Adopt-a-Plot Program at Congressional Cemetery

The Adopt-a-Plot Program plays a key role in the preservation and beautification of Congressional Cemetery. Our program provides individuals, groups, organizations, and companies with the opportunity to play an important and active role in preserving, enhancing, and maintaining Congressional Cemetery’s landscape and grounds.

The objective of our Adopt-a-Plot program to get members of the local community in involved in efforts to revitalize and enhance the numerous cultural and historic resources found in the cemetery, restore the beauty of the grounds, and preserve the landscape for future generations.

Members of the Adopt-a-Plot program will be assigned a family plot to tend to throughout the year. The plots available to be adopted range in size from about ten square feet to up to five hundred square feet. Each of the plots that are available to be adopted are surrounded with a stone coping or a metal fence. If you wish to adopt a plot that does not have stone coping or a fence, then you are responsible for providing metal edging or a small fence to put around the plot to minimize damage to your adopted plot from the lawn mowers and dog walkers.

Volunteers will have access to a variety of gardening tools, water, mulch, and top soil. Our program is fairly flexible, but we ask that you do not plant any vines, invasive species, vegetables, fruits, or trees in the plot that you adopt. Additionally, we ask that no chemicals be used in your adopted plot except when the cemetery is closed to dogs on Saturdays from 10-3.

Please consider attending our Adopt-a-Plot Happy Hour event scheduled for September 28 from 6-8 to learn more about our Adopt-a-Plot program. If you wish to become involved in our Adopt-a-Plot program, please email Kymberly Mattern at



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A Runner’s Perspective: Dead Man’s Run

We could go on and on about why you should run Dead Man’s Run, a race which is now in its SEVENTH year. Caps lock because we can’t believe it either. But if you won’t take our word for it, we hope you listen to one of our veteran runners, Catherine Collins. She’s been running the race for five years and is of course registered for our 2017 run on October 7th. If you’d rather hear Catherine talk about Dead Man’s Run in person, she’ll be at the Pacers Clarendon Day Run chatting it up about how awesome DMR is. But if an evening 5k with beer, pretzels, and costumes in an actual historic cemetery doesn’t sound cool enough to you, well, we give up. For those of you on the fence, read below, and register today!

Congressional Cemetery Facebook page front page_Oct 3 2015_2

Catherine (#133) running her first Dead Man’s Run, as featured on our Facebook page.

How did you first hear about Dead Man’s Run?  I think I saw an announcement or something for it, but I remember thinking “OMG that is really cool, I totally gotta do it!”

 When was your first DMR? How many have you run?  My first one was in 2012, which I believe was year two of the run.  I have run in 5 races, with 2017 being my 6th.  🙂

All bibs

She saved all her bibs! Officially our favorite DMR runner.

 Costume or no costume?  My first year I ran it I didn’t have a costume ready and then the following year I wore the run t-shirt from 2012 and now I feel it’s a good luck charm and I love wearing it every year.  I would love to do a costume, but I am just not that coordinated to put together an outfit for the fun.  I have added kitten ears, devil ears, or glow sticks to try to add a little something, but I always know I have to work this around the t-shirt.


Catherine on the left.

 What’s your favorite costume that you’ve seen at a Dead Man’s Run?  I think the best was in 2014 when there was a man dressed as the Washington Monument under construction with lights!  He was in front of me in the race and he had cut out a small piece in the back, from the huge piece of cardboard he was wearing, so that his feet could move. However he kept hitting the cardboard with feet. I have always wondered if the 5k was the first time he tried the cardboard out or was there a practice run.


Yep, one of the best costumes ever!

 What’s your favorite part of this race, and what would you tell people who are considering running it?  There are so many reasons why I love this race.  Everyone’s attitude is amazing and they are there to have fun and be a little scared.  I love all the great costume ideas people come up and additionally the race route is great.  You get to run in the cemetery as well as along the Anacostia trail, plus the DJ is great and after the run you grab your pretzel, beer or water and have a little dance.

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Adventurer, Veteran, Secret Service Chief, Interrogator, and More: The Surprisingly Exciting Life of Col. William P. Wood

As I flipped through file folder upon file folder of mere death certificates and lengthy, obscure family histories, my eyes were immediately drawn in by an obituary sub-headline in one file: “LIFE A CONTINUOUS MELODRAMA.” The man behind the melodrama? Colonel William P. Wood, the rather multifaceted first chief of the Secret Service. While Wood isn’t exactly a household name, this seemingly somewhat salacious obituary, as much as I hate to admit it, pulled me in to inspect this character more than I probably would have otherwise. Another file in his folder described his life as being “the stuff of adventure books,” and it certainly wasn’t wrong. A brief run-down of his resume, according to his files, includes the following descriptors: Mexican war veteran, filibustero, ex-Catholic and Know-Nothing nativist, anti-slavery Unionist, friend of the Secretary of War, extractor of confessions of Lincoln’s assassination conspirators, first chief of the Secret Service, supposed survivor of assassination attempts, and counterfeit buster extraordinaire. Some of these titles and their descriptions in his obituaries seemed so ridiculous to me that I made it my mission to fact-check, and while some of these claims, like that he drilled men for John Brown’s raid and that he helped “hundreds” escape on the Underground Railroad, remain somewhat unsubstantiated, it’s clear that this man probably saw more action than Daniel Craig in a typical Bond movie.


