Friday, October 19, 2012

Local Travels: Congressional Cemetery

Every October it seems I get invited on a tour of the Congressional Cemetery. I have been to this fine resting place several times, but I always jump at a chance to go to this DC hidden gem. Plus, I love tours, tour guides and at times, pretending that I am also a tour guide, whether I know what I am taking about or not.

So gather around my little virtual tour group, try to stay together, save your questions until the end, and let's walk.
First, the Congressional Cemetery is not on federal land, is not managed by Congress and is not an official national cemetery, so the "congressional," is more of a nickname the stuck because some members of congress are buried there, than any official original title.  In fact, it really isn't even on Capitol Hill, it is about 2 miles off the Hill, down by the Anacostia River.

The original city plans for Washington DC did not include any public cemeteries. In the 18th century, most burial plots were either in church lots or on private family land. There were also objections stemming from experiences in other colonial cites were graveyards were becoming nuisances, overcrowded, unsanitary, and a little unkempt and unsightly. But as Washington grew into a real city where people actually lived and therefore died, instead of just merely the seat of the federal government, the need for public burying grounds soon became apparent. Congressional Cemetery started out as the burying ground for Christ Church, Washington Parish,  the land bought by an association of members of the parish, to serve not only the congregation, but also the local residents. The cemetery is, in fact, still owned by the church, although the immediate management of the cemetery is now administrated by the Association for the Preservation of Historical Congressional Cemetery.
The cemetery opened in 1807, and that same year it got it's first congressional resident, Uriah Tracy, senator from Connecticut, who passed away on July 19, 1807. Remember this was 1807, long before embalming was a common practice, so the idea of transporting the body back to the home state was not a reasonable option. So started of the tradition of burying members of Congress who died while in office in the Christ Church, or the now called Congressional Cemetery. This tradition held true for about 50 years until after the Civil War, where the official national cemetery system was set up and embalming, medical and transportation options made it easier for the deceased to return home. I stress the word, official, because prior to this time, the Congressional Cemetery was actually known as the first National Cemetery, becoming the final resting place for not only government leaders but also members of the military including those who died in the War of 1812.
Oh, no, I see some of our tour group wandering off because of all these long blocks of text, OK, let's talk about some of my favorite residents.

There are many familiar names and fancy monuments in the yard, but my favorite marker, by far, is this rather plain looking one:
Belva Ann Lockwood (1830-1917)
 Seriously, stop what you are doing and go read about this amazing woman, or I guess I will just tell you. In the 1870s,  she became one of the first woman lawyers in the United States. Although she was allowed to attend law school she had to petition the President of the United States  in order to obtain her diploma. She stood before many judges that told her that women did not have right  or mental capacity to practice law (among other things). She fought for women's rights, including equal pay for government employees (still fighting!). As a married woman she could not, under the law, try cases/stand before the Supreme Court, so in 1874 she wrote her own anti-discrimination bill and lobbied Congress for 5 years. In 1879, it was signed by President Hayes, and that same year, Lockwood became the first woman to be sworn in as a member of the US Supreme Court Bar, and in 1880 she became the first woman lawyer to try a case before the Supreme Court.  She also ran for President of the United States in 1884, although she couldn't legally vote for herself (woman didn't get the right to vote until 1920 ). She continued to fight for women's rights and as the world inched closer to World War I, she was a strong advocate for world peace. She died in 1917, about 3 years before the 19th Amendment was passed.

Mathew Brady (1822-1896)
 If you have seen any of the gritty and heart breaking photographs of the US Civil War, chances are they are the work of Mathew Brady. He was a photojournalist even before there was just a thing. His images made war real. Sadly, the chemicals he used to develop his film left him blind and unable to work in his later years and he lost everything; his studio, many of glass negatives were sold cheaply for the glass, not for the images (and thus destroyed), and he died penniless. He is actually buried on his wife's family plot in the cemetery. He was originally given a very small grave marker that had an incorrect death date. Several years ago a Civil War society gave him a proper and corrected headstone.

