Exploring the dark side of Northern Virginia

Exploring the dark side of Northern Virginia

By Derrick Perkins (Photo/Liz Lynch)

The prolific Michael Lee Pope is back at it, this time using his sharpened reporter’s sense to dig up the stories behind Northern Virginia’s most nefarious characters and infamous incidents.

With “Wicked Northern Virginia,” Pope delves back into his favorite topic: The untold history of an area he has dutifully covered for years. Though during his time as a reporter for the Alexandria Gazette Packet and now with Washington’s local NPR affiliate, WAMU, he has covered his fair share of odd and scandalous stories, few come close to the tales he rehashes in his latest work.

First, there is the question of whether former President George Washington’s doctors are to blame for his death in 1799. Though readers ultimately are left to draw their own conclusion, Pope uses the anecdote of Washington’s final days to take us on a fascinating tour of 18th century medical remedies, equipment and philosophies.

From there, we meet George Lincoln Rockwell, Northern Virginia’s foremost homegrown Nazi. A World War II veteran, he spent his days shepherding a group of misguided thugs around the region. As it turns out, surrounding himself with such a crowd proved bad for Rockwell’s health.

Pope’s other tales include a riveting account of frontiersman Simon Kenton — Northern Virginia’s version of Daniel Boone — the trials and tribulations of the parishioners of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church during the Civil War and a more modern story of corruption in Fairfax County.

Throughout, Pope demonstrates his deft understanding of the region, its people and its history — particularly the parts textbooks generally omit. This is evident from the very start when he argues, “Northern Virginia is not a state. It’s barely even a coherent region…

“Urban and rural. Rich and poor. Old money and new greed. It has the ego of a conceited cavalier and the charm of a strip mall. The classic Virginia gentleman may live on in myth, but the reality is not as righteous.”

“Wicked Northern Virginia” is the fourth book Pope has penned about the region in recent years. All have been met with positive reviews, though a Washington Post reviewer praised his writing in 2011’s “Hidden History of Alexandria, D.C.” as “workmanlike prose,” which is the sort of compliment a writer can do without.

If anything, “Wicked Northern Virginia” is Pope’s most fast-paced work to date. Readers will fly through most of the easily digestible stories, which range from a scant few pages to upwards of 30.

There are only two points where criticism is deserved. In one tale, which begins with gruesome and gripping allegations of murder by poisoning, Pope clearly becomes enraptured by the later criminal proceedings. While courtroom drama is all well and good, he might have skipped a bit of the nitty-gritty.

In another, Pope focuses on the life and times of Crandal Mackey, a shotgun-totting commonwealth’s attorney at the turn of the last century who made it his mission to expel vice from Northern Virginia. Mackey’s tale is fascinating, for sure. Unfortunately, Pope made Mackey the subject of his last book: “Shotgun Justice: One prosecutor’s crusade against crime in corruption in Alexandria and Arlington.” As such, it comes across as a bit of a rehash for those who have read Pope’s previous works.

Those two critiques aside, “Wicked Northern Virginia” is an entertaining romp through the region’s darker side. For those interested in learning more, Pope will be at the Athenaeum at 201 Prince St. on Saturday to discuss the book. The event starts at 1 p.m.

“Wicked Northern Virginia” by Michael Lee Pope

c. 2014, The History Press


131 pages