A portrait from his file here at HCC.

Born in Alexandria, Virginia in 1820, Wood’s life reads like a condensed lesson in history from the Antebellum period through the early Gilded Age. He was still on the younger side at the onset of the Mexican War, in which he found himself in the command of the General Samuel H. Walker, Texas ranger (my unfamiliarity with the plotlines of popular Western TV shows led me to conduct a quick internet search to see if this is the same “Walker, Texas Ranger” that I’ve heard referenced before, and I was slightly dismayed that it wasn’t). Moving on from the Mexican War, Wood’s obituaries make some fascinating claims about his later semi-military adventures. Supposedly, Wood took part in William Walker’s filibuster expedition to Nicaragua in 1855. For those of you who are wondering why securing a legislative filibuster would require a vacation to Nicaragua, “filibuster,” at the time, referred to men who engaged in extralegal attempts at seizing Latin American and Caribbean territory in violation of neutrality laws. These men, their name deriving from the Spanish “filibustero” describing pirates, were almost universally acquitted by sympathetic juries despite the clearly dubious legality of their little adventures.


Colorized portrait of Walker, filibustero and rather flagrant outlaw.

Filibustering expeditions were the natural result of a popular cult of Manifest Destiny; men like Walker felt that they not only had a right to enter these sovereign countries and independently wage war, but also the responsibility for the greater cause of American expansion. Filibustering was, in many respects, intimately tied to the Southern cause in the years leading up to the Civil War. Pro-slavery groups like the Knights of the Golden Circle praised extralegal expansionism as a tactic to obtain more territory below the Missouri Compromise line of 36’30.’’ They knew that Southern expansion would result in the addition of more slave states and, of course, more representation of slaveholding interests in Congress. Moreover, some historians have argued that the country’s handling of filibustering contributed to the South’s decision to secede, as a preponderance of southerners saw President Pierce’s refusal to support an expedition by Narciso Lopez as a direct attack on slave interests.

With all of these filibustering facts taken into account, Wood’s supposed participation in this expedition makes his future activities and alignment with antislavery causes somewhat baffling. Perhaps he was just going through a brief political phase or simply desired adventure, because the Evening Star obituary also claims that Wood assisted in drilling John Brown’s men in preparation for his ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry, using tactical knowledge from the Mexican War. It claims that he could have possibly gone on to lead the raid, but he eventually opposed Brown’s plans, considering the scant likelihood that they would succeed. The obituary also claims he was active on the Underground Railroad at this time, helping “hundreds” escape northwards. While that number may certainly be inflated, there’s little doubt that he did participate on the Railroad, as his future endeavors in the Lincoln Administration demonstrate a clear devotion to the Unionist cause.

John Brown

A really impressive beard, ft. abolitionist hero John Brown, who Wood supposedly aided in military training.

Walker’s civilian life in DC leading up the Civil War features some similarly interesting contradictions, and his prewar experiences helped him to forge some of the connections that were key to his later successes in government. Supposedly, Walker was squarely affiliated with the “American Parties” in the years of their strength in the 1850s – otherwise known as the parties of the “Know-Nothings.” Reportedly born a Catholic, he distanced himself from his birth religion and embraced the nativist, anti-immigrant movement. The American Parties themselves are full of contradictions and conundrums, which certainly shortened their shelf-life as a viable political movement. Know-Nothingism drew supporters from both pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions, stitching them together with the common thread of a different breed of bigotry: xenophobia and anti-Catholicism.

The American Party behaved bizarrely, to say the least, when it came to national elections; it nominated Millard Fillmore for president despite his not aligning with their views, not expressing any desire to run, and not even being in the country at the time of his nomination. While Walker’s involvement in the Know-Nothing movement may not seem too contradictory on its face due to its significant anti-slavery contingency, figures like Lincoln, his future boss, recognized the philosophical incongruences. While he never publicly called the American Parties out, Lincoln once revealed his opinions in a private letter, stating that he did not understand how one could recognize the oppression of blacks in America but still seek to oppress foreigners and Catholics.

Nevertheless, Wood found employment in the Lincoln administration during the Civil War. His friendship with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, supposedly forged in the DC legal world, led Wood to his place as superintendent of the Old Capitol prison in Washington, DC. This prison was primarily full of all kinds of Confederate conspirators, from spies to blockade runners, and there he honed the interrogation tactics that would serve him well in his future career in the Secret Service. During the Civil War, Wood engaged in several dangerous activities at his own risk, including supposedly frequently disguising himself or allowing himself to be captured behind enemy lines to visit Union prisoners of war and deliver them Confederate currency and supplies. Another obituary claimed that he would oftentimes cross the Potomac with a group of scouts and set off a hail of bullets to deter Confederate encroachment towards DC. Whether these events are exaggerated or not, it’s clear that Wood was willing to put his life on the line to serve the administration – a trait that would make him a prime candidate for leading the Secret Service.

