The Talented Mr. James Wormley

In addition to the big hotels like the Willard and the Arlington, smaller boutique hotels were very popular among the rich and powerful in late 19th-century Washington, both as places to stay and for their elegant dining rooms. One of the most notable of these was run by James Wormley (1819-1884), an African American who was truly an exceptional individual in the city's history. Wormley had an unusual dexterity in navigating the disconnected worlds of whites and blacks in 19th century Washington. He opened his first catering business in the 1500 block of I Street NW in the 1850s and rapidly became very successful. The English writer Anthony Trollope stayed at Wormley’s in 1861 and offered these observations on Wormley’s skills as a host:
I put up at one of the lodging houses of Mr. Wormley, a colored man, in H Street, to whose attention I can recommend any Englishman who may chance to want quarters in Washington…. My landlord told me that he was sorry I was going. Would I not remain? Would I come back to him? Had I been comfortable? Only for so and so or so and so, he would have done better for me. No white American citizen, occupying the position of landlord, would have condescended to such confortable words. I knew the man did not in truth want me to stay, as a lady and gentleman were waiting to go in the moment I went out, but I did not the less value the assurance.
Wormley’s growing reputation soon gained him a spot as the head steward of the Metropolitan Club on nearby Lafayette Square, where he attracted the attention of wealthy statesman Reverdy Johnson (1796-1876). When Johnson was named minister to England in 1868, he chose Wormley to accompany him overseas as his personal chef. Wormley brought live terrapins with him on the transatlantic voyage and greatly impressed the British with his delicious terrapin stew. It was on the heels of this triumph that Wormley returned to Washington to open a five-story hotel and restaurant on the southwest corner of 15th and H Streets NW in 1871.

James Wormley (Source: BlackPast.org)
Wormley was widely celebrated as a sophisticated caterer and restaurateur, and his hostelry was frequented by the rich and powerful. In later years the Evening Star called him “one of the most widely known stewards and hotel proprietors in the country.” The Boston Herald observed that his hotel “while not the largest, was the most strictly aristocratic of any in the city, its quiet elegance and high prices attracting a very select circle of patronage.”

Wormley opened his hotel at 15th and H at about the same time as John Welcker’s elegant hotel was started just down the street. After New York impresario John Chamberlin opened his own establishment a block to the north in 1880, this stretch of 15th Street, so close to the White House and the elite residents of Lafayette Square, became Washington’s most exclusive enclave for fine dining and hospitality.

A fervent supporter of the cause of racial equality, Wormley was close friends with Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner (1811-1874), who had steadfastly championed the rights of African Americans both before and after emancipation. One of Wormley's prize possessions was a portrait of Charles Sumner painted by Henry Ulke and originally intended for the Charles Sumner School on M Street NW. The state of Massachusetts reportedly offered to purchase the Sumner portrait from Wormley, but he refused. “Never shall any one say that I parted with the picture of the man who befriended me and my race, for any money consideration,” he was quoted as saying. He later decided to donate the portrait to Massachusetts rather than sell it.

When President James Garfield was fatally shot in 1881, Wormley was chosen to prepare special meals for him. According to an article in the New York Herald-Tribune, Wormley had a “patented method” of making beef tea (beef broth), which he prepared for the wounded Garfield as he had previously done for the stricken Charles Sumner. The special tea “was made by broiling the tenderloin of a porterhouse steak, and while the meat was yet smoking putting it into an iron receiver heated for the purpose. A crank was then turned which brought hundreds of pounds of pressure on the steaming steak, causing every particle of its juice to stream forth. A little seasoning and the tea was ready. There was no water about it, and it was the pure juice of the beef.” Wormley also prepared chicken broth for Garfield, using the chickens grown on his farm out in the suburbs near Tenleytown. Garfield, of course, did not recover from his wounds but not for any shortcomings in the food sent him by James Wormley.

Probably the most famous historical event to occur at Wormley’s Hotel was the so-called “Wormley Conference,” which occurred in secret in February 1877. The conference was actually just an informal meeting among representatives of the Democratic and Republican parties regarding the outcome of the 1876 presidential election. The election had been held the previous November and the popular vote was very close but favored Samuel Tilden, the Democratic candidate. The electoral vote, however, hinged on the results in three southern states where massive irregularities in voting and vote counting had occurred, resulting in an impasse about how the election should be decided. In essence, over the course of several months, a deal emerged whereby Democratic congressmen agreed not to fight an electoral vote count that would put the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, in office in exchange for the Republicans agreeing that the Reconstruction constraints they had previously imposed on the south (constraints that had protected the rights of African Americans) would be abandoned.


