Congressional Cemetery’s Giant


Image from 1908 Washington Post article


At Congressional Cemetery, we have a giant in our midst. Varying accounts place resident John Turner at different heights: a Washington Post article claims that he was 7 foot 7 inches, while a contemporary surgeon inflated his height considerably to 8 feet 3 inches. Other studies of his bones mark Turner at 7 feet 1 inch. Regardless of the discrepancies in measurements, he was tall. Not the tallest ever by any standard, but tall enough to distinguish him at the time as someone who stood out as unusual and difficult to understand.

Turner was born in 1875 and died at the young age of 36 years old. The rest of his family was “normal sized,” although similarly beset by tragic circumstances. Both of Turner’s parents died young, and his brother perished in an accident at the Navy Yard a few years before John’s death. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, John Turner’s life was defined by his giantism. Few other personal details exist about his short and tragic life other than descriptions of his medical abnormalities.

When puzzling over how to frame this article, the dilemma quickly became evident: what is there to say about John Turner other than that he is tall? He piqued the staff’s interest because of that very aspect, initially brought to our attention by historian Sandy Schmidt, who sent along a 1908 Washington Post article “Washington’s Seven Foot Seven Inch Giant.” There are many seemingly anonymous graves here that are brought to life through the attention of their descendants. Still others are known to us because of their life achievements, their unusual or grisly deaths, or their notable headstones. And in John Turner’s case, the surviving documentation includes a relative wealth of information when compared to many of the other residents buried here. There are multiple newspaper articles, medical descriptions, and obituaries, but all ultimately reach the same conclusion: John Turner was very tall. He lived a very sad life, and was granted no reprieve in death, as his body was dissected against the wishes of his family by Dr. Harvey Cushing.


What does stick out, however, is the manner in which the press treated Turner in life and death. If you’ve made a habit of reading old newspaper articles and obituaries (because who hasn’t), you may have noticed that they lack a certain delicacy in descriptions of deaths, crimes, or in Turner’s case, medical afflictions. Writers described murder scenes with an unnerving attention to every salacious detail, which is a boon for the curious but not necessarily for the faint of heart. The Post article describing Turner’s life, however, is simply astounding in its lack of sensitivity.

Two passages in particular highlight the journalist’s ineffective attempts to describe and understand John Turner’s life.

“He does not live: he merely exists. Such a thing as an emotion is utterly beyond him. During his 31 years of life he has merely vegetated. He cannot read or write, and seems to have no desire to do either. His idea of happiness, if, indeed, he is capable of appreciating what that word means, is to sit and doze calmly in the sun. The hibernating bear is his idea of Paradise.”

The article goes on to describe Turner’s difficulty finding clothes for his large frame, his overall lethargy, and his numerous medical complications. Overall, the author of the article seems to be at once disgusted and insatiably curious about the existence of John Turner. His inability to wrap his head around the situation can be best summarized with the closing paragraph:

“As it is, he cares nothing for anything; he has no human interest because he is outside the human race, and death to him would not be the shutting out of hopes and ambitions, but simply a going to sleep, a resting quiet and easy, which now is his chief object in life – if, indeed, such an existence can be called a life.”

Turner’s death was treated with similar sentiments. Inevitably, each obituary described his height and other measurements, the size of his coffin (eight feet), and often his languorous existence. The Sheboygan Daily Press, stunningly, ended his obituary with the line: “He was hideously ugly and seemed abnormal in every respect.” John Turner was survived by two sisters, and one would hope that they never read his numerous obituaries.


Lest we judge the press of old too quickly, keep in mind that even in a more politically-correct press era, the oft-repeated “warning, what you are about to see is disturbing and not appropriate for young viewers” is merely a thinly-guised attention tactic to get you to pay attention. In addition, this article is being written solely because John Turner is a giant, and likely you are reading it for that very reason as well. Congressional Cemetery’s giant was misunderstood, and it’s especially sad that the windows into his life are simultaneously descriptive and obtuse. But, we can note the tragedy of a life and death defined by a malady that cannot be helped, especially in a time when so little was understood about John Turner’s condition.

-Lauren Maloy, Program Director

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We’re Dead Serious: Save These Dates.

