28 Aug 2017


Lost Capitol Hill: Bloodfield

I will be straying off the Hill proper today – just a little bit – for a story that promises gore and depredation in large quantities. It is the history of a small neighborhood just across South Capitol Street from Capitol Hill, with the evocative name of Bloodfield.

The earliest mentions of Bloodfield come in the newspapers in the middle of the 1880s. There is no indication as to the source of the name, though the newspaper reporters of the time seem to assume that their readers will know exactly what was meant by the term. The most likely reason for the name is simply the poverty and lawlessness that permeated the area. The only time the neighborhood or its residents are mentioned in the news is when some new outrage has been committed.

For instance, the earliest use of the name in the Washington Post is in November 1885, when a local police officer was acquitted of having killed a Bloodfield “desperado.”

In fact, it is almost invariably in the context of the police that this area is mentioned. For instance, an 1890 article in the Washington Critic describes Bloodfield as a place “where murder, assault and disorder run riot.”

In general, the newspapers decline to describe the exact whereabouts of Bloodfield, but it seems to have extended south from Virginia Avenue, from the James Creek Canal to South Capitol Street (today, that would be from the SW freeway, Canal Street SW, and South Capitol)

One of the more remarkable stories to come from Bloodfield was reported in 1896. It happened, according to the Washington Morning Times of January 31, 1896, in a public dump in the square bounded by N, O, Half and 1st Streets SW, which was,

[S]urrounded by tenements of the cheapest kind, occupied by poor people. Close by are the foul waters of James Creek canal. Heaps of ashes, waste paper, refuse of many kinds abound.

Among this, “scores of people” dug through the refuse to find “bits of coal and cinders, rags, small scraps of metals, bones, and sometimes a knife, fork or an article of value.” On the previous day, one of the women picking through the dump discovered what appeared to be “a big round bone.” On further inspection, it turned out to be a skull. And not just a skull, but one of a recently deceased person, with bits of hair, skin and viscera attached.

The local beat cop, Officer Knapfer, was called in. He placed “the head in a paper flour sack and searched the dump for other remains, but found none.” Officer Knapfer called in the grotesque find to the local police station. The news was greeted with a resigned, “Bloodfield, again.”

The bridge across the James Creek canal, in Bloodfield (LOC)

Even more remarkable is that there do not appear to be any follow-up articles about the head in later newspapers, so the original owner –and how his head came to be in this dump– will have to remain unknown to us.

A few months later, the same Morning Times reported –during what must have been a slow news day– on the seven tallest policemen in the city. The tallest among them was John T. Kennedy (pic) at six foot six. He was, unsurprisingly, a beat cop in this foul and dangerous corner of the city.

Next week: More death and danger.

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