The Absolute Weirdest Events That Have Ever Happened in Washington DC

We all know the grandeur that pervades DC history, often involving a big speech like: “[a] date which will live in infamy”; “ask not what your country can do for you... ”; and “I have a dream... 

But, what about history’s strange underbelly? What about the weirder stuff that’s happened here, like that time Fidel Castro was a DC tourist, or when those two guys were almost entombed alive inside a memorial forever. Here are some of the stranger moments that have taken place in the District. 

When a president sparked a gold rush

Year: 1848
Believe it or not, exciting stuff actually used to happen during the State of the Union address -- and besides, it’s not like people had a whole lot else going on. Take James K. Polk’s 1848 address when he confirmed the discovery of gold in California, setting off the treasure-seeking frenzy of the California Gold Rush (news traveled more slowly in those days). If contemporary addresses contained more info on where to find gold, ratings would surely improve. 

When a congressman offed the son of the guy who wrote the national anthem

Year: 1859
According to D.C. tour guide and historian Canden Arciniega, a lovers’ quarrel turned deadly just outside the White House. Daniel Sickles, who was a New York congressman and a prominent Union general, shot and killed Francis Scott Key’s son, Philip Barton Key II, in Lafayette Park for having an affair with his wife, Teresa Sickles. And just like Inigo Montoya, Sickles killed with a declarative speech. Just before shooting Key with a pistol, Sickles said, "Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die." Amazingly, Sickles was found not guilty by reason of insanity -- the first time that this defense was used successfully in the United States, Arciniega says.

When the US Army accidentally shot up the Lincoln Memorial during WWII

Year: 1942
Strange but true, says historian Robert Pohl. In his book on DC legends and lore, he uncovers a tale about that one time the US Army accidentally fired upon the Lincoln Memorial. As part of WWII defenses, anti-aircraft military weapons were installed atop the US Department of the Interior. The problem? At 10am, on September 3rd, 1942, a solider accidentally pulled the trigger releasing a round of ammunition at the Lincoln Memorial. The bullets hit the building’s frieze and damaged a few state names, listed in tribute. Oops! Sorry, Connecticut, Maryland, and Texas!

Courtesy of Ghosts of DC

When Fidel Castro played tourist just before the revolution

Year: 1959
One of the most prolific history blogs in Washington, DC, Ghost of DC, tells the tale of that time Fidel Castro visited Washington, DC. Yup, just before he became the Cuban Communist leader, Castro is pictured holding an adorable child in Meridian Hill Park on April 16th, 1959.

When two men were almost entombed (alive!) inside the Second Infantry War Memorial

Year: 1962
Right before a Washington war memorial was rededicated in 1962, two homeless men found their way inside the structure. The Second Infantry War Memorial, which is located near the White House Ellipse, proved to be a comfortable place to catch some undisturbed nap time. What the men didn’t know was that construction on the memorial was not yet complete. According to The Washington Post, construction workers were installing an 8in-thick piece of granite atop the rebuilt structure when they heard newspapers shuffling from inside. The men escaped being sealed inside the memorial forever.

When a high school prank turned the Washington Monument purple and white

Year: 1969
The oldest prep school in Washington, DC also pulled off one of the greatest high school pranks in District history. In 1969, a group of students from Gonzaga College High School tricked the US Department of the Interior into turning the Washington Monument the school’s colors: purple and white. The students said it was for a science project, and they placed giant filters (purple celluloid sheets) over two sides of the monument. The caper was pulled off successfully on November 11th at 7:05 pm and a photo was taken of the Washington Monument, turned purple and white.

When the Nationals forgot how to spell

Year: 2009
It wasn’t always literal and figurative choking that made headlines for the Nationals. In 2009 (the dark ages!), they took the field in jerseys that read “Natinals”, earning additional ridicule for a team that was already earning plenty of it. And, yes, they lost the game that night, as well. 

When a red panda went bar hopping in Adams Morgan

Year: 2013
Rusty the Red Panda had only called DC home for a few weeks after arriving at the National Zoo from a children’s zoo in Nebraska. Maybe he was trying to get back to the Midwest, because he busted out and was later found by a family darting around Adams Morgan, where he was safely corralled and returned to his new home. 

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Tim Ebner is a food, travel, and features writer. He also attended high school at Gonzaga, the high school responsible for the greatest prank in DC history. Follow him on Twitter: @TimEbner.