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Exploring the History of Eastern Market: From the Grand Opening in 1873 to Highway Bandits and Child Abductors

Explore the past of Eastern Market in Washington, D.C.- from the grand opening in 1873 to the highway bandits and child abductors that have graced its history. Learn more about this iconic market!
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This is one of the most popular weekend spots in the city. Who doesn’t love to wander through the aisles of Eastern Market and take in the sights, sounds and smells of the old market? And to think that they wanted to knock this beautiful building down in the 1960s to replace it with some crappy suburban-style grocery store. The development of the 50s and 60s ruined so much of D.C.

Eastern Market after fire renovations (source: Flickr user A Culinary (Photo) Journal)
Eastern Market after fire renovations (source: Flickr user A Culinary (Photo) Journal)

It’s high time we focus a little bit on one of our own favorite stomping grounds, Eastern Market. So, without further ado … three things about Eastern Market.

1. The Holy Hill band plays the grand opening in 1873

The opening of Eastern Market was cause for great celebration on Capitol Hill as it brought a great center of commerce to the neighborhood east of the Capitol Building. To put a frame of reference around the opening, the country was less than a decade out of the Civil War, Union General Ulysses Grant started his second term as president, the population of D.C. was a little over 130,000 and the country only had 37 states (Colorado would be next in 1876).

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The first day of business was November 12th, 1873 and the National Republican published the following write-up about it.

The new Eastern market house was opened for business yesterday morning. The attendance of sellers and purchasers was fair, considering the stormy day, and it was conceded by those that the opening was a suspicious one. The butchers and others having produce for sale had generally the very best commodities on their stands, and there was some competition among them as to who would make the best display. There are eighty stalls in the market, of which about fifty have been sold, and these were yesterday occupied, while on the west side of the market were some country people. In the centre of the market were the butter merchants–Oyster, Weitzell, Fearson and others. On the sides were the butchers talls of Carroll, Hoover and others, making good displays. The Holy Hill band was in attendance for several hours during the morning, and discoursed very pleasing music. Mr. Joseph Carroll, who introduced and worked energetically for the passage of the bill authorizing the establishing of this market, was complimented with a serenade by the band. It is proposed to erect fish stands west of the building.

Sadly, I couldn’t find anything else on the Holy Hill Band. I’m imagining a bluegrass-type band “discoursing very pleasing music.”

west rear on south side - Eastern Market, 7th St. SE (Library of Congress)
west rear on south side – Eastern Market, 7th St. SE (Library of Congress)

2. Highway bandits assault farmer en route to Eastern Market

This is a horrible way to start a day. A farmer and his wife were heading down to sell their goods at Eastern Market early (really early) in the morning when they were approached by a band of men intent on robbing them. Here’s the Post’s account of the incident as published on August 1st, 1915.

attempted highway robbery
attempted highway robbery

The police have been unable to find any clew [sic] to the identity of the two highwaymen who assaulted Philip T. Sweeney, a farmer living near Forestville, about a mile outside the District line, while he and his wife were driving to the Eastern Market, this city, shortly before 4 o’clock yesterday morning. One of the highwaymen struck Sweeney with a hard, blunt instrument, inflicting a deep cut on his head. After the two assailants had been beaten off they fired two shots, one penetrating the shoulder of Sweney’s [sic] coat and the other going wild.

A posse composed of residents of Prince Georges county, Md., scoured the vicinity of Forestville and two central office detectives detailed from police headquarters worked on the case all day yesterday, but owing to the meager descriptions given of the robbers great difficulty was experienced in finding a clew.

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Detective Sergeant Weedon, who is in charge of police headquarters after midnight, sent Central office Detective Boyle to the scene of the assault immediately after the Maryland authorities had notified him of the attempted robbery, although the assault took place outside the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan police department.

An active interest in the hunt for the two robbers was taken by Sheriff Hardy, of Prince Georges county, who with three deputies has been working on the case since early yesterday morning.

Mrs. Sweeney escaped without injury. Sweeney’s injuries were treated at Casualty Hospital, and later he completed his journey to Eastern Market.

On account of the darkness and the suddenness of the attack, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Sweeney could give any adequate description of their assailants. Last Sunday morning two farmers living in the vicinity of Forestville were held up by four young white men and robbed of $10, and it is thought that both crimes can be traced to the same parties.

3. Child abductor sentenced and fined

Here is a bizarre story I came across in the Washington Post. This is from September 11th, 1907.

William Page Southern, the negro charged with the attempted abduction of Gertrude Miller, daughter of C. B. Miller, who resides at 216 Seventh street southeast, from the Eastern Market last Saturday evening, was fined $500 and sentenced to serve 364 days in jail by Judge Mullowny, in the Police Court, yesterday morning.

Southern was accused of having picked up the little girl while she was playing about the market and carrying her for about ten squares. For some reason, he left the child upon the street and fled. Detective Smith, of the Fifth precinct, stated that Southern had been arraigned several times before on similar charges. Owing to certain technicalities, it was impossible to charge the defendant with attempted criminal assault or kidnapping, and, consequently, he was charged with assault, a misdemeanor offense.

east front of Eastern Market, 7th St. SE (Library of Congress)
east front of Eastern Market, 7th St. SE (Library of Congress)
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Enjoy daily

Ghosts of DC stories.