Supposedly this dirty deal was struck one February evening at the famous meeting or "conference" at Wormley’s hotel, where Democratic congressmen were staying. If true, it would indeed be ironic that a deal that ended federal reconstruction efforts supporting black rights in the South took place at a hotel owned and operated by an African American. However, as Carol Gelderman has pointed out in her book A Free Man Of Color and His Hotel, the deal had already been made by the time the Wormley Conference occurred. Wormley himself certainly did nothing to abet such deal making and surely would have done what he could to thwart it if it had been in his power.

Gelderman's short book ultimately focuses more on the politics of the rigged election of 1876 than it does on the life of James Wormley. Gelderman begins her book with absorbing details about Wormley's life, his career in Washington, and his aristocratic ancestry. She then moves into the politics of the Grant administration and the myriad scandals that made people yearn for a new political order. Change was in the air, especially after the Supreme Court issued crucial decisions that paved the way for jim-crow segregation in the South. Gelderman describes how the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia—a perfect opportunity to highlight the strides that had been made in social equality since the Civil War—instead turned out to be the signpost of a harsh new political order when the exposition included no exhibits dedicated to African Americans. When Frederick Douglass, the most famous black man in the country, showed up with his ticket, he was refused admission to the special platform for dignitaries, according to Gelderman.

Gelderman's point is that the handwriting was on the wall. She goes on to explain in fascinating detail the outrageous shenanigans that accompanied the election of 1876 and the fact that the Republican party, with leaders like Sumner gone, had lost its fervor for championing civil rights. The result was a giant step backward for civil rights that would take many decades to reverse. Gelderman closes with a compelling run-down of the similarities between the 1876 election and the election of 2000.

And what became of Mr. Wormley? He continued to renovate and expand his posh hotel in the early 1880s but unfortunately became afflicted with kidney stones and died in Boston in 1884 after an operation to remove them. His passing was mourned across the country. He had been an ardent supporter of education for African Americans, chairing the building committee that oversaw construction of the Sumner School in 1872, and at the request of his son, a new elementary school for black children on Prospect Street in Georgetown was named after him in 1885.

Another son, James T. Wormley, who had been sent to Paris by his father early in his career to learn the culinary arts, took over management of the Wormley Hotel after his father's death. However, the hotel did not do well under the younger Wormley’s care, and after he sold it in 1893 it soon closed. A sheriff’s auction was held in 1895 and all of the rare furnishings that Wormley had accumulated were sold at bargain basement prices to customers who seemed indifferent to their historical value. Two divans that had been owned by Charles Sumner sold for three dollars apiece. The 200-room building was soon completely cleared. It was razed in 1906 and replaced by the imposing neoclassical Union Trust Company building that stands on the site today.

Comments

  1. Nice work & research, John. Streets of Washington brings great value and furtherance to the appreciation, preservation, and study of all the people, places, and things of Washington, D.C.

    Your insights into the recent book on Wormley are much the same I had. It is my understanding that the author lost some or all of her research in Hurricane Katrina which must be taken into account when offering a review. It is a rather slim volume (184 pgs.) for hardback and really does not explore Wormley and D.C. -- the everyday city -- as much as I had for some reason anticipated. I have been in touch with a Wormley descendant who has been helpful in revealing some of the dynamics of the personal and professional relationship between Douglass and Wormley. Gelderman's book unfortunately does not touch on this relationship to any detail. A member of the larger Wormely family served as a pallbearer for the funeral of Anna Murray Douglass in August 1882 and later Frederick Douglass in February 1895.

    Wormely, John F. Cook (Sr. & Jr.), George Downing, Douglass and his sons, John Mercer Langston, Richard T. Greener, John W. Cromwell, Robert B. Elliot, Blanche Bruce, John Edward Bruce, Joseph Rainey, and the list goes on were just some of the prominent (some more so than others) black men of this era who made Washington their home who we all seem to know a little about but not enough with respect to a city that takes great pride in its history.

