Remembering the Forgotten Many

What began as a blog post about the controversial son of Dolley Madison, John Payne Todd, quickly evolved into a more personal study. This isn’t uncommon around here, or frankly, any historical institution where archival records are full of bits and pieces which quickly lead to other files, and other topics. We have a few different types of files here at the Cemetery, not including our historic Range and Site books: 1) range and site files, which typically include deeds and interment forms; 2) our archival files, which include letters, receipts, and occasional newspaper articles pertaining to cemetery administration; and finally, 3) our family files – my personal favorite. The family files are spotty, as they were not systematically compiled. Instead, they are filled with materials that researchers, family members, and staff have contributed over the years. There is no guarantee that there will be a file for your person, but there is the intriguing possibility that it will contain all sorts of goodies, including photographs, newspaper articles, letters, and anecdotal information.  You never know what you will find, which is part of the fun of it.

When I pulled the Todd file, I discovered a few things I expected to find: a photocopied portrait of John Payne Todd and copies of death certificates of other Todd residents. However, I was also happy to discover a photograph of John Payne Todd’s headstone, a few yellowed newspaper articles from 1950 describing the marking of Todd’s grave, and a handwritten letter.

Todd Articles

1950 newspaper articles about John Payne Todd grave marking ceremony

John Payne Todd’s grave marker is a new-ish one, but I never looked into when or why it was placed. Todd doesn’t exactly have the best reputation around here, or anywhere, for that matter. While his mother Dolley was beloved, and his stepfather James Madison was, well, the President of the United States, Todd didn’t quite live up to expectations. In life, he was known for gambling, womanizing, and generally wasting everyone’s time. He is the main reason that his mother lingered in our Public Vault and Causten Vault for almost eight years, as his detrimental habits ensured that there was never enough money to transport her to her final resting place at Montpelier beside her husband. In short, the phrases I most often hear paired with Mr. Todd are “ne’er do well” or “he whose name must not be spoken” (our archivist’s favorite). Dolley was and is well-loved. John is not remembered quite so fondly.


“John Payne Todd” by Joseph Wood (1778-1830)

So it was with interest that I read the newspaper articles, helpfully titled “Dolley Madison’s ‘Wastrel’ Son Gets a Headstone at Last” and “Grave of Dolley Madison’s Playboy Son Gets Marker After Ninety-Eight Years.” Who cared enough to mark the grave of a questionable character who died in the mid nineteenth century? Mrs. Eleanor Fox Pearson.

Mrs. Pearson figures prominently in the newspaper articles and is also the author of the aforementioned handwritten letter. She apparently undertook a one-woman crusade to mark the grave of John Payne Todd, firmly believing that both Todd’s peers and the annals of history had gravely misjudged him. As she stated in one of the newspaper articles: “He may have gambled a bit, and probably drank too, but that was the custom with men of good breeding.” Further, she claimed that he didn’t squander his family’s estate; instead, his financial failures were due to the disappearing plantation system.

To a historian, or really anyone with a critical soul, this all sounds a little too forgiving. But Mrs. Pearson’s adamant defense of John Todd’s character is touching, and it is gratifying to note that her mission to restore Todd’s good name resulted in a headstone for his grave.

Although there is no way to know an exact number, thousands of graves are unmarked at Congressional Cemetery. We have over 65,000 people buried here and “only” 14 to 15,000 headstones. Some of this is due to multiple names on a family stone, but some are simply unmarked.


Mary Fuller’s bench

During my time here at Congressional, a few people have marked graves of individuals who are no relation to them. A former cemetery employee, Terri Maxfield Lipp, was fascinated and touched by the story of Mary Fuller, a silent film actress who faded into obscurity and poverty. Terri purchased a beautiful bench for Ms. Fuller to mark her grave. Similarly, Board member Amy Ballard was intrigued by the story of Nicolas Dunaev, a Russian actor and writer who could bend a dime with his fingers (really). Thanks to Amy, his grave will be marked by the end of the year. And historian Stephen Schell took it upon himself to mark the grave of Charles Preuss, a cartographer on the Fremont Expedition. Stephen even made the trek from Colorado for the grave marking ceremony. And although ultimately unsuccessful, both cemetery President Paul Williams and circus-aficionado Guy Palace launched Kickstarter campaigns  to mark the grave of hapless circus worker Charles Siegert, who was killed by a tiger.

There are many stories, both well-known and overlooked, tucked away in the cemetery’s archives and history. What is amazing to me is how a historical figure, long forgotten, can still capture our imagination. With each of these stories there was an aspect of the deceased’s life that sparked something beyond casual interest, even with a supposedly disreputable character such as John Payne Todd.