The past few days in DC have been uncharacteristically cool for August, which naturally turns thoughts to fall and all the good things that come along with the season. Per usual, local stores have jumped the gun, proudly displaying Halloween decorations and pumpkin-everything in an effort to trick us all into believing the season is officially here. But since it really is right around the corner, we’re going to go ahead and jump on that bandwagon too.

For those of you who may not be used to viewing a cemetery as your go-to social scene, might we persuade you to change your mind? Our list below isn’t even an exhaustive guide to all the ongoing events we have over the course of the next few months. It’s a corny but true to say that we really do have something for everyone: concerts, yoga, a 5k run/walk, tours and more. As always, stay tuned to our website and social media accounts for more information about our schedule and other happenings at the cemetery.


Notes from the Crypt: Sunday, September 11, 4 pm


Join us for our first fall Notes from the Crypt! This chamber music concert is free; thus, seating is first-come, first-served, so we recommend arriving early to reserve seating. Don’t miss one of DC’s best kept secrets, with professional musicians playing in a beautiful setting, all free of charge. Save the date!

Dead Men’s Hollow Concert: October 8, 7 – 9 pm


Photo by Brett Davis, 2007.

Congressional Cemetery is delighted to host local band Dead Men’s Hollow for a macabre and spooky set in our historic Chapel. With a band name that perfectly fits the venue, this is an essential event to fit into your busy Halloween schedule. Dead Men’s Hollow’s influences include bluegrass, country, blues, and gospel, and their set will include original and traditional music (with a murder ballad or two thrown in!). Beer and wine will also be sold at a cash bar in the Chapel, so arrive early to secure your seats and grab a tasty beverage (or two) for the concert. More information and tickets here.


Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Friday, September 16th, 7:30 pm


Join us on the cemetery grounds for a screening of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? This creepy, campy classic is the perfect movie to start off the 2016 Halloween season. Gates open at 6:30 pm and the movie begins around 7:30 pm. Suggested donation (thank you!) of $10 for entrance. BYOB and dinner. Our rain date for this Cinematery is Friday, September 23rd.

Yoga Mortis

Every Tuesday in the Chapel (No class Sept. 13th), 6 pm

Outdoor Yoga Mortis: Saturday, September 17, 11:30 am


Jessica Woodburn.

Join us for our weekly Yoga Mortis class in the Chapel! All classes are one hour long and available to all levels of experience. No reservations are required, and the suggested donation is $10-$15. Classes are taught by Jessica Woodburn, and you can find out more about Jessica and her full schedule of classes here. Bring your own mat and come prepared to show off your very best Corpse Pose to your Hill East neighbors!

Around once a month, we also have an outdoor yoga class. Weather permitting, this class will take place on the grounds and among the headstones of Congressional Cemetery. This is a donation-based class: bring what you can (cash only please) to donate to the cemetery. The session is all levels & BYO mat. Please meet inside the front gate of the cemetery (at 1801 E Street, SE) prior to or at 11:30 am, when the instructor will lead you to the site.

Dead Man’s Run: Saturday, October 1, 6 pm


Welcome to Historic Congressional Cemetery’s Dead Man’s Run, a bare bones race for dead serious runners who want to stay one step ahead of the ultimate Reapo Man. Race starts with a toll of the funeral bell, continues throughout the cemetery and onto the Anacostia Trail for a ghostly evening run full of spooky music and fun! Join us in the beer tent after the race to reward your own survival. Costumes encouraged, with prizes for best costumes and team costume! Form a team to compete with your friends – and we love to see creative team names.

Registration is $40 and includes a t-shirt and one free beer (must be 21+; please bring ID).

For more info and registration:

Soul Strolls: October 21, 22, 28, 29, 6-9 pm


Kelly Carnes as Charles Siegert, a circus worker killed by a tiger.


They’re back! Congressional Cemetery’s Soul Strolls tours features guided lantern tours with appearances from a few of our favorite “residents.” This year brings a new cast of characters dying to tell you all about their extraordinary lives, and of course, their deaths. Soul Strolls take place over four nights, October 21st and 22nd and October 28th and 29th. Hour-long tours will depart every 15 minutes between 6 and 9 pm, and beer, wine, and cider will be for sale in our Chapel. Adult tickets are $20; children 12 and under are $10. Attendees can arrive early to grab a glass of wine, browse our HCC gift shop, and listen to music while waiting for tours to depart. Last year’s tours completely sold out, so make your Halloween plans early and secure your spot today! More information and tickets here.

