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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We’re Dead Serious: Save These Dates.

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

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


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


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

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


Photo by Brett Davis, 2007.

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


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


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

Yoga Mortis

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

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


Jessica Woodburn.

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

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

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


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

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

For more info and registration:

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


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


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

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An Interview with Historic Congressional Cemetery’s Intern Darren Messing

By Hannah Miller

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

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

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

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

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


Darren Messing

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

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

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

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


Nicholas Dunaev Headstone

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

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


HCC’s summer garden

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

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

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



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White Vault Restoration

By Margaret Puglisi

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


Image of the White Vault from the 1970s.

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

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

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

White Restoration_West Elevation

Before and after of the west elevation.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Hannah Miller’s Adventures: Part 2

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

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

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


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

Here’s another snapshot I took from last night:


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

— Hannah Miller, Programming, Writing, & Research Intern

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