When the Secret Service was organized under the auspices of the Treasury Department, Lincoln chose Wood to lead its charge against counterfeiters and swindlers. While in modern times the Secret Service is primarily recognized for its bodyguard duties, its role in financial crimes, still extant to this day, was much larger in the 19th century. At the helm of the Secret Service, Wood successfully put the kibosh on some of the most successful counterfeiting schemes of his day; he was responsible for stopping William Brockway, a former chemistry student with copious knowledge on how to fake government bonds. Wood is also known for having secured documents needed to break the Credit Mobilier scandal, the infamous case of railroad-related graft that spawned the creation of modern insider-trading laws. His investigative work didn’t stop with financial crimes and counterfeit operations; Wood used his interrogation skills to extract confessions from Dr. Mudd, Mary Surratt, and Lewis Payne, infamous characters in Lincoln’s assassination.


Infamous (and somewhat scary looking) counterfeiter Brockway

While his track record in fighting financial crime was nearly impeccable, this did not lead to his own financial success; at his death, he was essentially impoverished, locked in a feud with Congress over rewards he was owed for his law enforcement operations.  Wood died on March 23, 1903, and was subsequently buried at Congressional Cemetery. His penury meant that he was stuck with a rather indistinguishable grave for a lengthy amount of time; his original grave marker simply included his last name. In 2001, members of the Secret Service banded together to ensure Wood could receive more appropriate honors for his service to the government and to the formation of the modern Secret Service. This led to a memorial ceremony, featuring the attendance of 5 former heads of the Secret Service as well as many active members, in which a newer, more distinctive headstone was dedicated.

wood gravestone

Wood’s newer headstone.

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Not Written in Stone or Bone

The staff here often refer to cemeteries as outdoor museums. Our “collection” on the grounds consists of over 14,000 headstones, each one in need of proper care and conservation, and each one has a written story to tell. Some stories are more detailed than others, but every headstone is a historical record that memorializes the interred individuals.

But what about the people who left their mark on Congressional Cemetery who are not memorialized in stone? The archives are full of people – both alive and dead – whose transient visits to the Cemetery are impossible to detect on the landscape. But, such is the power of place, and the importance of historical archives. It is more difficult to detect the unseen stories here because there are so many visible, tangible markers for past people and events. But by looking closely at the interment records, newspaper articles, and letters, it’s possible to peel back another layer of the past and discover a new dimension of Congressional Cemetery.


The Public Vault in happier times.

As any historic interpreter worth their salt will tell you, though, empty spaces can still speak volumes about the past.  We use our Public Vault quite often here for tours, cocktail parties, and lectures. Although the musty interior lends a definitively creepy vibe to our events, it’s still difficult to envision the hundreds of human remains that utilized the vault as a hotel room before heading to their permanent destinations, often to a grave in HCC. As is oft-recited on our tours, three presidents spent time in our Public Vault: Zachary Taylor, John Quincy Adams, and William Henry Harrison – who actually spent more time in the Public Vault than in the office of the President (yes, that’s one of our very favorite nerdy jokes here). But someone we really feel we can stake a claim to? Dolley Madison, former First Lady and widow of President James Madison. She spent over two years in the Public Vault before heading to the vault across the way, the Causten Vault, for nearly six years. Looking through HCC records, staff also discovered that Dolley had another First Lady join her in the Causten Vault for a few months – Lousia Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams.

Dolley and Louisa: friends in death?

The Public Vault records boast an impressive roster of names that often seem lifted from a U.S. History textbook, and it makes sense that a certain degree of pomp and circumstance accompanied them on their journey to the receiving vault. Congressional Cemetery was the final destination for numerous grand funeral processions in antebellum Washington, DC. The cenotaphs that dot the landscape mark and memorialize only a fraction of the Congressmen, Presidents, and other influential individuals who were a part of the funeral processions that ended here. Abraham Lincoln was a part of many funeral processions when he was both a Representative and President. Most notably, Lincoln was noted as the “Chief Mourner” for the women who perished in the Washington Arsenal explosion in 1864. But the list of pallbearers for national funerals is also impressive: the likes of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun show up on the list. Moreover, a few of the participants in the funeral processions would end up later being buried in the Cemetery, including Joseph Gales, owner of the National Intelligencer, a publication which recorded the details of many of these funeral processions.


Funeral Order of Procession for John Quincy Adams.

So what, you might say? Important dead people stayed at the cemetery for a bit, and more important people accompanied them on their journey. It might seem to be a natural fit and progression for a national cemetery to host impressive historical figures such as Lincoln and Dolley during funerals and in preparation for burials. But every once in a while something pops up in the records about Congressional Cemetery that has nothing to do with death. One of the more salacious historical happenstances is the affair between Philip Barton Key and Teresa Sickles, which tragically ended with Teresa’s husband, Dan Sickles, murdering Key. Key, whose father penned “The Star Spangled Banner,” was a notorious womanizer, but was a widower when he managed to woo Teresa Sickles. They conducted their affair all over the city of Washington, including Teresa’s home. But most notably, for this article anyways, they also frequented burial grounds for their illicit liaisons, including the cemetery on the east side of the city – Congressional Cemetery. Court records detailed the testimony of Teresa Sickles’ coachmen, who noted that “they would walk down the grounds out of my sight, and be away an hour or an hour and a half.”  Take from that what you will, of course.


