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New Book Explores The 'Wicked' Ways Of Capitol Hill

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Among Robert Pohl’s favorite Capitol Hill scandals is the juicy tale of William Taulbee’s murder at the hands of Charles Kincaid.
Robert Pohl
Among Robert Pohl’s favorite Capitol Hill scandals is the juicy tale of William Taulbee’s murder at the hands of Charles Kincaid.

Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood has long been home to some truly titillating tales and sinful scandals. In the new book, Wicked Capitol Hill: An Unruly History of Behaving Badly, tour guide and local historian Robert Pohl wends his way through some of the juiciest scandals in Capitol Hill's history.

One of his favorite tales concerns Kentucky Congressman William Preston Taulbee, who Pohl says was "born to be a politician."

"He was tall, he was handsome, he was originally a Methodist minister and had the appropriate verbal chops in that regard," Pohl says.

But something else Taulbee had when he was in office in the 1880s, was a mistress.

"He met a young woman named Laura Dodge, who actually lived on the Hill as well: 3rd and A Northeast," Pohl explains. "And they began an affair. Taulbee got her a job at the patent office as a clerk. The top floor was used to house the old patent models, so lots of little corners to hide in up there, and that's where Taulbee and Dodge hid until they were discovered one day."

And the next day, an article ran in the Louisville Times. The headline read: "Kentucky's Silver-Tongued Taulbee Caught in Flagrante Or Thereabouts, with Brown-Haired Miss Dodge, Also of Kentucky. Congressman and Clerk Lunching on Forbidden Fruit and Hidden Waters."

But despite the alluring, if long-winded, headline, no newspapers in D.C. reported the story. Taulbee did end up resigning from Congress, but Pohl says, not in disgrace.

"No, not at all!" he says. "He stayed here in D.C. and he started earning a lot of money. He was also a lawyer; it's another useful thing to be here."

Now, mind you: this is not the end of our titillating tale. Taulbee kept crossing paths with the Kentucky journalist who wrote the aforementioned article: Charles Kincaid.

"The problem was that Taulbee took every opportunity that they met to tweak Kincaid, who was about a foot shorter and sort of about a hundred pounds, soaking wet," Pohl says. "So obviously, in each one of these encounters, Kincaid would come out the worse.

Pohl says at one point, Taulbee warned Kincaid to be armed next time they met. And lo and behold, a few hours later, as Taulbee was emerging from the House chamber, who should emerge but a gun-wielding Kincaid!

"Kincaid shoots him in the face," Pohl recounts. "The bullet goes in [his eye] and it lodged in the back of his skull." Taulbee was rushed to Providence Hospital, now Providence Park, where he died 11 days later. As for Charles Kincaid, he was arrested for murder, but managed to get away with the deed by pleading "temporary insanity."

And while the newspapers pretty much had ignored Taulbee's earlier misdeeds, they were all over his murder for quite a while.

But of course, William Taulbee was old news by the time we reach another of Robert Pohl's favorite scandals: that of John and Rita Jenrette, whose former house is not too far from Providence Park.

In the mid-1970s, John Jenrette, a freshman Democratic representative from South Carolina, fell in love with Rita Carpenter: the director of opposition research for the Republican National Committee. They got married and quickly became the toast of Capitol Hill, until Jenrette was busted as part of a scandal known as Abscam.

"FBI agents went to various representatives, and senators too, and offered them bribes," Pohl explains. "They said they were an Arab sheikh and they wanted to give them money to do whatever."

Jenrette was convicted, quit the House and separated from his wife. But that's not where our scandal begins. Fast-forward to 1980, when Rita Jenrette wrote a juicy tell-all about her and her husband's racy Congressional life for Playboy... oh, and she posed semi-nude for the magazine, too.

"That's when it finally took off as a scandal!" Pohl says. "Up 'til then it was like, yeah, whatever, a representative misbehaving - yeah, whatever! But now, a Congressional wife not only posing for Playboy, but writing salacious tales - that got everybody going!"

Rita Jenrette wrote about stuff like rampant drug use in Congress and raucous hot-tub parties she and her husband attended.

But the most famous part of the story, Pohl says, "was in fact where she wrote about how at the Capitol it was a late-night session, and he got bored, and he called her up and she came over and they had unauthorized nookie on the Capitol Steps!"

In fact, that's where the comedy troupe, The Capitol Steps, got their name! Even though Robert Pohl's book is chockfull of stories like these, he refers to it as Wicked Capitol Hill: "Volume One." He says the book ends in the mid-1980s because "it seems like a good scandal in order to become a good story, you need a certain distance to it. There's another quote I use at the very end, Carol Burnett, something like 'tragedy plus time equals comedy.' And I say it's more like 'scandal plus time equals entertainment.'"

And as Pohl writes in the book's afterword: "In time, today's scandals will be added to the canon of Capitol Hill stories, as well. In the meantime, rest assured that as long as there are people living and working on Capitol Hill, there will be no shortage of new scandals, either."

[Music: "Why Can't You Behave?" by Frank Sinatra from Sinatra Sings Cole Porter]

Photos: Wicked Capitol Hill


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