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:

SpotTheDifferences copy

WmWhite copy

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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Thinking of Warmer Days

Boston, we know. We’ve got nothing on you here in DC. But by anyone’s standards, it is brutally cold here in the nation’s capital. The wind is howling outside the cemetery gatehouse, and the staff feel lucky to be able to hunker down and view the beauty of the cemetery from the comfort of our heated offices.

The best way to combat the winter blues is to look forward to spring, and with that in mind it’s time to highlight our biggest spring event, Day of the Dog on May 2, 2015. Don’t worry, we won’t wax poetic about how amazing and fun this event is (see our August Day of the Dog post if you’d like some of that), but it is time to put this on your radar as an event that you’re *hopefully* looking forward to. This year, we’re also putting on a 5k race in conjunction with the festival, and we’re especially excited about seeing local runners racing through the cemetery with their pups.

Dog lovers, just keep thinking about the better and warmer days that are on their way, and save the date for this special day. And if you’re not a dog owner, but potentially thinking of getting one in 2015? We’ll leave you with this. We dare you to say no to this face.


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Mayors of the City of Washington

In the late fall of 2014, Historic Congressional Cemetery was honored to be chosen as the final resting place of Marion Shepilov Barry, Jr. (1936-2014), who served two terms as mayor of Washington, DC.  He is considered to have served as the capital city’s second mayor from 1979 to 1991 and its fourth, from 1995-1999.  Like all politics in Washington, DC, it’s not that easily defined: Throughout the evolution and growth of the city, many don’t realize that the City of Washington had dozens of mayors in its early history from the time it was granted a formal government in 1802.  Congressional Cemetery happens to be the final resting place of a total of eleven former mayors, including Barry.

The early Mayor of Washington had authority over city services, appointments, and local tax assessments, however, the duties of the mayor mostly consisted of requesting appropriations from Congress to finance the city.  From 1802 to 1812, the mayor was appointed by the President of the United States; between 1812 and 1820, the city’s mayors were selected by a city council.  From 1820 to 1871, the mayor was popularly elected.  Congress formed a territorial government headed by a governor appointed by the President.  Due to alleged mismanagement and corruption, including allegations of contractors bribing members of the District legislature to receive contracts, the territorial government was discontinued in 1874.

From 1874 to 1967, the District was administered by a three-member Board of Commissioners with both legislative and executive authority, all appointed by the President.  In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson presented to Congress a plan to reorganize the District’s government.  The three-commissioner system was replaced by a government headed by a single mayor-commissioner, an assistant mayor-commissioner, and a nine-member city council, all appointed by the President.

Walter E. Washington was appointed the first mayor-commissioner, and Thomas W. Fletcher was appointed the first assistant mayor-commissioner.  Since 1975, the District has been administered by a popularly elected mayor and city council, with Walter Washington being elected in 1975.


In the summer of 2014, a German citizen named Wolfgang Berret visited the cemetery looking for the gravesite of his great grandfather, James G. Berret (1815-1901) who just happened to have served as the 18th Mayor of the City of Washington.  The young Berret was thrilled when HCC staff showed him the impressive final resting place: the Berret mausoleum, the first impressive structure along our mausoleum row.  Wolfgang Barret is pictured here in front of the granite structure.

James Gabriel Berret was an American politician who served as a Maryland state legislator from 1837 to 1839 and as Mayor of the City of Washington from 1858 to 1861, when he was forced to resign from office after being jailed by the Lincoln administration for sedition.

Berret was born in Maryland on February 12, 1815.  When he left the Maryland legislature he was appointed to an office in the US Treasury by President Martin VanBuren.  He served in the Treasury until 1853, when President Franklin Pierce appointed him Postmaster of the District of Columbia.  He served on the inaugural committee for Presidents James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln.

James G. Berrett

James G. Berrett

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Republicans in the US Congress pushed through legislation that required all public officers in Union territory to take oaths of allegiance to the United States.  When Berret refused, insisting that his oath as mayor of the nation’s capital should suffice, Secretary of State William H. Seward had him arrested, jailed in the Old Capitol Prison, then sent to Fort Lafayette, New York.  Three weeks later, when no evidence of collaboration with the enemy surfaced, Seward had Berret released and returned to Washington – on the condition that he immediately resign as mayor. Berret telegraphed his resignation to the Washington City Council, who had already elected Richard Wallach to replace him.

Berret eventually became friends with Lincoln, although he declined when the President offered to appoint him commissioner of the emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia. However, he accepted Ulysses S. Grant’s nomination to the board of police commissioners in 1872.  He later served on the inaugural committee for President Grover Cleveland.   Berret died April 14, 1901.  His last residence in Washington was at 1535 I Street N.W.

–Paul K. Williams, President

Mayor’s interred at Congressional Cemetery include:

Term                                        Name                                       Death Date     

1812-1813                               Daniel Rapine                            May 11, 1819

1817-1819                               Benjamin Grayson Orr            April 10, 1822

1819-1822, 1824                     Samuel N. Smallwood            September 29, 1824

1824-1827                               Roger Chew Weightman        February 2, 1876

1827-1830                               Joseph Gales                           July 21, 1860

1840-1850                               William W. Seaton                  June 16, 1866

1852-1854                               John Walker Maury                 February 4, 1855

1854-1856                               John Thomas Towers              August 11, 1857

1858-1861                               James G. Berret                       April 14, 1901

1868-1870                               Sayles Bowen                         December 16, 1896

1979-1991, 1995-1999            Marion S. Barry                      November 23, 2014

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