The murder of Philip Barton Key – which did NOT happen at HCC.

These might all seem to be disparate and unrelated anecdotes, and perhaps they are. Congressional Cemetery’s history is overwhelming enough when you just take into account the thousands of interments here, much less any tangential history that happened to brush by during the Cemetery’s 210-year stretch. But there’s something to be said for attempting to understand and reconcile the history that is not inscribed on the monuments. This hallowed ground has been trodden by presidents and generals, scoundrels and statesmen, and these are only a few of the stories that pepper the landscape of our records and imaginations. The significance of Congressional Cemetery is much more than what is clearly visible. It has been touched by thousands of people, and will continue to be experienced and influenced for years to come. Within the course of a single year this Cemetery witnesses a multitude of events: daily dog walks, marriage proposals, runs, and of course, funerals. Through our records we get a glimpse of the past events that have shaped Congressional Cemetery, and they influence the way in which we view the present. We’re each a part of Congressional Cemetery’s story.

–Lauren Maloy, Program Director

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Adam Gurowski: A Polish Eccentric and Lincoln’s Intellectual Foe

When President Abraham Lincoln told his bodyguard about whom he feared potentially assassinating him the most, it wasn’t the disgruntled, Confederate-sympathizing actor John Wilkes Booth. Rather, it was a somewhat bizarre Polish man who had renounced his old citizenship, became a spokesman for tsarist autocracy in Russia, and ultimately moved to the United States and became an aggressive champion of the Radical Republican cause. This man was none other than Count Adam Gurowski, who calls Historic Congressional Cemetery his permanent home.


Count Adam Gurowski.

Gurowski was well-known in Washington for his bizarre behavior and strong convictions. According to LeRoy H. Fischer, he once held a DC firefighting brigade at gunpoint to get them to do their job faster; moreover, he challenged a Harvard professor to a duel early in his American career over a Hungarian history factoid, seemingly an overreaction to such a small conflict. While many who knew him well, such as Walt Whitman, considered him to be all bark and no bite, Lincoln was nevertheless discomfited by his eccentric airs. Beyond his personality, Gurowski’s frequent letters to Lincoln, in which he appoints himself as an advisor and rails about the administration’s missteps, and his vehement criticism of the administration in his infamous Diary publications certainly did not help his case. While Gurowski was ultimately more of an embarrassment than a threat, his behavior has led some to christen him “Lincoln’s Gadfly.”

Born in Poland to a noble family in 1805, he displayed a proclivity for political provocation early on in his life; a Russian duke had him expelled from his secondary school for displays of Polish nationalism. Despite this blip on his educational timeline, he went on to become a student of Hegel. Soon after, he returned to Poland and became involved in an uprising against Russian influence in the 1830s. While his importance within this movement has been a matter of debate among scholars, it was enough for the tsar to sentence him to death and confiscate his land while he was in Paris. This began a chain reaction of ideological transformations, though whether they were for protection from punishment or out of genuine conviction is difficult to prove. Gurowski abruptly declared that he was no longer Polish, publishing a pro-Russia tract won him favor in Nicholas I’s court. Now pardoned, he served as an advisor to the tsar on the Russification of Poland before yet again becoming disgruntled and leaving for Prussia. Ultimately, his dissatisfaction on the continent led him to the final leg in his migratory journey in 1849, to the United States.


A depiction of a young Gurowski, sans mutton chops.

Gurowski had incorrectly surmised that his previous experience teaching at Universities in Europe would make him a candidate for a professorship at Harvard. Gurowski soon found himself writing for the New York Tribune, owned by eccentric future presidential candidate Horace Greeley. From his post at the Tribune, Gurowski furiously attacked politicians such as Daniel Webster for holding conservative or moderate positions on slavery. In the meantime, he continued publishing pamphlets and tracts promoting pro-Russia sentiment during the Crimean War. Moreover, one of Gurowski’s most infamous acts at the Tribune included censoring anti-Russian content out of pieces by Marx and Engels; Marx himself referred to Gurowski as an agent of the tsar on more than one occasion. His continual support for the Russian state, despite his intellectual and personal falling out with Nicholas I’s regime, has led some scholars to conclude that his adoption of fervent Pan-Slavism was always more out of conviction than self-preservation.