Mrs. Pearson’s letter to the cemetery

I’ll close with an excerpt of Mrs. Pearson’s letter to the cemetery administration. It is dated October 20th, 1950, a few days after the grave marking ceremony for John Payne Todd.

Regarding John Payne Todd:

“I sincerely feel that his life has been grossly misinterpreted and I am convinced after study of his letters and accounts, and after reading his will, that he deserves more than complete oblivion. His mother always said – ‘His heart is alright’ – what more need be than this?”

I would venture to say that no one deserves complete oblivion – no snarky comments about serial killers or Hitler, please. Hats off to Mrs. Eleanor Fox Pearson, and to everyone else who takes it upon themselves to rescue the forgotten from obscurity.

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In Which the Cemetery Staff Take a Little Trip

If you live in Washington, D.C., it’s a well-known fact that 95% of introductory conversations begin with: “Where do you work/What do you do?” My husband frequently reminds me that I should start with “I work at a historic non-profit” and then move to the cemetery bit, a piece of advice I frequently forget. It’s either an instant conversation killer  or starter, and I’ve come to realize that I enjoy either the moment of confusion/horror/distaste or the interest/fascination/delight that comes from telling someone you work with over 65,000 residents of Congressional Cemetery. Take it one step further and imagine telling someone that you put on public programs at a cemetery…you get my drift.

Thus, the staff here have a certain familiarity with the macabre. Really, don’t even get us started with the puns. I promise, we’ve probably heard them all. Armed with our new normal, a few of the staff members here decided to take a little time off work (really, we do this kind of thing for fun now) to travel to the Death Salon at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.

What is a Death Salon, pray tell? From their mission on their website:

In the spirit of the eighteenth-century salon – informal gatherings of intellectuals – Death Salon encourages conversations on mortality and mourning and their resonating effects on our culture and history. We hold public events and provide an online community (through both Death Salon and our sister organization, The Order of the Good Death) to increase discussion on this often-ignored subject, focusing more on ideas and the broader cultural impacts of death than one’s personal interactions with mortality.”


HCC staff meet Caitlin Doughty, founder of The Order of the Good Death and author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.

Simply put, the Death Salon at the Mütter Museum was awesome. I know that’s not a particularly eloquent or sophisticated way to describe the event, but it does sum it up. Conference speakers waxed poetic about mummies at the Penn Museum, hosting programs at a cemetery (which obviously was of particular interest), the experiences of a medical examiner and the science of incorrupt saints.  Moreover, all of these conversations and lectures took place at a museum that challenges “are you ready to be disturbingly informed?” Yes, yes we were.

Death Salons encourage approaching the seemingly unapproachable, which is something the cemetery staff are confronted with every day. When you work in a cemetery, it becomes a little harder to ignore the whole “death” thing. It’s all around us and it will eventually happen to us, so how do we talk about it with program attendees, customers, and tour groups?  How do you create programs that poke a little fun at our mutually inevitable demise while still maintaining respect for the already deceased? Death Salons are all about bringing together like-minded people who are all contemplating similar questions, and the HCC staff benefited from the interactions and lectures we experienced during the two-day event.


The loot! Books we either picked up or got signed at the event (or both!).

In short, if you’re worried that you’re a little too interested in the particulars of death – don’t worry. You’re not alone. In fact, we picked up a few books (including one that we’ve already read for our Tombs and Tomes book club) that prove that very point. Check out The Order of the Good Death, Death Salon, some fantastic books about death and the death industry (see below) and while you’re at it, Congressional Cemetery events! We’re here for you, while you’re living and when you’re, well, not.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty

The Death Class: A True Story about Life by Erika Hayasaki

Nine Years Under: Coming of age in an Inner-City Funeral Home by Sheri Booker

Lauren Maloy, Program Director

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In Their Own Words: Soul Strolls at Congressional Cemetery

For the past five years, we’ve hosted a Halloween gala in the cemetery called Ghosts and Goblets. It’s a fantastic and quirky event, but for a number of reasons, we decided to retire the party. Never fear (we know we have some die-hard G&G fans out there), it’s not going away completely. This year, we decided to go a slightly different route. To sum it up: we took everything we love about Ghosts and Goblets and made it better. And over more than one night.


A victim of the Arsenal explosion tells her story during last year’s tours.

Obviously, our busy season every year comes in October. Cemeteries can be creepy, which means they’re top-of-mind come Halloween season and an ideal destination for those who enjoy  a little spine tingle now and then. The staff here won’t deny that even we get spooked out from time to time (locking up the Public Vault after hours has its own perils)…and we work here.  But the best part of working here and being a part of the Cemetery? Learning and interpreting the stories of our “residents.”