    It is through your important work and that of others in and outside of Washington that tell us to be more intellectually curious about the city’s past and all of its people, places, and things.

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    1. James Wormley was well-known to many of the leading personalities in Civil War Washington, my area of interest. His first hotel at 314 (old style) I St., I place at about the site of the current Eye Street Grille between 15th and 16th in the Hyatt Hotel. Among Wormley’s early admirers was Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, probably the most respected man in America at the outset of the War. He stayed with Wormley in May 1860 when he was in town to report on his successful resolution of a border dispute with Canada in the northwest. Scott was known to appreciate great cuisine. Wormley’s reputation for the excellence of his food and hospitality had attracted the general. When Scott was summoned back from New York in December to advise President Buchanan during the Secession Crisis, he stayed with Wormley again. When he moved out in late January, his aide, Col. Erasmus Keyes, made it clear in his memoirs that it was only to find larger offices and, “not for any dissatisfaction with Wormley.”
      Positive references to quality food and great hospitality at Wormley’s are found frequently in diaries and journals of the prominent. Lincoln secretary John Hay, Scott’s successor Maj. Gen. George McClellan, Asst. Navy Secretary Gus Fox and his wife Virginia, and Elizabeth Blair Lee all testify to Wormley’s expertise. Elizabeth Keckly cultivated the famed caterer to support her fund for the relief of the newly freed slaves who were pouring into Washington.
      The only memorial to James Wormley’s work and life in this city is the plaque describing his hotel at H and 15th. The Gelderman book is an excellent study of an important local life. It seems that there is still more than can be learned, and more that we should do to commemorate this business and community leader.

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  2. I'm keenly interested in the life of James Wormley and his family. I was adopted by the Wormley's of Middlesex County, Virginia. My father, now deceased, was born in 1898. He was the son of slaves. I believe that my father and James Wormley were related. Is there a way for me to contact the local descendants of James Wormley?

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    1. I suggest contacting Carol Gelderman, who may be able to point you toward Wormley relatives.

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  3. I am a descendant and have been assembling information on the family. James' father Lynch arrived in DC around 1815. There is not much clear evidence of the connection to the Wormeley family of Rosegill other than oral tradition and a collection of letters. Almost all of the newspaper accounts of James both during his life and in his obituaries the same stories of his family coming from Rosegill persist.
    Donet D. Graves

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    1. Thanks very much for the observation; I didn't realize there was any doubt about the Tidewater connection.

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    2. Hi John,
      I just came across your notation. I have pretty much confirmed the lack of blood connection but have established much additional documentation including the family connection to the early leading families of Virginia and DC. I last year discovered a mention of James' father and mother, Lynch and Mary (Polly)being connected to Dolley and James Madison and most of the leadership of that era including names like Francis Scott Key, Richard Rush, and many others.
      Don

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  4. Donna R, Wormley HardinFebruary 6, 2013 at 8:27 PM

    Hello Donet D. Graves,

    I am also a descendant my grandmother's name was Thelma Wormley Hardin, today would have been her 98th birthday, however she passed in June of 2008 at the wonderful age of 93. Over the years she gave and shared so much history about the Wormley family. She was born 02/6/1916. I even went with her in 1996 to Wahsington DC. to the unveiling of James Wormley photo donated by my grandmother cousin, Minton to a museum, that had lots of belongings from the orginial hotel. He was truley a remarkable man for his time period and I am proud to be a descendant.

    Donna R. Hardin.

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  5. donnahardin316@comast.net

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    1. Donna R. Wormley HardinFebruary 3, 2017 at 9:46 AM

      e-mail update donnahardin316@outlook.com

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    2. Hello Donna R. Wormley Hardin. My name is Ricky G. Wormley from Baltimore, Maryland. The son of the late(s) George G. Wormley (Sr./Jr.). Are there any items from the Wormley Hotel displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture?

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  6. I've been doing research on one Carolan O'Brien Bryant, a New Yorker who moved to Washington in 1885 and built a country estate in the nearby Four Corners area of Montgomery County, Md. It's interesting to note that Bryant was associated with Samuel J. Tilden during the election of 1876, and when he visited Washington in the early 1880s, Bryant always stayed at Wormley's hotel.

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