Archive for September 14th, 2011

Living the Assassination Vacation

My wife and I are wandering around downtown DC, looking for a place to get a quick lunch.  The conveyor belt sushi place we wanted to try was opening late, and she wasn’t much in the mood for sushi anyway.  So we pull out a Pre, see what’s around, and end up at a Chinese/Japanese place a few blocks away that promises both fantastic sushi for me and the cooked fare she’s more interested in.

Outside the restaurant is a historical marker.  I point excitedly.  “This is the place!”

We go inside as I try to explain my excitement.  The marker outside informs us that we’re about to have fusion Asian cuisine in a building that was once the Mary Surratt boarding house.  It was in that building that the plan to first kidnap Lincoln was crafted, and where the plan evolved from kidnapping him to decapitating the government by assassinating Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. “Let’s Buy Alaska” Seward.  Surratt was the only woman involved in the plot who would end up being marched up the gallows, executed alongside three other conspirators.

This isn’t what excited me about the place.

Nope, I was excited because this was the place.  The one Sarah Vowell talked about, the one from Assassination Vacation.

I have few books that I consider favorites, that I go back to time and again.  Assassination Vacation, specifically the audiobook, is one of them.  I’ve read the text once, but I’ve listened to the book probably a dozen times.  It’s what I listened to as I hiked the Memorial Bridge from the Arlington National Cemetery to attend Barack Obama’s inauguration, chosen because I was staring at the Lincoln Monument, and a large part at the beginning of the book talks about the structure.  It was only later that I considered a book about presidential assassinations was perhaps not the best choice for that morning.

But it’s part of the history of the area.  It’s part of what it is to live so close to the District.  The place is covered by history, it is history.  Certainly other cities have their historic elements, their old towns, their colonial areas, but no city to me feels more like walking immersed in history like walking around downtown DC.  Even when I’m doing something silly, like participating in the Post Hunt, there’s still the Surratt House.  There’s Ford’s Theater.  There’s the little house across the street where Lincoln died.  There’s all the little things talked about in such loving detail in that book I love so much.

This came back up two weekends ago as we returned from the Charlotte Hall Farmer’s Market.  Driving there I had seen a sign that got me excited.  “Mudd House.”  I’d known from the book it was in an out-of-the-way part of Maryland, tough to get to.  One of those you have to know where it is things.  This is where Booth came after the assassination, leg broken, to get medical attention.  Vowell actually mentions its geographic obscurity to bust the myth that Mudd had nothing to do with the assassination, that this was too remote of a location to just randomly stumble upon.  I mean, it is right there on Samuel Mudd Road, I’m not sure how anyone could miss it.

There was a Confederate flag flying, and a bus tour departing (“Booth Escape Route Tour” according to name badges).  We stopped because we had to stop, it was a part of the Booth/Lincoln story that permeates the DC area we hadn’t yet been to.  The tour doesn’t try to hide Mudd’s involvement, his guilt in the affair.  He was a southern sympathizer, a common thing in occupied Civil War Maryland.  Hell, the state song “Maryland My Maryland” was written at the time and is a call for secession.

I’m not sure in the end whether going to all these sites is about retracing Booth, or retracing Vowell.  The book’s odd premise of doing presidential assassination tours has changed into being almost a meta tour for my wife and I.  Let’s go see the things that Sarah Vowell saw putting the book together, perhaps just to get a better perspective on the stories that she tells.  We don’t actively seek them out, but we stumble upon them, and really that’s the fantastic part about living in this area, that there is history just waiting to be tripped over.

And the Surratt House restaurant?  It’s called Wok and Roll, 604 H Street NW.  It really is quite good.

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