Charles Pruess_Soul Strolls

A real quote from the diary of one of our favorite residents (

Soul Strolls explore these stories through guided tours and costumed interpreters, and it’s the one time you can hear from our residents in their own words. Can you imagine what David Herold or J. Edgar Hoover might say to you if they could still speak? We can guess, and we will, with our twilight tours on the nights of October 16th, 17th, 23rd and 24th. Each night we’ll have a cash bar with beer, wine and hot cider, and music to serenade you at the Chapel. You can chat it up with a few of our residents while you wait for a docent to guide you on a tour among the headstones and through the history of Congressional Cemetery.

What are you waiting for? Tickets are on sale now: adults are $20 and children are $10. Reserve your spot HERE. We can’t wait to see you.

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James A. LaFontaine

Here at the Congressional Cemetery we strive to make the stories of the people interred here, and their roles in our history, more approachable.  We currently have 16 walking tours available online that cover a range of subjects from the brewers of D.C. to Civil Rights heroes, and we are adding more steadily.  These tours include the stories of more than two hundred people, and yet, this is still only a small fraction of the total number of people buried here.

Not everyone wants to sit down and read through a combination of obituaries, old newspaper articles, and other sources to try and gain a better understanding of an unknown person.  Yet somehow we have managed to assemble a staff along with a number of supporters that greatly enjoys doing that very thing.  We often joke that we spend rainy days searching our databases by things like Cause of Death.  But without fail, from time to time, each of us gets lost reading the story of a person interred here.

As the Grounds and Conservation Manager, I have a somewhat different approach to learning about new people.  I usually don’t “find” someone initially in an obituary or old article, but by their grave marker.  I was working on the grounds last fall when I noticed the headstone of James A. LaFontaine.  Tucked neatly back into the shade of a magnolia tree, it is a fairly simple monument that is nothing out of the ordinary.

James A. LaFontaine

The LaFontaine Family Stone

James was however far from an ordinary man.  Known as Jimmy to almost all that knew him, he amassed a small fortune by owning and operating the Maryland Athletic Club.  Today the Club is nearly forgotten, demolished in the early fifties, but even in its day nobody knew it by its formal name.  Everyone referred to it as Jimmy’s Place, or just Jimmy’s.  Located off of Bladensburg Avenue exactly on the line between Prince George’s County and the District, Jimmy’s Place was the known as being the best casino in the District.

Just as Jimmy wasn’t an ordinary man, however, Jimmy’s Place was not an ordinary casino.  Jimmy’s Place did not permit in any fashion guns, women, or alcohol.  It was nothing like casinos today, any sort of disturbance whether out of joy or misery would see you escorted out of the front door immediately.  The entire casino was quiet, with only the low voices of the dealers and the quiet shuffling of cards able to be heard.

Legends grew around old Jimmy and the joint he ran. One night a man lost $3,000 at the dice table and left quietly.  As was the custom, Jimmy sent him home in a chauffeured hack.  Several hours later there was a furious racket at the guarded front door of the place and a woman was pulled into the vestibule by guards who didn’t want to see the police awakened.  Women ordinarily were not permitted in Jimmy’s place.  But this one bawled at the top of her lungs that her life’s savings of $3,000 had just been squandered by her ne’er-do-well husband, and she was going to every newspaper in Washington and Baltimore and tell all… unless.  Jimmy gallantly paid her the money and told her never to let that bum of hers go gambling again.

 No Wife

Couple of nights later the fellow came back and was nearly slugged.  But he finally got them to understand that (1) he had no wife; (2) he had a lot of money and would like to play; and (3) he had picked up a streetwalker at 15th and H Streets, N.E., on the way in that night, had told her he lost $3,000, and was surprised when she jumped out of the car and took off in the opposite direction.

The Bakersfield Californian, p. 25, Feb. 8, 1955

After reading many articles from across the country detailing Jimmy’s casino and later legal troubles, the common theme is that nobody actually disliked him.  A 1949 Kingsport News article even mentions that the judge that found him guilty of tax evasion would go on to say “Apart from his admittedly illegal business activities, his character is probably otherwise exemplary”.  Jimmy goes from being listed with the likes of Al Capone as a racketeer, to being mentioned as one of the finest of people.  His name appears in a number of papers as having sponsored advertisements aiding in the WWI war effort, as well as donating a Great Horned Owl to the Smithsonian Zoo.

“Spud the Kaiser” The Washington Herald, 1918 James A. LaFontaine listed in the last column

Charles Price, a writer for Sports Illustrated whose father managed the casino,  tells a story in this article about Jimmy that wouldn’t be believable if it were about any other man.

