26 Jul 2021


Lost Capitol Hill: Tubbing in the Capitol, pt. 1

Montgomery Meigs

Every couple of years, an intrepid Capitol reporter finds themselves down in the subbasement of said building and rediscovers the marble tubs that have been there for some 150 years. They are indeed a relic of an earlier era, from a time when congressmen used the Capitol not only for working, but fighting, smoking, chewing tobacco, eating and drinking.

And, as it turns out, bathing.

The first hint of this came during the expansion of the Capitol in the 1850s. Montgomery Meigs who can be seen above and who was in charge of the work wrote in his diary in 1858 that “Heebner tells me he can import bathing tubs of marble for $80. They ask $300 here.” The firm mentioned was Rice, Baird, and Heebner of Philadelphia, who were the main suppliers of marble for the Capitol extension.

No further evidence shows that it was indeed these bathtubs were installed, though the Office of the Senate Curator in 2000 published a list of items in the Capitol, including two marble tubs of unknown manufacture, “purchased from Rice, Baird, and Heebner, 1860.”

What happened in between is pretty much entirely conjecture. The earliest reference to any bathing facilities in the Capitol is in the 1868 Congressional Directory, which indicates that the House baths are on the crypt level. Later, as of 1874, so are the Senate baths. In both cases, however, this represented the first time that this section of the Capitol was mapped out in the directory, so they may have been there earlier.

Furthermore, these were most likely not the original tubs, as the crypt level is the one floor above the sub-basement.

In 1875, the baths would have their most notorious moment. The Boston Journal reported, and the Portland, Maine, Daily Press reprinted under the headline “Vice-President Wilson Ill” that, on November 10, 1875:

Mr. Wilson came to the Capitol this morning feeling badly, complained of pain about the back and went down to the Senate bath room for a bath.

Henry Wilson being sworn in as Vice President in the Senate chamber (LOC)

The attendant who accompanied him to the bath says that the bath was an unusually hot one. Mr. Wilson came out of it and complained of great pain in his back. Workmen near by procured him a chair and dispatched a messenger for physicians. He was them taken to the barber’s chair and vigorous rubbing begun. Some of the attendants state that he was then unconscious for some time.

Wilson was then moved to the Vice President’s room in the Capitol, dosed with morphine and eventually recovered to the point where he could not only go home, but continue to work. Unfortunately, whatever had struck him on that day eventually led to his death on November 22.

While it does not appear that the hot bath was directly, or indirectly, responsible for Wilson’s death, it became inextricably part of his story. Reliable sources tell of Wilson reappearing as an apparition, fresh from his bath, to various people, including a Capitol police officer standing watch over the body of a Senator lying in state in the Senate Chamber. Others state that they have felt “a damp chill in the air or the smell of old soap,” and attribute that to the ex-Vice President’s non-corporeal form.

Next week: The press gets involved.

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