Before too long, Gurowski found work in DC under Seward in the State Department, scanning European newspapers for articles of interest to the Lincoln administration. Ultimately, when he Published the first installment of his Diary, a series of tracts on his political opinions in which he served up biting criticism of the administration, Seward fired him and very publicly sued him for libel. While the libel case was ultimately dismissed, it further fueled Gurowski’s disgruntlement, leading to the publication of two more venomous Diary installments. As Gurowski’s political views continued shifting away from autocracy, his views on slavery became even more negative. Intellectually, Gurowski viewed America as the instigator of a new epoch in world history. He believed America would upend the trend of various uniform ethno-states replacing each other as world leaders with a new, multi-ethnic and multi-religious civilization, built on free enterprise and liberty – an impossible task to fulfill if an entire race was still oppressed.


A modern-day cover of a Gurowski Diary Installment.

Gurowski began arguing openly with politicians about slavery more and more: in his book America and Europe, an entire chapter was devoted to the evils of slavery, and his 1860 book Slavery in History posited that domestic slavery always led to the demise of the civilizations it infected. His abolitionist convictions led him to attempt to jump into action right away at the beginning of the Civil War: he was one of the first men to join an emergency battalion stitched together to defend DC against a potential Confederate attack, and he tried to convince Secretary of War Stanton to arm blacks before the administration was ready to do so.

While his early agitation in 1861 led General in Chief Winfield Scott and Seward to chide him, his anti-slavery activism would only increase throughout the course of the war; this led him to his most famous project, his advisory letters addressed directly to President Lincoln himself. These letters largely fell in line with the policy goals of Radical Republicans in Congress, who objected to Lincoln’s moderate approach to abolition, hesitancy about Confederate property confiscation, conservative generalship under the likes of McClellan and Halleck, and approach to Reconstruction. He continually trashed Secretary of State Seward, his former boss who sued him, even sending a letter on this topic to Lincoln’s wife: in one letter, he went as far as to claim that “Mr. Seward is held in utter contempt by…European diplomacy,” going on to characterize the official as a flip-flopper.  He also claimed in another that General McClellan, distrusted by Radicals for his cautiousness on the battlefield, was a “half ass traitor” whose generalship was contributing to the ruin of America. He continually attempted to persuade Lincoln to take to the field in command of his troops and create a European-style staff of military advisors that he, of course, wanted to be a member of.


Gurowski’s favorite “half-ass traitor” and a frequent target of his writing.

While it is unclear whether or not any of these letters actually made their way to the President’s desk, and Gurowski was certainly not unique in sending frequent unsolicited advice to the administration, his letters truly stand out because of their eccentric tone and the unique background of the man who wrote them. Lincoln would have no reason to desire to read Gurowski’s letters, especially as Gurowski became more venomous in his public attacks on the President: after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Gurowski said of Lincoln that “you cannot fill his small but empty skull with brains; and when in the animal and human body the brains are wanting, or soft or diseased the whole boy suffers or is paralyzed, so with the nation.” Despite Gurowski’s inability to actually affect war policy, his letters certainly enliven the memory of this bizarre figure in Washington history, whose funeral here in 1866 was said by Whitman to feature the presence of all prominent Radical figures in DC. He is buried in the family plot of Washington socialite Fannie Eames, who always welcomed Gurowski into her parlor for discussion with other Radical guests such as Charles Sumner and Julia Ward Howe and are said to have cared for him in his dying days.


Gurowski’s resting place, in the Eames family plot.


Fischer, LeRoy H. “Adam Gurowski and the American Civil War: A Radical’s Record.” Bulletin of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America 1, no. 3 (April 1943): 474-88.

Fischer, LeRoy H. “Lincoln’s Gadfly – Adam Gurowski.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 36, no. 3 (Dec 1949): 415-434.

Liguori, Sister M. “The Pole Who Wrote to Lincoln.” Polish American Studies 10, no. 1-2 (January – June 1953): 1-12.

Walicki, Andrzej. “Adam Gurowski: Polish Nationalism, Russian Panslavism and American Manifest Destiny.” The Russian Review 38, no. 1 (Jan 1979): 1-26.

Wieczerzak, Joseph W. “Review: SOME FRIENDLY SWIPES AT ‘LINCOLN’S GADFLY’: Lincoln’s Gadfly, Adam Gurowski, (Winner of the $5,000 Literary Award of the War Library and Museum and the Pennsylvania Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States) by LeRoy H. Fischer.” The Polish Review 10, no. 1 (Winter 1965), 90-98.

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And You Thought I Was Done with Introductions: Meet Our New Grounds Conservation Manager, Kymberly Mattern

Now that our previous Grounds Conservation Manager, Daniel Holcombe, has moved on to a new job, it’s time to welcome our new one, Kymberly Mattern! This Northern Virginia native recently moved back to the region upon completing her graduate studies. She studied History and Women’s and Gender Studies at Juniata College, which she described as a “really, really, really” small school in central Pennsylvania, before going on to receive a joint MS in Historic Preservation from Clemson and College of Charleston in May.  It was great to sit down and talk with not only a colleague, but also a fellow history lover, and I’m excited to share with you what she had to say.


Kymberly Mattern.