At the height of Prohibition, Mr. Jim had been kidnapped by some out-of-town racketeers for $40,000 ransom. Three men spirited him, blindfolded, to a backwoods cottage in Virginia. There they waited for three days, but nobody offered to pay Mr. Jim’s ransom. That bothered Mr. Jim not at all. He whiled away the time napping, telling stories and puffing on his Havanas. To kill time, he suggested that they play some hearts. Mr. Jim beat them out of several thousand dollars for which he took a marker.

On the fifth day the kidnappers began getting nervous. Mr. Jim, on the other hand, was enjoying himself immensely. He was playing cards against three of the biggest patsies he had ever seen. Finally, one of the men blew his stack. “Why doesn’t somebody pay your ransom?” he demanded. “That’s easy,” said Mr. Jim. “I’m the only guy I know who’s got $40,000, and nobody knows where I keep my money. But I’ll tell you what. You take me home, and I’ll get your money for you.”

The kidnappers looked at him in disbelief. Then they turned to each other and shrugged their shoulders, as if to ask what they had to lose. They drove Mr. Jim to his row house, the sight of which must have convinced them that he had pulled a fast one on them. But, true to his word, Mr. Jim strolled into the house, kissed Miss Annie on the cheek as though he had been away on a business trip, then walked back to the car with 40 thousand-dollar bills. He counted out 36 of them and tucked the other four back in his pocket. “These are what you owe me for the hearts game,” he said and walked away.

Sports Illustrated, October 11, 1976

Jimmy’s business had survived for more than twenty years even though it was not entirely legal.  The benefit of being on the border of D.C. and Maryland is that anytime the Maryland police came to raid the casino, its patrons would simply cross the line into the District, and vice versa.  Multiple sources state that all of the gaming tables were on wheels, and when police would raid from one side of the line, the tables would be moved to the other, out of the police’s jurisdiction.  He would continue to run his casino until it finally closed in 1947; his health was failing and nobody else could run Jimmy’s but the man himself.  When he passed away on November 21, 1949, his estate included more than two million dollars in cash that he kept in small safes in his various properties around the city.

Old Friends Pay Last Respects At Bier of Jimmy LaFontaine

From all walks of life they came one by one and in small groups to file slowly past the bier of “Jimmy”.

And then little knots of old friends gathered in the anteroom of the Lee funeral home, but the talk dwelt only momentarily on the days when James A. (Jimmy) LaFontaine was king of the gamblers.

The body of the fabulous little man, who died Monday at the age of 81, lay in state last night in the funeral home at Fourth street and Massachusetts avenue N.E. and was on view again today. Requiem high mass will be sung for him at 10 a.m., tomorrow in St. Dominic’s Church.

Old Time Recalled

Out in the anteroom, after a final look at “Jimmy,” many old frieds, some in crisp new business suits and a few in leather jackets gathered and talked the small talk that hides emotion.

For many, the last visit to “Jimmy” became an occasion to greet other friends unvisited for years. Words like “Where have you been you old rascal?” flashed several times across the room.

But, as one small, thin-haired man in Navy peacoat said:

“The old days are over, Mac.”

The Evening Star, November 23, 1949, p. A-12

James was laid to rest here in a site purchased by his daughter, Rose, on the 24th of November following the mass at St. Dominic’s Church.  His wife, Annie B. LaFontaine, would join him here a little more than a year later.

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Not Dead, But Arisen: Victorian Spiritualists in Congressional Cemetery

At a recent Tombs and Tomes book club meeting, the group discussed Mary Roach’s Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, an apropos selection for a cemetery book club. Roach is a well-known science writer who has delved into a variety of subjects, from dead bodies (Stiff) to the physiology of sex (Bonk), and everything in between.  Stiff was the book club’s very first read, and it was almost unanimously enjoyed by all readers. However, Spook was a different story. Roach’s logic and scientific skepticism muddled rather than clarified the narrative, and it seemed that the author spent an inordinate amount of space ridiculing rather than exploring the possibilities. In one admittedly entertaining section of the book, Roach explained the Victorian era origins of spiritualism, and proponents of the early moment happened to serve as easy targets (just Google ectoplasm to get a sense of the subject matter). But Tombs and Tomes readers as a whole felt uneasy about Roach’s conclusions, or lack thereof, especially when we discovered that we had a spiritual medium in our midst. Is science even equipped to handle this heady subject?

Far be it for a humble and necessarily short blog post to ponder the big questions. But it is possible to explore the breadth and depth of the rise of spiritualism through the example of a few HCC residents. Briefly described, spiritualism relies on the belief in communication with the beyond and the dead. The movement began in the 1840s and entrenched itself during the American Civil War. Spiritualism still exists today, and the origins and evolution of this movement can be explored at Congressional Cemetery. (And just as an aside, there’s a great Smithsonian article The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism that describes the origins of movement).

