and took a souvenir.

“That was kind of my romantic notion, that he found it there at the house before it was destroyed and said to someone, ‘Do you mind if I take this?’ ”

And then he brought it back to Tudor Place and put it in a box, where it sat until Wendy Kail found it.

“It was just something interesting,” she said. “I thought it would take two days [to research]. It was six months. I kept finding little pieces. . . . That’s what I love about the archive.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.

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