In reading a book on the alleys of Washington D.C., I saw several references to a book entitled A Glimpse At the Night Side of Washington: A Guide-Book to Night Amusements. Obviously, this piqued my interest, and I went off in search of a copy. This turned out to be more difficult than I originally imagined. Despite having being published in 1894, no copies exist online at the usual places such as Google Books, Hathitrust or Archive.org. Instead, the only copy nearby was not only at the Library of Congress, but in their Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room. Fortunately, once I had actually found this room, the desired object was swiftly placed in my hand.
It was quite different from what I had expected: A small pamphlet, some 3 by 6 inches and only 64 pages. Nonetheless, the effort to get it was well worth the reward.
To begin with, the author is intriguing. Listed on the title page simply as “One Who Has Been There” the helpful librarians at the LOC have added two names in pencil: Robert Edwards and Robert Wagner Smiley. While the former name is too generic to allow any further inquiry, the latter is that of a newspaperman turned actor who was active across the country from the early 1890s until the 1920s – though without ever achieving stardom. Smiley was born Robert E. Wagner and lived in 1880 at the Washington Arsenal with his father, who was in the US Army.
The elder Wagner must have died shortly thereafter, for the younger Wagner, who was about 15 at the time, was put in the guardianship of Charles Wesley Smiley (pictured) and added his guardian’s name to his own. While there is no definitive proof that Smiley was the author, his age – mid-20’s – and the fact that he was a newspaperman at the time – his switch to acting seems to have come at the same time as the publication of this pamphlet – all suggest that this was the case.
Let’s now look at Smiley’s actual words. It begins quite innocuously, with the observation that the “Capitol is open on Friday nights during the sessions of Congress, and for the night sessions, which are indicated by the big light on the dome.” Furthermore, the view from the terrace is described as “commanding” and “is a wonderful point from which to view a conflagration in the city.”
Just off Capitol Hill is another spot that is open 24 hours a day – the ladies’ room of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad depot. This is of interest because it is the exact spot where President Garfield was shot in 1881. So far, there is no indication that Smiley really has the goods on the nightlife of the nation’s capital, and certainly not the seamy underbelly thereof.
It does not get better for a while, with a brief description of the cable cars that run all night from the Navy Yard to Georgetown, from which various Capitol Hill sights can be seen: The Marine Barracks, Library of Congress, the Garfield Statue, Peace Monument and the Botanical Gardens. Only when he gets to a list of halls that put on dances and entertainments, including the Odd Fellows on 8th Street SE does one get the sense that he has actually done his homework.
Next week: Death and depredation.