Belief in an afterlife is naturally expressed on many a headstone, as you would expect in any cemetery. But if you’re wandering around the Congressional Cemetery grounds, you might find a few that vary from the customary religious iconography and epitaphs. For instance, take the example of Emily Douglas Forrest, widow of Commodore French Forrest. She is buried next to her husband, whose headstone dutifully notes his birth and death dates in a traditional manner. However, Emily’s is a bit different:

French and Emily Forrest. Range 45/Site 41.

French and Emily Forrest. Range 45/Site 41.

Emily had a different choice of words describing her ultimate demise, noting that she “translated” on April 9, 1880. Her headstone hints heavily at a belief in spiritualism, especially considering the juxtaposition with her husband’s more commonplace description.

Other headstones at the cemetery are even more explicit. John B. Wolff’s marker, which also happens to be a zinc monument, notes that he is “not dead, but arisen.” Wolff is credited with organizing the first association of spiritualists. A 1910 Washington Post article described Wolff as “a Washingtonian and an ardent worker for the cause of spiritualism, Mr. Wolff, who was for some years the president of the local association here, desired a national organization, and declared he would work for the cause just as earnestly after his death as while he lived.” The national organization finally coalesced in 1893, after Wolff’s death, and it is certainly due to his enthusiasm and influence (during his lifetime, at least), that an organization formed.

John B. Wolff. Range 95, Site 361.

John B. Wolff. Range 95, Site 361.

Of course, not everyone posted their beliefs for all to see on their headstone. For instance, Mary C. Levy’s epitaph notes that she is “gone but not forgotten,” a common sentiment echoed on many memorials. But the Congressional Cemetery archives recognize Levy as a “well-known spiritual medium,” although her obituary also notes that she had “several grown children, none of whom share the faith of her parents.” Perhaps that explains the lack of explanation on her headstone.

In the case of Margaret Ann Laurie and her daughter Belle Youngs, likely the most famous spiritualists interred in the cemetery, no headstones exist at all. HCC’s Women of Arts and Letters walking tour describes Margaret and her daughter Belle: “these dedicated spiritualists contacted the dead for messages and used “magnetic” powers for healing. Laurie produced physical phenomena such as levitating pianos. Their house, a center of spiritualist séances, was visited by the Lincolns, and Laurie became a frequent visitor at the White House to conduct séances. The President’s aides warned her to keep these spiritual activities secret to protect Lincoln’s public image.” The Lauries and Youngs often appear in discussions of 19th-century spiritualism because of their connection to Mrs. Lincoln, known to be an avid spiritualist.

A cemetery is an ideal place to explore what other people thought – and still think – the end is all about. As our book club discovered when reading Spook, it’s impossible and unreasonable to use scientific methods to assess the afterlife. But whatever you believe about the great beyond and spiritualists’ opinions, it is certain that the dead do and can communicate their stories through epitaphs, obituaries, newspaper articles and memoirs. It just takes a little researching to hear what they’re saying.

For more on the Lauries and the Youngs (who deserve their own blog post), see Unlocking the History of a Lincoln Relic, from

One of the author’s favorites, Marguerite du Pont Lee, who didn’t make it into the blog post (sorry, Marguerite!), was also a spiritualist. She even wrote a book called Virginia Ghosts, which is a great read.

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A Labor of Love: Adopting a Plot at Congressional Cemetery

This week’s blog post comes to you from Beverley Lumpkin, a K9 Corps member and winner of the 2014 Benjamin B. French Lodge No. 15, F.A.A.M. Volunteer Award from Congressional Cemetery. In addition to volunteering her time on numerous committees, she maintains a plot through the Cemetery’s Adopt-a-Plot program. More on this saga from Beverley:


Beverley’s adopted plot.

A few weeks ago, as the irises in my “adopted” plot at Congressional Cemetery finally started blooming, a number of dog walkers complimented me on how beautiful my plot was looking.

What a relief!

Three years ago, when Grounds and Conservation Manager Daniel Holcombe announced the new adopt-a-family-plot program I thought it would be fun to have a new space to garden.  I chose the Riley family plot on the “main drag” because I liked its central location and the lovely obelisk.  Only later did I realize how far it is from any water spigot.

I began by planting green and white liriope around the perimeter, reasoning that it is hardy enough to withstand the (ahem) attention of dogs.  I also put in two gaura, sometimes called butterfly flowers because of the tall fronds with tiny flowers that wave in the breeze like fluttering butterflies.

But the big deal was the irises.  I bought 12 bulbs of assorted colors ranging from white to blue to purple.  The clay earth had been turned over by Daniel and Mr. King, the groundskeeper, but it was still hard as brick on the sultry hot day I planted them. I sweated buckets but felt so good when it was done.  Then the wait began.  The next spring I kept checking daily but … no irises ever appeared.

