Place

Murder Bay, Washington, DC

Men dressed in early twentieth century suits stand on a dirt street.
Murder Bay as it appeared in 1912.

Library of Congress

Quick Facts

Scenic View/Photo Spot

Between 15th and 12th Street on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, once stood a neighborhood in Washington DC which by the 1850s had a very poor reputation. It’s not hard to imagine why - the smell would have been horrendous. Only three blocks south, on what is now Constitution Avenue, was the Washington City canal. Originally built for commerce, by the Civil War the canal had been abandoned and was informally used as a city sewer. Everything was thrown in, from dead animals to waste. In 1863, the Secretary of the Interior called it "a shallow, open sewer, of about one hundred and fifty feet in width, (sometimes called a canal,) which stretches its filthy surface through the heart of the city.” With so many in DC temporarily here for the war effort, this undesirable area became home to saloons, gambling establishments, and brothels for those seeking diversions. Was this why the neighborhood was nicknamed Murder Bay by some? We may never know. But while the area was unsanitary, overcrowded, and unpleasant, many people did live here, by desperation or necessity. The Civil War more than doubled the number of those living in the city and notably included formerly enslaved African Americans seeking freedom, who were legally referred to as contraband. The military argued that since the Confederacy called them property, the Union Army had the right to seize and hire them. Many so-called contrabands moved into DC in the time leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation, and were paid to build many of the fortifications around the city. Looking for places to live, in a city undergoing a housing crisis, they established contraband camps north of the White House and here along the canal. They were joined in this area by others who found themselves in difficult circumstances.  Life was difficult for these men, women, and children who lived here, and they suffered from impoverished conditions, disease, and crime. For those living here, why did they seek refuge in such horrible conditions? We will never know. They had the greater goal, though, of seeking freedom which they achieved on April 16, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act that freed those enslaved in the District of Columbia. While they gained this freedom, they suffered from hardships that others in the city did not face.

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Last updated: April 7, 2021