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The Location: From Hell's Bottom To Murder Bay To Bloodfield

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Map of Washington as the city appeared in 1877 when the Post was founded. Note the old nicknames for various portions of the city.
Historic Washington Post.
Map of Washington as the city appeared in 1877 when the Post was founded. Note the old nicknames for various portions of the city.

After the Civil War, Washington, D.C., was, in short, a mess. And the nicknames for various neighborhoods in the District reflect that chaos.

Kim Bender, writer of The Location blog, recently dug up a Washington Post map, circa 1877, showing neighborhoods with names like Bloodfield, Bloody Hill and Murder Bay. She also found a 1902 Post interview with a "government official" who likened D.C.'s post-war period of "lawlessness and disorder" to that of Cripple Creek, Colo. or Tombstone, Ariz.

"The war had ended," the official said, "leaving stranded in their city a vast hoard of enfranchised slaves, discharged soldiers and a cloud of riffraff, bummers and camp followers, and their arrival soon made this city one of the most disorderly places in America. Fights, murders, stabbings and shooting scraps were of daily occurrence."

Bender says the main problem was that between 1860 and 1870, Washington's population doubled from 75,000 people to 150,000.

"You can imagine the strain on the city's resources," she says. "The police force was reorganized in 1860, and the cops who were on the beats in these different places would only go in pairs. They were afraid to go by themselves, and it seemed like there was an all-out war between the people who lived in these neighborhoods and the police. So the police would arrest somebody, that person would fight back, somebody would end up dead, somebody might end up very injured."

Given that Hell's Bottom is now Logan Circle, Blood Field is now Southwest D.C., etc., obviously the old neighborhood names were eventually replaced. Murder Bay, in fact, became the Federal Triangle. Bender says the old area was more or less a red light district, full of theaters, saloons, brothels and crime.

What prompted the changes, Bender says, was the ascension of civic leader Boss Shepherd at the end of the 19th century.

"I think it had just gotten to a point where the city needed to modernize," she says. "He closed up Washington City Canal. They created modernized sewer systems, and they paved roads. At that point the rest of the world was improving - they were probably trying to do the same, to make D.C. less of a backwater and more of a real city. Once the roads were paved and there were amenities, the money came and sort of changed other parts of the city."

But of course, not all parts of the city changed in the same way or at the same rate.

"It was the fashionable places that changed," Bender says. "The growth moved northwest. But once upon a time, it was still pretty bad. I don't think you would have wanted to walk through Hell's Bottom. Even the people who lived there felt like they were fighting for their lives. That's what one resident said in 1900. He was reminiscing about his life in Hell's Bottom 30 or 40 years earlier, and he said: 'A man had to fight whenever he went into the Bottom.'"

[Music: "Turn Your Face" by John Davis from Title Tracks / "Sink to the Bottom" by Fountains of Wayne from Fountains of Wayne]

Photos: The Location

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