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An Interview with Historic Congressional Cemetery’s Intern Darren Messing

By Hannah Miller

Hello, friends of Historic Congressional Cemetery! It’s me again, Hannah.  I hope everyone has been enjoying their week and has had the opportunity to make it out to HCC at some point this summer!

Being an intern has given me several amazing opportunities to spend time at the cemetery–attending the Twilight Tours, going to the Cinematery to see Singing in the Rain, and then again, this past Friday, I had the pleasure of getting to know HCC’s other intern, Darren Messing! I figured that you’d all heard enough about me and it was about time to hear from Darren (who assists with the cemetery’s groundskeeping, maintenance, gravestone repair, and just about anything else that needs to be done).

Darren agreed to meet with me so that I could learn his story and then share it with you all, and it was very eye-opening to see all of the hard work that he and Grounds Conservation Manager Daniel Holcombe do every day to ensure that HCC can be the beautiful place we all love and enjoy.

First, let me share a few details about Darren’s background. Darren moved out here to Washington DC from Michigan, where he studied Anthropology and Art History at Central Michigan University. His family still lives in a small farming town called Deckerville, where he plans to return once his summer internship with HCC is over. Of Washington, Darren says “This is the only city I’ve ever been to that I actually enjoyed. I’m really more of a country boy, but I’m really gonna miss the cemetery once I go home.”

Darren was offered this internship here at HCC without any set hours, allowing him to work another part-time job if he so desired, but Darren can be found at the cemetery 40 hours a week, working from 7am-3pm every day, completely voluntarily.  When I asked him what he liked so much about working at Historic Congressional Cemetery, he had a lot of answers. For one, he gets to do hands-on work every day, which is fun for him, but he says he also really enjoys the people he gets to work with.


Darren Messing

After I’d asked Darren to tell me about himself and what he does for the cemetery, I asked him if he’d show me around to his recent projects and favorite places in the cemetery. So, we loaded up into the John Deere Gator and he took me on a little tour.

The first project Darren showed me was some brick repair on the Richards Vault. Dotted throughout the cemetery are several vaults, and this particular one needed to have some damaged bricks chiseled out, replaced, and then tuck-pointed–an arduous but good learning experience for Darren.

One question about Darren’s work that I was most interested in was gravestone repair, because old cemeteries always seem to have broken or crooked headstones, and so I asked Darren to show me one of the headstones that he and Daniel repaired this summer.

This particular headstone was paid for by donation in memory of Nicholas Alexander “Koyla” Dunaev, a man famous for his circus-act talent of bending dimes with his fingers. The headstone itself was purchased through a supplier, but Darren and Daniel had the difficult task of constructing the foundation upon which the headstone was placed. For other headstones, perhaps smaller ones, it’s Darren and Daniel’s job to correct them when they may become crooked, most likely due to natural erosion, which involves digging them out and resetting them.


Nicholas Dunaev Headstone

Also, for those of you who attended the Cinematery a couple of weeks ago, Darren and Daniel were responsible for erecting the giant move screen that displayed the film. So, Darren’s work is all-encompassing. If HCC needs something done, he’s the man to help get it done.

At the end of our interview I asked Darren to show me his favorite places in the cemetery, which is how I unexpectedly learned that HCC has a little vegetable garden with cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, string beans, and even a habanero plant! (Luckily for me there were two ripe cucumbers and he let me enjoy one for lunch!)


HCC’s summer garden

Darren will be with us until the end of August, which means he may be making an appearance at the Operation Conservation workshop later this month, but he plans to return home to Michigan and hopefully become involved in the historical societies out there.

So, the next time you find yourself walking the beautiful brick paths at Historic Congressional Cemetery, admiring the old graves and scenic views, be sure to thank Darren for his hard work maintaining the grounds. The cemetery requires a very devout team of preservationists, and our goal is to be able to share that passion for history with the community and hopefully continue HCC’s legacy for years to come.

