Hannah Miller’s Adventures: Part 2

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

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

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

Cinematery2

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

Here’s another snapshot I took from last night:

Cinematery1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will also be attending the Operation Conservation workshop (more info here: http://www.congressionalcemetery.org/event.asp?Id=759) on August 27 & 28 to learn more about gravestone restoration and maintenance! I’ll be sure to write about my experiences soon afterward.

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

— Hannah Miller, Programming, Writing, & Research Intern

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A Historic Run

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

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

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Victoria Woodhull By Mathew Brady – Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Musem, Historical Photographs and Special Visual Collections Department, Fine Arts Library, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid+36486501

 

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

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Belva Ann Lockwood By Mathew Brady – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.04374

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

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

— Lauren Maloy, Program Director

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

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

HannahMiller

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Hannah

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A Pitch for the Best Neighborhood

By Beverley Lumpkin

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

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/03/03/which-d-c-neighborhood-might-the-obamas-live-in-next/?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_fix

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

Well!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Historic Congressional Cemetery Docents Answer Real Visitor Questions

By Frank J. Pietrucha

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

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

Are there any African Americans buried at Congressional Cemetery?

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

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

Is Congressional Cemetery haunted? 

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

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

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

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

For information about docent led tours of Historic Congressional Cemetery check out the schedule here: http://www.congressionalcemetery.org/events.asp

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

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Remembering the Forgotten Many

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

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

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1950 newspaper articles about John Payne Todd grave marking ceremony

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

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“John Payne Todd” by Joseph Wood (1778-1830) http://www.metmuseum.org

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

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

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

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

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Mary Fuller’s bench

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

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

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Mrs. Pearson’s letter to the cemetery

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

Regarding John Payne Todd:

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

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

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In Which the Cemetery Staff Take a Little Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lauren Maloy, Program Director

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In Their Own Words: Soul Strolls at Congressional Cemetery

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

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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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Preuss)

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 sister, 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 spirithistory.iasop.com

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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