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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sometimes DC's Most Repeated Tales Lack a Key Element - The Truth

For Robert Pohl, his latest book came from his job as a licensed DC tour guide who spends a lot of his time "chasing 8th graders around DC."

"I knew exactly how 8th graders operate - I was one of them once," Pohl says with a chuckle. "I had some great facts, but I needed something to make them more palatable."

So Pohl began mixing in stories about some of the capitol's most famous sites. For example, there was one he would tell about the Washington Monument. When it was first opened, elevators were new and considered dangerous. Only men were allowed to ride up to the top of the monument. The members of the fairer sex and their children had to struggle up the steps to get a view from the top.

"This was a perfect story. It brought the Washington Monument alive to the people," Pohl explained.

However there was a big problem - the story wasn't true, even though it had been told and repeated for decades. It was the DC version of an urban legend - a story that "exists somewhere in between horror stories, jokes, and morality tales," said Pohl, who appeared recently at Politics and Prose to discuss his new book Urban Legends & Historic Lore of Washington, DC.

In the book, Pohl used meticulous research to find the truth (and the falsehoods) behind more than 30 of the most-often repeated stories about historic DC. Take the idea that the word lobbyist was created in this city. The version of that tale goes like this: When he was president, Ulysses S. Grant would walk over to the Willard Hotel and sit in the lobby. There, people who wanted a favor from the president would present their case as he sat.  However, both parts of that tale appear untrue. First, in the 25 books of his memoir, Grant only mentioned the Willard 4 times, even though it is only down the street from the White House. In fact,  there is no proof that he spent evenings there. And there are mentions of the word lobbyist in 17th Century England, long before Grant took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Then there is the case of another great story involving a President, this time the massive chief executive William Howard Taft. In the various versions of this story, Taft got stuck in the White House bathtub prior to his inauguration and was only able to be freed with a pound of butter and the strength of 4 or more strong men. Good story, but again not true. First of all, Taft couldn't have been bathing in the White House prior to his swearing in. However, as there often is in such tales, there was a kernel of truth mixed in with fanciful elements. Taft, at more than 300 pounds, did have a special bathtub installed in the White House that was large enough to accommodate 4 normal-sized men.

But Pohl's research did not lead him to debunk all the questionable stories. For example, the Lincoln Memorial really is the only building struck by gunfire during World War II. However, it was shots from an errant machine gun, not anti-aircraft fire that damaged the building. Pohl found confirmation in several newspaper accounts from the time.

"This story stuck in people minds as if it were an urban legend," he noted.

Pohl said the urban legends he investigated shared many of the components from similar stories spread in other parts of America. "They tend to erupt, be localized, change over time, and have a moral" he said. "They are all good stories and we all like good stories. As human beings, we love patterns and we want to see patterns even when they may not exist."

Pohl did acknowledge there is one story that he loves so much that he refuses to look into it. That tale involves the Jefferson Memorial. At some point, officials were going to remove some of the famed Cherry Blossom trees that surround that memorial. A group of elderly civic-minded ladies, irate at that plan, decided to cling to the trees to save them. The local police chief was summoned. Realizing that "knocking old ladies on the noggin would't be good for anyone," the chief came up with a more subtle plan. He began plying the ladies with free coffee. Within half an hour, nature was calling and the protesters had to abandon their position for the nearest restrooms.

"At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it," Pohl said with a laugh.

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