Thank you for taking the time out of your busy week to support Historic Congressional Cemetery! If there’s anything in particular that’d you’d like to read about on the HCC blog, be sure to leave your comment below and we’ll do our best to keep it full of interesting and new posts.



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White Vault Restoration

By Margaret Puglisi

In 2003, when the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) assessed all of the structures at Congressional Cemetery, the White Vault was in dire condition.  Structural elements were severely deteriorated or missing altogether.  Brick was spalling, sandstone delaminating, ironwork corroding, and mortar had essentially disappeared from the majority of the structure.  All of these conditions can be attributed to normal ageing and weathering, so there was no suspicion of foul play in the deterioration of this structure.  The White Vault needed attention.


Image of the White Vault from the 1970s.

The AOC prioritized regrading, repointing, replacing missing structural elements, and rebuilding a failed wall, and also recommended that the sandstone and ironwork be repaired.  While the interior did not show significant signs of deterioration, it would only be a matter of time based on the failing condition of the exterior.

Work started on the vault in May 2009.  The Architectural Preservation Services, LLC (APS) performed their own condition assessment and came to the same conclusion as the AOC.

Their treatment started by methodically matching the mortar based on strength, color, and texture of existing mortar.

White Restoration_West Elevation

Before and after of the west elevation.

Aside from spot testing, the vault required three different cleaning agents: one for biological growth, one for brick, and one for sandstone.  The varying properties between brick and sandstone produced different cleaning needs, especially considering the porosity of sandstone which allows pollution to penetrate easily.

They chose to remove all of the mortar by hand.  It was decided that three of the walls would need to be disassembled and reconstructed due to the loss of brick and mortar.  The only wall that stayed intact was the front façade, which only needed to be repointed.

To solve the issue of deteriorated sandstone capstones and vents, APS did a combination of patching and replacement-in-kind.  Six out of four capstones had to be completely replaced with Aquia Creek sandstone.

The ironwork went on a trip to the Worcester Eisenbrandt studio to be cleaned, corrosion removed, and repainted.  To avoid future rust-jacking, the iron fence was not reinserted into the sandstone.

Performing a structural investigation on the barrel vault, APS found significant mortar failure due to soil and roots covering the structure.  It was deemed inappropriate to cover the vault with sod, and a three-part parging was applied as the solution.  Over the course of several years, the failure in the parging and need for repair has indicated that the vault foundation is not completely stable.


Recently, the White Vault restoration saga came to a close, as much as any restoration project truly can.  In order to properly restore the vault, the bodies were removed by the Smithsonian.  The team of experts analyzed the remains and conducted extensive genealogical research – all at no cost to Congressional Cemetery.  The remains were rehoused and reinterred in late May, and commemorated with a small private ceremony.  Thanks to the generosity of the Smithsonian, we now have invaluable documentation about the White family.

As with all of our memorials and tombs, there is a need for ongoing monitoring of the White Vault, but we are confident that the vault is now a proper environment for the White family to rest in eternity.

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Hannah Miller’s Adventures: Part 2

Hi Everyone!! It’s me again. Hannah, the intern. And I’ve come back to tell you all about my adventures at the cemetery last weekend! Something really fun happened at Historic Congressional Cemetery on Friday, and if you weren’t there, or you didn’t even know about it, I’m here now to give you the 4-1-1.

First, though, I want to see if y’all can guess what shenanigans I was up to last night. Those of you who already know, don’t spill just yet!

Here’s a selfie I took last night about 8pm with my Friday femme date, Veronica:


We’re in the graveyard, and, if you notice, there are some other folks settled in around us as well! And a lot of people brought blankets or camping chairs to sit on. As we made our way past the chapel there was even free popcorn! (Any guesses yet?)

Here’s another snapshot I took from last night:


Veronica and I wanted to be in the very front, to get the best view, but all behind us were families, friends and couples, all enjoying each other’s company over some pre-packed dinners and snacks. As the sun started to go down, more people filed in and excitedly found spots to sit all around.

Once the sun had come close to setting, and the entire cemetery had that gorgeous evening glow, everyone quieted down and drew their attention to the giant white screen in front of them.

That’s right! Last night was Historic Congressional Cemetery’s “Cinematery”!  For those of you who are unfamiliar with this word (probably because we made it up, because we’re cool like that) Cinematery is when the community can come together and enjoy a movie at the cemetery!

