Wow, this book made me want to visit this cemetery. I picked the book up in Washington DC, but didn’t get a chance to read it until I was traveling. My impression had been that the Congressional Cemetery was in rough shape and was dangerous to boot, but this book made it sound so crammed with fascinating history that I will have to find a way to visit when next I’m in town.
In the days before embalming, the cemetery began as a place to plant congressmen when they died in office. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the US Capitol Building, was asked to design a monument that would set the congressional graves apart from the others. These monuments were placed for every member of congress who perished between 1807 and 1877, whether they are at rest in the cemetery or not.
Other people of note buried in the Congressional Cemetery are John Philip Sousa (the March King), FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his purported boyfriend Clyde Tolson, Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, Air Force veteran Leonard Matlovich (one of the first gay rights activist veterans), several Native American statesmen, and the first woman to interview a sitting president, among many, many others.
One of the Lincoln conspirators is buried in an unmarked grave with his sister. Lincoln’s valet, who allowed Booth into the President’s box at Ford’s Theater, lies here. The mediums that Mary Todd Lincoln contacted after her husband’s death are here, as well as the man who rented Booth the horse (and lent him the spurs that caught in the stage drapery), and the man who owned the tavern where Booth waited for his cue to attack the president. That’s a lot of witnesses to history gathered together in one place.
Unlike many of the Images of America books, which focus on vintage images of their subjects, this book is filled with modern photographs, revealing just how lovely — and loved — the Congressional Cemetery is these days. I can’t wait to see it for myself.
1801 E Street SE, Washington, DC 20003 Founded: 1790 Size: 35 acres Number of Interments: 67,000 burials and more than 14,000 stones Open: Daily from dawn to dusk. Free tours are available on Saturdays at 11 AM from April through October.
The original plan for Washington, DC made no provision for a burial ground. In 1798, two squares on the borders of town were finally set aside as the eastern and western burial grounds. Turns out the eastern spot was prone to flooding, so residents of that area chose another small piece of land—less that five square acres—and purchased it from the city for $200. Their plan was to sell grave plots for $2 each. Once the space was paid off, it would be overseen by Christ Church. The graveyard, named the Washington Parish Burial Ground, was paid off by March 30, 1812.
In 1807, Connecticut senator Uriah Tracy died in office and was buried in the new cemetery. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the Capitol Building, was asked to design a monument to mark Senator Tracy’s grave—and the graves of those Congressmen who might follow him to the cemetery. Latrobe believed that the tablet headstones common to that era were not sturdy enough to honor members of Congress. The wide, heavy monuments he designed are made of Aquia Creek sandstone, same as the Capitol.
By 1816, the Vestry of Christ Church set aside 100 burial sites for members of Congress. In 1820, they expanded those set aside to include space for family members of congressmen, along with other government officials who might need a burial plot. Eventually the government owned almost 1000 plots. Practically every Congressman who died in Washington until the 1830s was buried in the Congressional Cemetery. Until 1877, every congressman who died had a monument in his name placed in the Congressional Cemetery, whether he was buried there or not.
At some point after Tracy’s death, the cemetery’s name changed again to the name by which we know it now. When the new front gate was erected in 1923, its iron archway proclaimed the Congressional Cemetery.
Among the government officials buried here is J. Edgar Hoover, who served as Director of the FBI under eight presidents, dying before the last one—Richard Nixon—was impeached for covering up the Watergate break-in. Hoover established the FBI Laboratory in 1932 and the National Crime Information Center in 1967, but was criticized for not enforcing civil rights laws or facing down organized crime. He died suddenly of what was called heart disease, although no autopsy was performed. Congress voted to allow him to lie in state in the Capital Rotunda, followed by a state funeral. President Nixon delivered Hoover’s eulogy. The iron fence around his grave was purchased by a retired agent in 1996. New FBI agents still visit Hoover when they join the bureau.
Hoover shares a headstone with his parents and a three-year-old sister who died before he was born. Hoover’s father purchased the plot in 1893, when Sadie died.
Also buried in the Congressional Cemetery is John Philip Sousa, one of the most prolific composers of his time. “His simple, catchy music both reflected his devout patriotism and represented the spirit of America,” according to the book Tombstones by Gregg Felsen. Sousa became the first American-born conductor of the US Marine Corp Band in 1880. He remained with them for 12 years and led his farewell concert on the White House lawn.
He died of a heart attack in 1932. His coffin lay in state in the Band Auditorium of the Marine Barracks in Washington DC, before he was buried at the Congressional Cemetery in a short service without a eulogy.
Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, the father of American photojournalism, went blind as a result of the chemicals he used in his darkroom. He hoped to sell his photographs to the government as a record of the Civil War, but they rebuffed him. He died nearly destitute and was buried in his wife’s family plot in the Congressional Cemetery. His photo of President Lincoln is the basis of the portrait on the $5 bill.
Ann Royall, who died in 1854, was been called a “prototypical muckraking journalist, pioneer feminist, and patron saint of women journalist.” Her career spanned four decades. Francis Scott Key, Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war John Eaton, and Washington Intelligencer publisher Joseph Gales got together to try her for being “a common scold.” When the court found her guilty, she was fined $10. Two fellow reporters paid the fine for her as a way to uphold the First Amendment.
Belva Lockwood, a widow with a young daughter, moved to DC in 1865. She was allowed to attend the National University Law School, but was denied her diploma until she personally petitioned President Grant. In 1879, Lockwood became the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court. She won a $5 million settlement for the Cherokee to compensate them for their forced removal from their ancestral lands. In 1884, Belva Lockwood was the first woman to run for president. She died in 1917, three years before women were given the vote.