Kymberly has had quite a bit of experience in the field so far. Over the course of Summer 2016, she had an internship with United Building Envelope Restoration (or “UBER” – not to be confused with the ride-sharing app, as I briefly did when she first mentioned it), in which she did restoration work on Lorton Reformatory. Any of you reading from Fairfax County probably know exactly where she was working: it’s the historically-significant former Laurel Hill prison, where women protesting for political rights were jailed. Kymberly did a lot of hands-on work in this adaptive reuse project, laying bricks and pointing mortar and identifying areas that needed further restoration work, among other tasks.

Another past project she was excited to talk about was work she did on the Fireproof Building in Charleston as part of an advanced conservation class. She gave me quite a fun fact about the building that ties into DC history: it was built by Robert Mills, who designed the Washington Monument and is buried here in Congressional Cemetery! On this project, Kymberly worked with brownstone – an uncommon treat to work with in the South – and also was responsible for testing a chemical product’s effectiveness at removing stucco. These experiences have further solidified her interest in preservation, and we can’t wait to see how they translate into her work at the Cemetery.

fireproof bulding

The Fireproof Building, image courtesy of

Kymberly was led to this position at the Cemetery by her long-held interests. She described her high school-self as loving both houses and history, and historic preservation was the perfect avenue to combine her love for the built environment and for the historic. Moreover, for her, it’s more than just a preservation job; she’s always been interested in cemeteries, places where she can wander around and look at stones, imagining people’s lives and what their experiences must have been like. There’s also an element of empathy to her love for working in a cemetery. She told me that oftentimes, there isn’t really anyone around to take care of peoples’ old stones, and she sees her work as an opportunity to preserve the memories of those whose memories risk being lost. Finally, she stated that it’s not that often that people with a deep interest in cemeteries stumble into an actual job in a historic cemetery and that they often only get to volunteer. For Kymberly, it seems like this makes the job even more of a unique opportunity!


Kymberly in action, with Air Force volunteers working to reset a stone.

As she takes over as Grounds Conservation Manager, Kymberly hopes to focus mostly on restoring stones and structures; while she will also do some of the landscaping work, she expressed that she hopes to focus more on the built aspects of the Cemetery. Ultimately, she’s looking forward to uncovering more of the history of the people in the cemetery and events that people are associated with. I’ll leave you all with a quote from our interview that I think perfectly sums up why all of us at the Cemetery are so excited and passionate about our work: “There are 65,000-plus people commemorated out there, and every single person has a story to tell.” I look forward to seeing what Kymberly can do to help uncover these stories. As usual, if there’s anything you want to hear about in the near future, please don’t hesitate to comment!

-Katelyn Belz, Programming, Writing, and Research Intern


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The Dead Tell the Best Stories: An App Review

Do you love interesting stories about our Cemetery’s “residents?” Of course you do! You’re following the Congressional Cemetery blog. You’re in great company, because so does Liz Ruskin, a woman who works in public radio, brings her dog Lola to the Cemetery, and has put together a truly engaging audio tour. This exclusive tour, aptly named “The Dead Tell the Best Stories,” is available on the app, which you can find on any smartphone app store for free. Liz created this tour with inspiration from her love of stories; she loves the audio tours at museums (when they’re actually good, she added), and thought that the Cemetery deserved one of its own. This tour takes you on a trip through a pretty significant swath of the cemetery, from the front gates all the way to the Gay Corner, and there’s still more ground to cover in the future. Liz hopes to keep adding to it so that one day visitors can simply walk around the entire cemetery and stumble into a story zone wherever they are!

The tour is skillfully narrated and never for one moment dry. Liz isn’t the only narrator in the tour; she brings in a multitude of her knowledgeable friends to share their expertise and their own wealth of stories. These guests include our own Board member Rebecca Roberts, who shares the Victorian history of the “cemetery as park” concept and how we strive to implement that in our programming. Professional tour guide Robert Pohl also contributes his take on the infamous huckster R.S. Hickman, who is supposedly the reason why you need a license to be a tour guide in DC! You might not expect it from a Cemetery audio tour, but “The Dead Tell the Best Stories” is oftentimes rather chuckle-worthy. For example, Pohl humorously explains the mechanics of grave-robbing in relation to R.S. Hickman’s case, and there’s a hilariously off-kilter impersonation of Dr. William Thornton.


The man, the myth, the moocher – R.S. “Beau” Hickman, fascinatingly profiled in the tour.

That very impersonation inspired me to mention just how deft this tour is in its multi-media use: the tour isn’t just narrated, but also includes a variety of audio media that transport you right into the moment in history you’re listening to. The Thornton section of the tour, for example, makes extensive use of a recording from the Cemetery’s own 2015 Soul Strolls, in which the interpreter invites you to imagine you’re actually listening to the kooky doctor (and George Washington fanboy)’s plan to reanimate Washington’s body! Moreover, the tour is filled with newspaper clips read-aloud, which allow you to be the Washington Post reader the day after the Arsenal fire or gain insight into the lives of some of the lesser-known personalities in the tour. Interviews and letters also contribute to the interactive nature of the tour. The final piece of audio media I’ve yet to mention is music, which plays a major role in setting the ambience for the stories. From the plucky guitars evoking antebellum scenery that play in the Matthew Brady section to the lively Sousa marches for their namesake and the spooky minor-key music toward the beginning, the music has been expertly curated to further immerse you in the scene.