This was my first time ever attending the Cinematery, and let me just tell you, it was so fun! But don’t worry, we didn’t watch anything scary! Although I do enjoy some classic Vincent Price films from time to time, last night was a night of laughter and sing-song. Perhaps you all know of a certain romantic musical with Gene Kelly? From 1952? Well, I had never seen it before. Last night we all watched “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Here’s the best picture of the movie screen I managed to take once the sun had set and the cemetery became the perfect outdoor theater:


So, Friday was a couple of new “firsts” for me. If there’s one thing I love, it’s trying new things, and I can safely say that I had never watched a movie in a cemetery before!  I also had never seen “Singin’ in the Rain”!

Over all, if I was a snobby event critic with too much time on my hands, I would give HCC a “10/10, would recommend” for Cinematery. It’s an excellent opportunity to spend time with your friends, family members, or significant others, enjoy some free popcorn, and have a good laugh. Veronica and I can’t wait to see what other events Congressional Cemetery has cooked up for the rest of the summer!

I will also be attending the Operation Conservation workshop (more info here: on August 27 & 28 to learn more about gravestone restoration and maintenance! I’ll be sure to write about my experiences soon afterward.

Thanks, Everyone! I hope y’all are having a good week and drinking enough water on these hot days!

— Hannah Miller, Programming, Writing, & Research Intern

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A Historic Run

Whatever your political views may be, we can all agree that we are currently experiencing one of the most tempestuous presidential elections the country has ever seen.  The ups and downs of campaigning and primaries have dominated the news cycles for what is arguably a historic amount of time, as the drawn-out process has delivered new thrills and scandals on an almost daily basis.  The announcement that Hillary Clinton had clinched the nomination for the Democratic Party only adds to unusual nature of this presidential election.  Perceptive audiences, however, may have noticed that the press hasn’t declared Clinton to be the first woman to run for President, because she isn’t – not by a long shot.

The debate over who was the first woman to run for President is complicated as two women vie for this spot in history.  Most agree that this award goes to Victoria Woodhull, who ran for the presidency in 1872 on the Equal Rights Party ticket.  Woodhull was a controversial figure who prominently advocated for women’s rights and labor reforms and famously supported free love.  However, despite her nomination, historians dispute whether Woodhull actually appeared on the ballots and whether or not she received any votes.  Moreover, as she was under the age of 35, the legality of her run for office is further questioned.


Victoria Woodhull By Mathew Brady – Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Musem, Historical Photographs and Special Visual Collections Department, Fine Arts Library, Public Domain,


If we can then qualify the historic accolade even further, it is important to throw Belva Lockwood into the ring.  Belva Lockwood, a Congressional Cemetery “resident,” ran on the Equal Rights Party ticket in both 1884 and 1888 (strangely enough, this Equal Rights Party was a different one than Victoria Woodhull’s, but shared the name).  The critical difference between Lockwood and Victoria Woodhull?  In her 1884 run, Lockwood received over 4,000 votes.  That may not seem like a significant amount until you consider that women did not even have the right to vote until 1920, meaning that although Belva was allowed to run for president, she couldn’t even vote for herself.

Belva_Ann_Lockwood_-_Brady-Handy (1)

Belva Ann Lockwood By Mathew Brady – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection.

Before entering the 1884 presidential campaign, Belva Lockwood had already built an impressive resume.  After moving to Washington, D.C. in 1865 she attended the National University Law School (now the George Washington University Law School).  In 1879 she petitioned for and won the right to argue before the Supreme Court, becoming the first woman to do so.  She went on to defend numerous civil rights cases.  Most prominently, she won a $5 million settlement for the Cherokee in a case concerning their forced removal.  Throughout her lifetime, Lockwood was a passionate advocate for women’s rights and suffrage.

Belva Lockwood died in 1917, a few years before women won the right to vote through the passage of the 19th Amendment.  Hillary Clinton’s run is historic, especially when you consider the sacrifices and struggles of the women who preceded her.  Regardless of who you vote for on November 8th, consider visiting Congressional Cemetery to pay tribute to a phenomenal woman who helped pave the way for the possibility of a female president.