Cruel disappointment!  Last year I went to Fragers and bought two iris plants that were already blooming.  Again the laborious digging and planting, and I mentally dared them not to return this year.

So that’s why it is such a thrill to see the beautiful deep purple irises, surrounded by lavender, backed up by pink knockout roses, with the gaura coming along and the Montauk daisy biding its time till autumn.  Thank you garden gods!

Beverley Lumpkin

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Behind the Scenes: Notes from the Crypt

I asked Eric deWaardt to write a blog post telling everyone a little bit more about the Notes from the Crypt concerts that he organizes monthly for the cemetery. He wrote the below post, but in true Eric fashion, he is far too humble in his explanation, which prompts me to properly introduce him. Eric is a violist in the National Symphony Orchestra and he is truly talented, to say the least. Moreover, he donates a great deal of his time to organizing and playing the Notes from the Crypt concerts, and through his efforts (and an anonymous sponsor) the concerts are now free for everyone. He is a long-time K9 Corps member, and he walks his adorable dogs Gracie and Timmy every afternoon without fault. And did I mention that he’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet? It’s a trite observation but so very true. The next Notes from the Crypt concert is this upcoming Sunday (June 14th) at 4 pm. It is a free and popular event, so I recommend you arrive early to grab a seat to enjoy a lovely concert in a beautiful setting. More from Eric:

My neighbors got married in the Chapel the fall of 2007 and asked me to play for the ceremony. I immediately loved the sound and the intimacy of the space. I talked about doing some concerts with the HCC staff then, but nothing really came of it until September of 2012 when we gave our first concert.

Eric practicing before a concert.

Eric practicing before a concert.

Putting on the concerts has really been a lot of fun. There are so many truly amazing and talented musicians in DC and I’m privileged to have so many as my friends. The Notes from the Crypt concerts give us an opportunity to play together and just have a great time. It’s such an unusual venue for all of us, too.


I’ve been living on the Hill since 2003 and have loved coming to the Congressional Cemetery since then. It’s an amazing place to escape the city and relax with my dogs and friends.

— Eric deWaardt

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You’re Hosting What in the Cemetery?

Why does a cemetery need or choose to have events?

Isn’t having ___________ (fill in the blank with an event) disrespectful to the dead?

Cemeteries should be serene, peaceful spaces reserved for contemplation and mourning.

As a historic yet active cemetery, we sometimes receive the above remarks and questions, along with similar commentary, in response to the events we hold at Congressional Cemetery. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs, and some believe that cemeteries should be reserved for one purpose only: burying the dead. The caretakers of Congressional Cemetery thoroughly understand and respect these opinions; however, there is a rhyme and reason behind hosting events in a historic cemetery. For those who want to know more about the why and how, we’ve outlined a few explanations for holding events in a cemetery.

For those with a more limited attention span (or interest level), here’s the short version:

Congressional Cemetery is first and foremost the resting place for over 65,000 individuals, and it continues to operate as an active burying ground. The Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, the non-profit that runs the cemetery, relies heavily on private donations, the K9 Corps, as well as income from events to supplement income from selling burial sites and holding funerals. Without these contributions, the cemetery would not be in the condition that it is in today, and the non-profit would not be able to continue to preserve and interpret this National Historic Landmark. The cemetery also operates under the historic precedent of the Victorian era, when it was common for cemeteries to function as public spaces where families gathered to picnic, visit, and wander the grounds, much in the way that visitors use the National Mall in present day.

For everyone else, here’s the long version. With pictures!

Victorians and Cemeteries

30th May 1899:  Several people stroll up a path at the Green-Wood Cemetery, located at Fifth Avenue and Twenty-Fifth Street in Brooklyn, New York.  (Photo by Museum of the City of New York/Byron Collection/Getty Images)

30th May 1899: Several people stroll up a path at the Green-Wood Cemetery. (Photo by Museum of the City of New York/Byron Collection/Getty Images)

Public interest in cemetery visitation reached new levels in the mid-nineteenth century.  As Cathleen Breitkreutz notes in her developmental history of Congressional Cemetery, this increased attention can largely be attributed to the rural cemetery movement in America. The movement transformed cemeteries into destinations for those wishing to escape the city and enjoy nature and monuments in a cemetery setting.  Cemeteries such as Mount Auburn outside of Boston and Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia were specifically designed with this purpose in mind.  Although Congressional was formed well before the movement began, it still benefitted from the new perceptions of cemeteries that evolved during this period.  Instead of being viewed solely as final resting places, cemeteries such as Congressional earned mention in tourist guidebooks and became gathering places for weekend outings.