The Arsenal Fire Monument, accompanied by contemporaneous media reports in the tour.

The tour does an excellent job of engaging you not just in the history, though, but also in the often-tumultuous emotions of the very human people buried in the Cemetery. Take, for example, the section on Leonard Matlovich, the famous gay activist and Air Force member who came out publicly at a time when that action would earn him a dishonorable discharge. This segment largely lets him speak for himself, and to great effect – you can hear the pain in his voice when he describes in an interview how it felt to hear other people talking negatively about LGBT people while he was closeted, and when he announces his struggle with AIDS that would claim him at a young age.


Matlovich’s headstone, the marker of one of the tour’s most emotional moments.

In a markedly different example, audio recordings from the bit on J. Edgar Hoover effectively portray the paranoia that marked his tenure as director of the FBI, especially in his later years. The man’s bleak take on society and heavy emphasis on “law and order” is clearly visible (well, audible) in something as seemingly small-scale as a speech at a Boy’s Club fundraiser. I strongly suggest giving this tour a listen if only for this reason: hearing such a collection of stories told largely through primary sources as these doesn’t just communicate the facts you could get from reading a Wikipedia page, but also deeply humanizes the dead buried here.

If my description has sufficiently intrigued you to check the tour out, don’t hesitate to hop on over to the app store now and give it a download! You can also listen to the tour on your computer, at the following link: Here are some pointers I’ll share for using the app:

  • If you open the app on-site at the cemetery, the audio tour should pop up first thing in the app’s home page; from there, I strongly suggest following along the different segments in order to get the full narrative.
  • You may want to charge your phone fully or bring a portable charger with you as you embark upon your journey, as the app can be pretty battery-intensive, depending on how you use it.
  • Take your time perusing! There’s tons to find all around the graves you’ll visit, and there’s a pause button on the audio for a reason.

Here’s what the app looks like on the Apple app store.

Finally, although I mentioned this towards the beginning of my post, I’ll say it again: Liz has intended this tour to be a continual work-in-progress. She told me to get the word out that if anyone has a story they want to contribute, they should feel free to get in touch with her, either to meet with her and record it or send in a recording themselves. Plus, I hear she’s looking for someone to narrate a story on Marion Barry, so if anyone is interested in contributing, let us know. If you’ve got a story to share, please feel free to leave a comment, and I’ll get you in touch with Liz as soon as I can!

Until next time,

Katelyn Belz, Programming, Writing, and Research Intern


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Introducing…The Summer Interns!

In keeping with Cemetery intern tradition, I figured that I should go ahead and formally introduce myself and our other summer intern to the fabulous readers of this blog! My name is Katelyn Belz, and I am this summer’s Programming, Writing, and Research intern here at Historic Congressional Cemetery. I’m a rising senior and unabashed American history nerd at the George Washington University, just a stone’s throw away in the District. Since you’re reading this very blog right now, I think it’s fair to assume that you love history at least as much as I do, so I’m excited to share the dividends of my research with you throughout the summer and beyond.


Yours truly.

My love for and study of history has brought me here, both to the DMV and to the Congressional Cemetery. Having the opportunity to study the inner workings and past main events of our nation in its most quintessential city has been a surreal experience for a girl from a nondescript South Florida suburb like me. Take it from me, there’s truly nothing quite like going for a casual weekend visit to Harper’s Ferry while taking a class on the Civil War! I was drawn to the Congressional Cemetery largely because of its fascinating, rich historicity – not only do such pivotal figures as J. Edgar Hoover and Matthew Brady call this space their eternal home, but the Cemetery itself also has a place all unto itself in the history of the Capitol Hill region. Just wandering through the Cemetery for the first time is like an open-ended, never-ending history lesson. You can imagine how hard I geeked out when I noticed that bitter rivals John Calhoun and Henry Clay’s cenotaphs are conveniently placed right next to each other!


Good luck making out the text, but take my word for it – here’s Clay and Calhoun, in the front.

Ultimately, I can’t wait to explore the histories of both these major figures and the seemingly average joes (who are, of course, anything but) here at the Cemetery. Everyone buried here has a story to tell, and I can’t wait to unlock some of these stories and share them with you. Throughout the summer, I’ll be conducting research and continuing to post some fun and funky histories like the ones you’ve seen here before. I’ll also be working on getting the word out on the Cemetery’s two new apps, so keep an eye on our social media and this blog for more on that soon! Since there’s been a tendency in the past for the blog to hit a lull once fall rolls around and interns return to their previous routines, I aim to get enough research and writing done so that I’ll have plenty of stories queued up for the near future. I hope you’re as psyched to dive into this slice of DC’s history this Summer as I am.

