Q&A with Tom from Ghosts of DC

Launched in January, Ghosts of DC quickly became a must-read local blog. I recently asked the creator of Ghosts of DC, Tom, about why he is motivated to share the history of Washington and its surroundings, how he does it and of course, about the patron saint/badass of his blog, Officer Sprinkle.

WFY: You mention in the About section that you have lived in the District since 2000. Did you live elsewhere in the area prior to then? What brought you here?

GoDC: I moved to the area and started out in Ballston for a year, then Vienna for another year and finally into Adams Morgan in 2002. I was originally born in the area, but I grew up overseas in Asia. After I graduated from college I had job prospects in Houston and D.C. (well … Fairfax). The one in Fairfax worked out, so here I am, over a dozen years later.

It’s funny, because when I originally moved to the area, I fully intended on “checking the box” and then head out to the Bay Area or overseas again. I liked the city a lot, but when I finally moved into the city, I really fell in love with it.

It’s both a northern city and a southern town. It’s a big city, but not overwhelming. You have the monuments, the Mall, the White House and the Capitol … but then you also have the real neighborhoods of the city. There are old row houses and new “high-rises.”

It’s a young city, full of extremely smart, driven and engaging people. It’s the city that all your relatives want to visit and are impressed when you tell them you live within walking distance of the White House.

If you don’t think this is one of the best cities in the world, then either you’re not trying hard enough or looking in the right place.

WFY: Why did you start Ghosts of DC?

GoDC:I love history, I love D.C. and I love the Internet. I wanted to find a hobby that merged all three of these.

The benefit of the blog is that I feel like I’m adding value to people’s lives (at least I hope I am). Also, to satisfy my own curiosity, I wanted to know about my city … and what fascinates me the most are the untold stories of neighborhoods, buildings and people who walked the streets before us.

WFY: The volume of posts on Ghosts of DC is impressive, how do you find so much time to research and write? What are you typical sources?

GoDC:I spend far too much free time on the blog, but I really love it. The stories I uncover are fascinating to me and it’s worth the countless hours I spend digging them up. I do have to figure out a better way to manage the volume and I’m now working with a system of cranking everything out on a weekend and lining them up to post during the week. That frees up my weekday nights to permit me to have an actual life and maybe take my wife out on a date.

WFY: How did you come across Officer Sprinkle, the site’s patron badass? Have you had/do you want have any contact with his descendents?

GoDC:Total serendipity … I wrote a story about a cop who chased down some drunk ruffians who ran out on a bar tab. The story was one of my early ones, back when just about every readers (a dozen or so of them) was a friend or acquaintance of mine.

My friend mentioned that Officer Sprinkle (the cop who was the hero of the story) had a name that sounded like a cat. I agreed and wanted to find out more about this guy. Several hours later, through some research, I began to paint this picture of a truly amazing character.

Here was a guy, originally from Ohio, who served in the military, fought against the Apache Nation, helped capture Geronimo and escort him to prison camp in Florida. He then moves to D.C. in 1890 and at the age of 24 becomes a policeman.

There are stories of him chasing criminals down in the street, dealing with bomb threats and serving as a body guard for President Wilson. It was clear that Officer Sprinkle was a badass who needed his story resurrected and shared with everyone.

WFY: What books should be on every Washingtonian’s shelf, historian or otherwise?

GoDC:John DeFerrari is one of my inspirations and a great guy. He’s the guy that blogs at Streets of Washington, which evolved into his book Lost Washington. That’s a must read. James Goode is the godfather of awesome D.C. history and nobody even comes close to the quality of his research. My favorite book from Goode is Best Addresses, with great history on classic old residences and apartment buildings in the city. Garrett Peck is another fellow history nerd who is cranking out books in his spare time (he has a corporate day job and I have no idea how he balances the two). And the final dude of this D.C. history quadfecta would be John Muller who is literally days away from releasing a book on Frederick Douglass.

WFY: Do you have a defined geographic area that Ghosts of DC covers?

GoDC:Anything within the 68.3 square miles of D.C. would be our primary focus, but anything near or related to the city is fair game.

If there is a connection to the District, then it’s worth sharing as part of the untold history of our city. The post about Alcatraz the other week was cool because one of the three escapees from the prison was originally from D.C. That makes a cool story.

There is a clear division between the District, Maryland and Virginia, but it’s very important to include the latter two in a blog about D.C. history.

WFY: What is the cutoff date to be considered “history” on Ghosts of DC?

GoDC:I would say there is no rule on what is or isn’t history. It’s important to share contemporary history just as much as stories from the 19th century. The Space Shuttle Discovery flying over the city is a good example of something that we included. It’s probably a cheesy History Channel marketing pitch, but history really is made every day, so it’s important to share today’s stories with yesterday’s stories through the same medium.

WFY: The focus of Ghosts of DC seems largely positive or interesting history, but there have been periods that weren’t positive at all. How are you going to handle those difficult topics?

GoDC:It will be shared honestly and with as few euphemisms as possible. The blog is not here to dilute or filter the stories of the past.

The language of 100 years ago was clearly dramatically different and, what we would see today as, blatantly racist. However, my role is not to reinterpret or soften history. If something derogatory or inappropriate by today’s standards was printed in the paper, it should be shared as is. It is up to the reader to process it and come up with their own reaction. I’ll even make sure typos from the articles get in there because I think that adds to the authenticity.

Also, I wouldn’t say everything is largely positive. I see it as sharing stories that I find as is, objectively … at least from the GoDC perspective. The woman who threw herself down the elevator shaft in the Washington Monument would be an example of a highly unpleasant story.

WFY: How much of the coverage comes from first person accounts and will there be more moving forward?

GoDC:Unfortunately, very little. I haven’t yet done interviews of older residents, neighbors, unofficial “mayors” of the block, etc. I’d love to do that, but right now, I just haven’t.

WFY: You have a lot of baseball posts, celebrating the legacy of the Washington Senators and Homestead Grays. As a Nationals fan, how do you feel about the current team’s handling of D.C.’s baseball legacy? Will you be doing more with the other DC teams?

GoDC:I certainly have a baseball bias. I’m a huge baseball and Nats fan and it has only gotten worse (better?) as they surge into the postseason.

They also have a unique position in this city, in that we lost our original team in 1961 when Calvin Griffith selfishly convinced MLB to allow him to move to Minneapolis and put the expansion team in Washington (originally, expansion was supposed to by in Minnesota). He ripped out the heart and soul of the team, just leaving a shell (i.e., just the Senators’ name). The new Senators were essentially set up to fail.

So, our city lost a generation of baseball fans and we were unjustly robbed of the National Pastime by two self-serving, greedy owners — and I’m not being hyperbolic.

I think it’s really important that people rooting for the Nationals realize how deep baseball’s history is in D.C.

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