Washington, D.C., gleams with stately columns and neoclassical temples, a hub of political power and privilege. But for decades it was one of the worst excuses for a capital city the world had ever seen.

Before America became a world power in the twentieth century, Washington City was an eyesore at best and a disgrace at worst. Unfilled swamps, filthy canals, and rutted horse trails littered its landscape. Political bosses hired hooligans and thugs to conduct the nation's affairs. Legendary madams entertained clients from all stations of society and politicians of every party. The police served and protected with the aid of bribes and protection money. Beneath pestilential air, the city’s muddy roads led to a stumpy, half-finished obelisk here, and a domeless U.S. Capitol there. Lining the streets stood boarding houses, tanneries, and slums. Deadly horse races gouged dusty streets, and opposing factions of volunteer firefighters battled one another like violent gangs rather than life-saving heroes. The city’s turbulent history set a precedent for the dishonesty, corruption, and mismanagement that have led generations to look suspiciously on the various sins—both real and imagined—of Washington politicians.

Empire of Mud: The Secret History of Washington, D.C. unearths and untangles the roots of our capital’s story and explores how the city was tainted from the outset, nearly stifled from becoming the proud citadel of the republic that George Washington and Pierre L'Enfant envisioned more than two centuries ago.

Author video for Empire of Mud: The Secret History of Washington, D.C.

Praise for Empire of Mud

“[A] bracing and graceful read…. if you can stomach how our beautiful, vexed city became a cat toy for national politicians and an ongoing rebuke of democracy, this is as good a place as any to start.”

Louis Bayard, The Washington Post

“A funny, breezy, and deeply intelligent survey of the singularly strange project of building a national capital city from the ground up. Dickey is a marvelous historian and a hell of a stylist.”

James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere

“Mr. Dickey’s versatile depiction of the heart of this commonly ignored American Wild East is not mere history but shapes American ethics and aesthetics to this day.”

Leon Krier, author of The Architecture of Community

“This is a great book for anyone interested in finding out the true story of our capital’s origins not just as a piece of historical research but as a great tale told by a masterful storyteller.”

Jesse J. Holland, author of Black Men Built the Capitol

“[An] eye-opening, in-depth look at the history of America’s capital city in the 19th century…. Only someone who loves the city can be so honest about its flaws, and this love shows in Dickey’s flowing style and knowledgeable approach.”

Publishers Weekly

“Dickey brings the city to life, relating how it looked, felt, and functioned….An entertaining story for local history enthusiasts or general readers eager to peek into the curiosities and scandals in the less-than-reputable past of the now glittering capital.”

Library Journal