Although decidedly less common today, popular cemeteries in the nineteenth century often issued tickets to owners of lots for entrance to the cemetery grounds.  In 1872, the vestry issued over one thousand tickets, which demonstrates just how popular Congressional was.  Before the National Mall and other open spaces that we take for granted in modern-day DC, cemeteries not only served as places to mourn, but as places to gather, reflect, and relax.  These tickets are tangible proof that Congressional Cemetery has been viewed as a public space for well over a century, a tradition that continues to this day.

Tickets from the Congressional Cemetery archives.

Tickets from the Congressional Cemetery archives.

The Not-so-good Days

We often get visitors to Congressional who remember when the cemetery was overgrown, unsafe, and overall an unpleasant place to visit. As Breitkreutz noted in her history of the cemetery, “when J. Edgar Hoover was interred on 4 May 1972 visitors were dismayed at the condition of the site. Senator Vance Hartke of Indiana described the cemetery as a ‘national disgrace.’” Vandalism was rampant, dense weeds and grass choked the headstones, and the non-profit lacked the funds and support to adequately provide for the care of the grounds. In 1997, Congressional Cemetery was placed on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list. The Trust stated when publishing the list that “like most early cemeteries…Congressional was established without a perpetual care plan and as plot-owning families move or die out, the site is suffering from increasing neglect, vandalism and theft.”

The attention that Congressional Cemetery received in the late 1990s, along with two endowments from Congress and the National Trust, signified a decided turning point in the state of our non-profit. Thanks to the increased awareness of the historical and cultural importance of Congressional Cemetery, APHCC was revitalized and the cemetery was eventually designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Picture of Congressional Cemetery in the 1970s.

Picture of Congressional Cemetery in the 1970s.

(This, obviously, is the short-ish story of the decline and revitalization of Congressional Cemetery. For more info, check out two publications about Congressional Cemetery: Historic Congressional Cemetery (Images of America). May 14, 2012 by Rebecca Boggs Roberts and Sandra K. Schmidt on behalf of the Historic Congressional Cemetery and In the Shadow of the United States Capitol: Congressional Cemetery and the Memory of the Nation. November 12, 2012 by Abby A Johnson and Ronald M Johnson.)

The Plight of Historic Cemeteries

But as with all non-profits, there is never time to rest on laurels. Historic cemeteries in particular need to be creative with fundraising ideas and revenue streams because, let’s face it: they all fill up eventually. Historic cemeteries can’t rely on funds from burials and plot sales in the same way that commercial cemeteries do, at least in the long term. Congressional Cemetery is unique in that we still have plenty of plots left (we estimate around 1,000 spots), but we would be remiss if we didn’t look into the future. How do you ensure that people will continue to care about a historic cemetery?

We’ve come up with a lot of different ways to encourage community involvement and fundraising, but one of the most visible and effective ways to do this is through events. Congressional Cemetery is part of a community of historic cemeteries who utilize creative events to fundraise for the cemetery, including most notably Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, Green-Wood in Brooklyn, and Mount Auburn in Massachusetts, among many, many others. These cemeteries host 5k runs, twilight tours, murder mystery dinners and music festivals: all models that we look up to and reference when we create our own calendar of events.

In addition, all the funds that we raise with 5k runs, movie nights, Day of the Dog and other special events go right back into the upkeep of Congressional Cemetery. You can see the changes that a little TLC (and a lot of money) makes:

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Marion Kalhert copy

Jesse Williams Vault copy

The Bottom Line

We endeavor to host events that are true to our mission and to the inherent goal behind every event: to bring a new group of people to Congressional Cemetery who will grow to love and treasure it the way that so many of us already do. Events help ensure that Congressional Cemetery remains relevant, and it’s not just about the money, although that certainly doesn’t hurt. It’s about building meaningful connections to the community and helping the public understand why this cemetery truly is a national treasure.


Breutkreutz, Cathleen. Historic Congressional Cemetery: A Developmental History, 2003.

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To Limbs Loved and Lost

Civil War buffs and fans of historical trivia know the story well. On July 2, 1863 during the Battle of Gettysburg, Union General Daniel Sickles was hit in the leg by a cannonball. The severity of the injury necessitated amputation, a common life-saving tactic employed by 19th-century surgeons. The general survived the operation and insisted on returning to Washington D.C. shortly after the battle. In a curious turn of events, Sickles decided to donate his severed leg to the newly-created Army Medical Museum, now the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland. According to lore, Sickles visited his leg yearly on the anniversary of the amputation, and reputedly favored bringing attractive young ladies to accompany him on his annual pilgrimage.