— Lauren Maloy, Program Director

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Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About the Ever-Exciting Hannah Miller: Part 1

Each year Congressional Cemetery hosts summer interns from both undergraduate and graduate programs. These interns help us with a variety of tasks depending on their interests and our needs. Typical projects include assisting with the ongoing condition assessments of the gravestones, writing for our newsletter and blog, researching genealogy, and “other duties as assigned” – a job descriptor the staff members here are also familiar with. This year we are thrilled to welcome two summer interns, and for the very first time, a virtual intern. Hannah Miller will be completing her projects off-site, and you’ll be hearing from her often over the next few months. But now, we’ll let her introduce herself:


Okay I don’t actually know if there’s going to be a “part 2” about me on this blog, but I felt like I needed an epic title to intrigue you and make you all keep reading even though this post has very little to do with Congressional Cemetery, and, since you follow a blog entirely devoted to Congressional Cemetery, my guess is that you personally enjoy history or cemeteries or both. But I am none of those things (sadly); I’m  just a 22-year-old girl who someone allowed to be an intern, and who perhaps enjoys history and cemeteries as much as you!

Hi, my name is Hannah Miller, and yes…. I am that strange girl who unabashedly enjoys spending time in cemeteries all by herself and isn’t there to “visit” any grave in particular, but who genuinely finds interest in gravestones–their design, the names engraved thereupon, their dates, and the mystery they hold. I guess maybe I should start at the beginning, and that way you’ll have a better idea of who I am and what background I come from.

First off, I have a confession to make. No, don’t worry, I haven’t done anything illegal (lately), but what I need to illustrate to you is this: I have a very active imagination. Maybe some of you can relate to me in this.  For those of us with active imaginations, history is very exhilarating.  Like how some folks out there find excitement delving deep into a fantasy novel and invest their hearts in fictional characters, I adore reading and learning about real-life figures from the past because my imagination allows me to picture their life–their struggles, their successes, what they loved, and how they felt–and then it feels that much more intimate to me because I know it really happened.

I was born in the early 90’s to a family who already had seven other kids, which, you might think, seems like overkill, but something beneficial that comes with having seven older siblings is all of the stories that come along with that. There’s nothing my family loves more than sitting around and telling stories, and, since I was the youngest and therefore least experienced, I think I developed the desire to live my life in hopes that I’d finally have a story to tell my family that could compete with everyone’s older than me. Some examples of this would be like the time I moved from Oregon to Vermont and learned woodworking…. or moved to Utah to live in a small town and dated a cowboy….or like now, how I’ve decided to move to Virginia and fulfill my desire to get a degree in Historic Preservation, so that even those people who have died can still share their stories.

Historic Preservation, to me, is a way to preserve the past so that people, and places, and events never lose their significance.The next chapter of my life is one that I would like to devote to serving others, and ensuring that all of those wonderful stories, despite maybe being decades or centuries old, can continue being shared, learned from, and enjoyed. This opportunity to intern with Congressional Cemetery is one that I hope to spend a lot of time learning from, but will also hopefully allow me to pass that knowledge on to those around me, and those reading this blog! So, thanks for taking the time to listen to my story and I hope to have the opportunity to add to it. Maybe in the form of a part 2?

Thanks, all! I hope you’re all enjoying your week.

— Hannah

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A Pitch for the Best Neighborhood

By Beverley Lumpkin

Recently the Washington Post quoted President Obama revealing that he and the first family would “probably” stay in Washington, D.C., for a couple of years after his term ends so that younger daughter Sasha can finish high school.

The article went on to speculate about which part of town the Obamas might choose.  Of course, the Northwest quadrant figured heavily in the guessing game.  The West End, so the First Lady could be near her favorite Soul Cycle gym?  Chevy Chase, to be closer to Sidwell Friends, Sasha’s school?  The piece even noted that “the first dogs would enjoy a park,” while lamenting that most yards are not as spacious as the White House grounds.


We here at Historic Congressional Cemetery’s Canine Corps would like the first family to consider Capitol Hill.  No, not “close in,” near those quarrelsome Members of Congress.  We’re talking Hill East, home of one of the nation’s oldest and most historic cemeteries, which has a unique dog-walking program beloved by both humans and dogs on Capitol Hill.

roscoe victor romero

Roscoe at Congressional Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Victor E. Romero.