Originally, the Congressional Cemetery banned “infidels” and persons of color. This was waived in 1824, on the death of Pushmataha, a Choctaw chief who had allied his people with the US Military during the War of 1812. Chief Pushmataha was poisoned in Washington, DC after President James Monroe summoned him to DC in order to break the American treaty with the Choctaw.
Survivor of the Trail of Tears, William Shorey Coodey drafted the Cherokee Constitution which united the Eastern and Western Cherokee as one nation. He served as a delegate from the Cherokee Nation to Washington, DC in 1849, where he died.
Also here lies Massachusetts signer of the Declaration of Independence and fifth vice president Elbridge Gerry, who we remember for giving his name to the term gerrymandering.
Finally, Leonard Matlovich received the Bronze Star for his service in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. He was discharged from the service for admitting he was gay. Afterward, he fought for gay rights, particularly for people in the military. Matlovich designed his own headstone in the same black granite as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. His epitaph reads, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men—and a discharge for loving one.” His gravesite continues to be a rallying place for gay activists.
For a while, the Congressional Cemetery was neglected. In 1997, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added it to their list of most endangered historical sites. Luckily, the hundreds of members of the K9 Corps at Historic Congressional Cemetery pay an annual fee to let their dogs off-leash in the cemetery. Thanks to the money they’ve raised—as well as volunteer hours put in by armed forces, school groups, churches, and descendants—the cemetery has been rescued. Now it’s a National Historic Landmark,overseen by the nonprofit Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery.
Rock Creek Cemetery
201 Allison St NW, Washington, DC 20011 Telephone: (202) 726-2080 Founded: 1719 Size: 86 acres Numbers of interments: 13,000 interments or more Open: Open daily, including holidays, from 8 am to 6 pm. The office is open weekdays from 9 am to 5 pm. GPS coordinates for the Adams Memorial: 38° 56’ 55” N 77° 0’ 32” W
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rock Creek Parish, began in 1712 as a mission church. It is the only surviving colonial church in what is now Washington, DC. According to the church’s website, “The cemetery’s beautiful, park-like setting is now a place of pilgrimage for people from all over the world, who come to see the remarkable variety of monuments and sculpture and often to visit the renowned Adams Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.”
In September 1719, vestryman Colonel John Bradford donated 100 acres for the support of the church, which determined the site of the chapel. The land was logged, then farmed, and the proceeds supported the church for many years. Almost from the start, though, the area directly surrounding the church was used as a burial ground for parishioners. Some of those old grave markers still survive.
View of the goldfish pond
In the 1830s, the church decided to expand the area it used for burials and convert its land from farming to a public graveyard. Inspired by the success of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, they utilized the natural rolling landscape when they laid out the roads like a rural cemetery. An Act of Congress established Rock Creek Cemetery as a burial ground for the city of Washington.
In the early 20th century, the church sold 14 acres of their graveyard for the construction of New Hampshire Avenue.
The Adams Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens
The memorial that everyone comes to see belongs to Henry Brooks Adams, a grandson of John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the US, and great-grandson of John Adams, the second president. Henry Brooks Adams himself was a Professor of Medieval History at Harvard. His autobiography won a Pulitzer Prize, but he considered The History of the United States of America 1801 to 1817 to be his masterwork. After his wife Marian (called Clover) committed suicide by poisoning herself with photographic chemicals in DC, he commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to sculpt a monument to her. The statue is commonly referred to as Grief, but Saint-Gaudens called it The Mystery of the Hereafter and the Peace of God that Passeth Understanding.
I assumed that a world-famous memorial might be easy to locate, but since we visited on a Sunday, the office was closed. Church had let out for the day, save for choir practice, which I didn’t want to interrupt. After wandering for an hour – and admiring lots of lovely sculpture – we turned to the internet. The photo I found on Findagrave showed the memorial on a hill, facing away from the slope. We couldn’t find that view anywhere. The first GPS coordinates my husband Mason found led us back to the cemetery gate. Eventually we were able to find a map of the cemetery online that included section designations. The Adams Memorial is in section E.
The Adams Memorial’s cypress are in the distance here.
After you enter the cemetery, head toward the church. Before you reach it, turn right. Down slope from you, you will see a family plot encircled by a hedge of cypress trees. You have to walk through the hedge to find the statue.
The cemetery has a wealth of lovely sculpture. These include Rabboni by Gutzon Borglum (sculptor of Mount Rushmore) on the grave of Charles M. Ffoulkes, a Washington banker who collected tapestries; The Seven Ages of Memory by William Ordway Partridge, on the grave of Samuel H. Kauffman, who owned the Washington Star; and Brenda Putnam’s statue of a child on Anna Simon’s grave. There are many, many more worth seeing.
Detail of the Seven Ages of Memory
Other famous burials include Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, Charles Francis Jenkins, the inventor of television; Abraham Baldwin, a signer of the Constitution; Charles Corby, the creator of Wonder Bread; Gilbert H. Grosvenor, chairman of the National Geographic Society; two mayors of Washington, three Union Army generals, and four Supreme Court Justices. There are also a number of family members of famous people: the father of Alexander Graham Bell, the grandfather of Douglas MacArthur, the sister of Edgar Allan Poe, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt.
My family took the metro to Fort Totten and then walked through the little park past the police station to North Capitol Street. That takes you to the back of the cemetery. One of the gates on North Capitol Street is open on Sunday mornings, when church is in session. Otherwise, you have to walk around to where Rock Creek Church Road meets Webster to find an open gate. It’s a hike and there are no facilities when the office is closed. You might be better off to rent a car.
The Fort Totten/Michigan Park neighborhood seems to be reasonably safe. People on Street Advisor warn against petty crime and robbery, but we walked all over without any trouble.
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