This curious anecdote from the annals of the history highlights an oft-ignored question: what happened (or happens) to amputated limbs?  We often think of amputations, as in Sickles’ case, occurring in times of war, but any number of incidents and medical situations can lead to amputation.  As Congressional Cemetery records show, it was fairly common in the 19th and early 20th centuries to bury severed limbs in cemetery plots. Faithful readers of the newsletter have likely noticed that interesting discoveries in the archives tend to occur in the search for something else entirely. In this case, a perusal of the cemetery’s digital records brought up the following entry: “Bergman, Frederick (Leg of),” an entry that was then confirmed in the daily interment log. And so the researcher goes down the rabbit hole.

Leg of Frederick Bergman Entry

Leg of Frederick Bergman Entry

The accident and resulting amputation that Mr. Bergman suffered ultimately cost him his life. However, while he lingered in the months after his accident, his leg was interred at Congressional Cemetery in the family plot, resulting in the “leg of” entry. Further inspection of the records revealed that Mr. Bergman died of his injuries, but as far as the records show, his body was not interred with his amputated leg. While his leg lies in Range 4, Site 248, the rest of his mortal remains are buried in Range 153, Site 228. Perhaps we’ll never know why poor Mr. Bergman was not reunited with his lost limb, but one can surmise that at the time of his death, there simply wasn’t any more room for a full interment in the family plot, which forced his family members to purchase an additional space.

In some instances, the owner of the buried body part was never interred alongside their amputated limb. The entry for Miss Anna Bell Lee reads “amputated leg only.” The records state that Anna was only nine years old when she lost her leg. Luckily, she survived the trauma and one can only hope that she went on to live a long and happy life. Wherever and however she lived, the rest of her remains are not at Congressional Cemetery.


Amputated Leg of Anna Bell Lee Entry

As far as the records show, it was far more common for the individual to eventually be reunited with their lost limb. J.A. Craig is one such individual who we can track through two newspaper articles. In the first, the 1904 Evening Star account describes the incident which cost Craig his legs: “He was employed on the P., W. and B. railroad as a brakeman and while cars were being shifted last night he fell and the wheels of one of the heavy vehicles passed over his legs. Both legs were so frightfully crushed that they had to be amputated after he reached Providence Hospital.” The article notes that his amputated legs were subsequently buried in 1904. Flash forward to over forty years later to a 1945 obituary, which details Craig’s final accident at the age of 63: “Police said Mr. Craig, who had artificial legs, got out of his wheel chair and lost his balance.” Craig unfortunately perished from these injuries and was interred at the cemetery alongside his legs.

So why do these records matter? Some might say it is cemetery trivia, albeit interesting trivia, but the interment of amputated limbs speaks to a larger historic tradition. For many of us, it can seem strange to bury a body part without the body, as in present-day it is typical for hospitals to dispose of amputated body parts accordingly. But the prevalence of this practice in the past reveals that these body parts were still viewed as an integral piece of the still-living human being, at least by some. Certain modern religious sects, including Orthodox Jews, still firmly believe that all body parts must be interred with the body, continuing this tradition.

The Sickles anecdote, then, makes a certain sort of sense. It is often recounted as an example of his eccentricities, but as we have seen in the Congressional Cemetery records and in some modern instances, it was and is not unusual to think of amputated limbs as an important extension of the person, even when these limbs are no longer a literal part of the whole.

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Looking for a Weekend Activity for the Kids?

Bring them to Congressional to learn in a unique setting!

If your kids are interested in geology, analyze the different types of stones and how they weather.

Biology?  Our headstones have fascinating clusters of biological staining, crusts, and lichen.

Our site has many statues and memorials that would be inspiring to sketch for artistic prodigies.

For the little ones just learning their numbers, how many cenotaphs sit in a line?  And for the more math-savvy child, can they figure out how old someone was using the dates on the memorials?

It’s probably obvious that we have connections to historical figures and the history of our nation.

But what about the stories “written in stone?”  Look at the symbols on headstones and think about what that broken rose bud, hourglass, or snake biting its tail might have meant to the family of the deceased.

An excellent book for exploring cemeteries with children was just published in 2014 by Teresa Straley Lambert.  In The ABCs of Gravestone Symbols, Lambert alphabetically describes iconography with photographs and rhymes that appeal to both adults and youngsters.  The Congressional Cemetery gift shop will soon have copies of this book for purchase, or you can order now at  Use the book as a guide for a scavenger hunt and see how many you can find at the cemetery.

Congressional Cemetery is essentially an outdoor museum.   With thousands of headstones serving as cultural resources, you could spend all day studying the headstones and gaining insight into the lives of founding fathers, influential women, military heroes, adventurers, architects, and your typical 18th through 21st century Washingtonian.

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