This seems like an appropriate place to segue into my conversation with our Preservation intern, Gabe Harper. I was lucky enough to be able to sit and chat with him about his life, interest in the Cemetery, and future in his internship and beyond last week. Gabe is also a rising senior, but, unlike me, he’s come here from far outside of the Cemetery’s backyard. Originally from a farm in Athens, Georgia, he’s a student of Landscape Architecture at UGA. Gabe’s experience in preservation will be a huge asset at the Cemetery; he’s done a ton of work in wood restoration and reclamation back in Athens, as well as doing some foundational support work in Brunswick, GA. He’s looking forward to expanding his experience in working with stone restoration; if any of your favorite stones and sites look significantly better when you stop by this summer, be sure to thank Gabe for giving our new Grounds Conservation Manager, Kymberly Mattern, a hand.


Gabe in action.

Gabe found his way here all the way from Athens from a list of internships posted on a historic preservation site. His program at UGA requires an internship between Junior and Senior year, and for Gabe, the Cemetery fit that bill perfectly! He’s excited to do preservation work here; one project he’s especially looking forward to, is working on restoring a mausoleum built in 1838. Gabe told me that he loves the landscape of the Cemetery as well, describing it as containing a sort of picturesque English character and providing a perfect environment to do historic preservation work in (and I’ll take a Landscape Architecture major’s word for it when they say a landscape is beautiful).


One of Gabe’s current projects.

So far, it seems like Gabe has a lot of thoughts about DC as a whole. He described it as having “a lot of tall buildings and honking horns,” as well as being a bit tough to navigate; as a transplant, I can definitely relate. Nevertheless, he and I can both agree that the history is captivating and makes this city truly a unique joy to experience; some of his favorite spots include the National Mall and the Museum of American History. Ultimately, after the internship, Gabe plans to go on to grad school for Historic Preservation and using his experiences here for future preservation work, possibly even going back to school to study and teach Southern American history for some time after that. I’m glad I got to introduce him this early on in the summer, and I can’t wait to work together in preserving and communicating our “residents’” histories! Thank you so much for reading our (admittedly long winded) joint intro, and if there’s anything specific you want to hear about on this blog any time soon, please leave a comment.

-Katelyn Belz, Programming, Writing, and Research Intern

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Then Fix It, Dear Henry!

Here’s a common complaint and concern we often receive at the Cemetery: “I see so many fallen headstones in the cemetery. Why don’t you fix them?”

If you’ve traipsed around your share of historic cemeteries then you’re used to seeing fallen headstones. It’s common, and there are a myriad number of reasons that this happens. Time, weathering, and poor construction or materials contribute to deteriorating headstones. And yes, sometimes overall neglect is the primary cause. But the assumption often is that we’re not doing enough with our resources. Not that the staff take these assumptions personally (but yes, sometimes we do), but there is a reasonable explanation for why even though our cemetery is thriving, we still have fallen headstones.

In a perfect world, all of the headstones in the cemetery would be upright, legible, and whole. But consider this: we have over 65,000 interments here, and between 14 and 15,000 headstones marking these individuals. In a 210-year-old cemetery, a little wear and tear is bound to happen.  Congressional Cemetery’s mission is to “preserve, promote, and protect” this National Historic Landmark, and restoring headstones is high on the to-do list. But although it is sometimes difficult to explain to visitors, the first preservation priority is not to fix the fallen headstones. Instead, it’s to stop the precarious headstones from falling in the first place.

There are lots of reasons behind this. Even though it’s sad, once headstones have fallen they’re relatively safe. Much safer, in fact, than those headstones that are about to fall. We have quite a few headstones and monuments here in the cemetery on the brink of toppling over, which could cause extensive damage to the stone itself. Moreover, these headstones can actually fall on people.

It sounds improbable, but tragically, it’s not uncommon for headstones to fall on children. We even have a recorded instance of it happening right here in Congressional Cemetery in January 1938 (found in our “Injuries” file):

“At a turn in the path, Mrs. McAlerr heard Louise scream. She faced around to see her daughter crushed to the ground under a gravestone as long as her body. Only the child’s feet protruded. Mrs. McAlerr lifted the stone off her and ran to her nearby home with the injured child.”


As far as one can tell from the newspaper article, Louise survived her brush with fate at Congressional Cemetery. But at the risk of venturing into depressing territory, other children have not been so lucky. There are many instances of children being crushed to death in historic cemeteries; frankly, the author of this article doesn’t have the heart to cite specific examples, but a quick Google search verifies the tragic truth.

Little Louise appears to have been lucky, but other children have not been, and we’d like to ensure that similar accidents don’t happen at our cemetery. Thus we’ll end with a public service announcement. If you see children playing on vaults or around historic headstones at any cemetery, you’re completely within your rights to warn children and their parents of the potential dangers. It may seem as if you’re overreaching, but many don’t realize how dangerous some of these headstones can be, and it’s important to be vocal about what can happen. We have a sign at our front gate cautioning our visitors against playing on and around the headstones, but it helps to have additional eyes and ears on our grounds and in other historic cemeteries.

In the meantime, we’ll keep chipping away (not literally, of course) on preservation projects here at the cemetery. It is, and likely always will be, a work in progress.

-Lauren Maloy, Program Director

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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 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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