Arsenal Disaster Monument (1864)
During the Civil War, the Washington Arsenal routinely hired teenager girls, mostly Irish immigrants, to pack the explosives because their hands were small and could really pack and handle some of the smaller cartridges. In 1864, there was a huge (and accidental) explosion at the arsenal killing 20 of these young girls. Many of the victims were on the only member of their families in this country, and so 16 of them were buried in this mass grave. President Lincoln himself led the funeral procession and attended all the graveside ceremonies.

Little Marion Kahlert (1894-1904)
I don't really have a story about little Marion, but she is a prime example of the ongoing preservation work in the cemetery. If you are familiar with the DC area, all I have to say is that this cemetery is in SE, and you understand. The southeast area of the District hasn't always been the best part of town. There is a current movement to revitalize this area, but for many, many, many years the cemetery, like the rest of the area, fell into to terrible disrepair and vandalism ran rampant. Because of funding from the National Trust, funding from the dog walkers who pay a fee to walk their dogs through the cemetery and other community events, this historical gem has come alive again. The cemetery is now able to not only handle the landscaping upkeep, but also repair damaged and deteriorating grave markers. Little Marion had been broken off at her knees, but just last week her repairs were complete, and she is upright and whole again.
Grave waiting for repair 

The Public Vault
Before funeral homes existed or at least were popular, bodies were held in the Public Vault before burial. Many famous Washingtonians spent a little of their after life in this little room including presidents John Quincy Adams (who is buried in Quincy, MA), William Henry Harrison (who is buried in North Bend, OH) and Zachary Taylor (who is buried in Louisville, KY ). The saddest story of the Public Vault has to do with Dolly Madison who was housed here for 2 years, 2 years! while funds were being raised for a funeral and burial. After her husband, President James Madison, died, Dolly basically fell into financial ruin. The upkeep of  the large Montpelier estate was too much and she had to sell it and live off family and friends up in DC until her death. Her son from her first marriage (NOT to James), was a scoundrel at best, and kept spending and gambling the money that was being raised for a proper funeral and burial for his mother. But Dolly, even in death, prevailed and is now buried next to her beloved James at the restored Montpelier in central Virginia.
The Public Vault from the outside
The Public Vault from the Inside

J.Edgar Hoover (1895-1972)
Hoover is buried at the cemetery not because he was the director of the FBI, but because he was a local boy, growing up near the cemetery. The FBI, however did supply the fence around his grave along with the bench. New recruits to the bureau still come to the cemetery to see "The Director."

John Philip Sousa (854-1932)
Like Hoover, John Philip Sousa is buried in the Congressional Cemetery because his was a local boy. He is known for not only for his patriotic marches, but also making the Marine Corp Band what it is today, in all it's glory and fame. Every year on Sousa's birthday, the Marine band comes marching into the cemetery and performs for their "Director."
Sousa's grave this year

A picture from a visit in 2010

Mary Hall
Mary Hall is not buried under the angel statue in this picture, that's her mother. Mary is buried under the  rather thoughtful looking woman next to the angel. The reason why Mary, who designed and paid for this plot herself, didn't give herself an angel is because she was the owner of one of the classiest bordellos in DC in the 1800s. The reason why I included this stop on our little tour is because I get a kick out of the "welcome," sign in the back of the  plot. She was so welcoming in life, why wouldn't she be welcoming in death?

And this ends our tours. Please tip your guide. With pie.  

There are many, many more stories of the residents of the Congressional Cemetery.  DC, like most towns, certainly has had its cast of characters. So next time you are in DC, and have already seen all the museums, and all the monuments and eaten at all the food trucks, I encourage you to venture off the beaten track and visit the cemetery.

The stories from today's post come from our wonderful tour guides from the Association for the Preservation of Historical Congressional Cemetery, and from articles from their website

1 comment :

  1. Amazing! Thanks for giving me a tour of a place I will probably never get to go (except in pictures).