At Congressional Cemetery, after a suitable time on the waiting list – no jumping in line, please! – Bo and Sunny can run around on 35 fenced-in beautiful acres of grass, up and down hills, even splashing in a fresh stream “spa,” cavorting with other pups and their owners too.

Of course, Congressional is still an active burial ground, so respect must be paid to those spending eternity here, as well as family and friends who come to visit.  So the cemetery closes to dogs every Saturday from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. for those who want to visit without canine accompaniment.  Sunny and Bo will also be asked to refrain from coming during funerals.

While the doggies are sniffing the grass or chasing squirrels, the Obamas can stroll through the grounds noting some of the famous (and a few infamous) who have been buried here – yes, many Members of Congress, but also a former Vice President, Cabinet members and leading citizens of the city and the nation, including the “March King,” John Philip Sousa, Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.


Flee the British 5k, featuring temporary cemetery “resident” Dolley Madison.

There are many other amenities to please the human members of the first family.  Dozens of family plots have been “adopted” by canine corps members who satisfy their gardening itch by planting shrubs and flowers in plots otherwise given over to grass.  Community gatherings and events occur throughout the year, including “Notes from the Crypt,” classical music concerts in the Cemetery’s chapel; our annual “Day of the Dog,” games and attractions for humans and dogs, on May 7th this year; free docent-led tours of the most interesting graves and memorials every Saturday from April through October; 5k races such as our beloved Dead Man’s Run; and finally, Soul Strolls, haunted historical tours of the cemetery.

So come on, Mr. President!  You don’t have to go to the Tidal Basin to see cherry trees or upper northwest to find a great neighborhood for human and beast alike.

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Historic Congressional Cemetery Docents Answer Real Visitor Questions

By Frank J. Pietrucha


Archivist and docent Dayle Dooley giving a tour at the cemetery.

What kind of questions do visitors ask when touring the storied grounds of Historical Congressional Cemetery (HCC)? A zinger is always possible, but for the most part, questions are fairly predictable.  Here are three questions commonly asked and answered by three of our volunteer docents:

Are there any African Americans buried at Congressional Cemetery?

Yes, but, it was more likely that an African American back in the day would be buried at a cemetery catering to “colored people,” like Woodlawn.  Docents tell me, however, that it was not uncommon for endeared black slaves and servants to be buried with the white families they spent their lives serving.  While HCC never formally discriminated, it was typical of most institutions at that time in that informal cultural segregation was the norm.

Today, of course, neither formal nor informal segregation is permitted and the cemetery is proud that the next of kin of such prominent African Americans as Marion Barry and Alain Locke chose us as their final resting places.

Is Congressional Cemetery haunted? 

Is anything really haunted? Most docents try not to answer this question directly.  But if you believe in ghost stories, then sure, the cemetery is haunted.  Most of our restless spirit residents are known to leave cemetery grounds to do their haunting taking up residence where they last lived rather than where their remains remain.  David Herold, John Wilkes Booth’s accomplice; Archibald Henderson, of Marine Barracks fame; Thomas Tingey, of the Navy Yard and Robert Slight, the worker on the Capitol who fell to his death; are all interred at HCC, but do their haunting elsewhere.

One resident, Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, however, does his haunting at HCC.   Congress promised to pay him for war photos, but reneged, leaving him penniless. Brady has been known to stroll among the cenotaphs dunning Congressmen for compensation.  No rest for the weary.  And of course, who can forget John Phillip Sousa? On foggy evenings the legendary Marine Corps bandmaster is said to play his sousaphone.

What do I have to do to “get into” Congressional Cemetery?

Visitors are often awed by the large number of famous people residing at HCC.  With so many politicians, activists, artists and business leaders buried here, many think plots are only available for Washington’s elite.  That’s not the case; there are all sorts of people buried here.  The snarkiest of all HCC docents, Tim Krepp, said getting into Congressional Cemetery is a two-part process: “first, you have to die; second, you have to make sure your check clears.”

For information about docent led tours of Historic Congressional Cemetery check out the schedule here:

Thanks to docents Tim Krepp, Susan Wagner and Robert Pohl.

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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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