Cemetery of the Month: Congressional, Washington, DC

When I was growing up in Washington, DC, Congressional Cemetery was known primarily as a place where one could get mugged, buy drugs, or bust up a few gravestones. The neighborhood had deteriorated, and the owner of the cemetery (Christ Episcopal Church) no longer had the funds to properly maintain the acreage.

On one sad night, in 1973, vandals went on a rampage in the cemetery, and when they were done, five crypts had been broken into and robbed–valuable jewels taken, according to some reports, which means these vandals weren’t afraid of digging around in some serious human goo–and one hundred and fifty tombstones were overturned.

What saved the place?

Volunteers. $$$ from the Feds. Dogs. Also goats.

More on that to come. First, it’s good to know the cemetery has been pretty well spruced up. Congress provided some funding for maintenance, through the Veterans’ Administration, and volunteer groups have done great work raising money and taking care of the place.

Here’s how it looks, in part, today.

Congressional Cemetery fence - Washington DC - 2012

For a long time, Congressional was THE place for national and local politicians to be planted. Some, however, chose to be buried elsewhere, but were remembered nonetheless in Congressional. Hence, various parts of the cemetery boast long lines of cenotaphs bearing the names of men such as Charles Sumner and Henry Clay.

Treat yourself to something chocolate if you are (a) not a cemetery enthusiast, but (b) remembered that a cenotaph is a monument to someone not actually buried in that spot.

CLOSER VIEW OF CENOTAPHS ALONG ROADWAY - Congressional Cemetery, Latrobe Cenotaphs, Eighteenth and E Streets, Southeast, Washington, District of Columbia, DC HABS DC,WASH,255-2

Other famous names here include Matthew Brady, Civil War photographer who, unaccountably, has two gravestones . . . here

Mathew Brady's grave

and here.

Mathew Brady's grave 1

J. Edgar Hoover, fenced-in, perhaps to keep the Commies away.

QR CC J Edgar Hoover

John Philip Sousa provides a nice bench on which one can rest weary feet.

John Philip Sousa (12927944)

There’s also Elbridge Gerry, VP to James Madison and bestower of the scourge that is gerrymandering; Benjamin H. Latrobe, Architect of the U. S. Capitol; and Robert Mill, designer of the Washington Monument, to name just a few.

The real fun in Congressional Cemetery, however, lies in getting to know some of the other inmates, lesser known folk who boast some interesting stories as well.

For example, there is–or was (remember those destroyed tombstones?)–a statue of a young girl, dressed in late Victorian garb, dedicated to Marion Ooletia Kahlert, who died at the age of ten. For many years Marion was reputed to be DC’s first traffic fatality, killed on 25 October 1904 by an errant bread truck.

Google Marion (and her weird middle name) and you’ll find all sorts of websites that identify her as a martyr to the horseless carriage . . . which makes Marion a monument to those who can’t be bothered to do research.

In fact, Marion died of kidney failure related to tuberculosis. It’s on her death certificate.

The first DC traffic fatality was a child, but he hailed from a working class family that couldn’t afford to advertise his gravesite, much less erect a monument. Robert Marshall, a newsboy, stepped off the curb of 15th Street, near New York Avenue, and into the path of an oncoming supply wagon owned by the Washington Electric Transportation and Vehicle Company. Marshall died from a skull fracture, but where he’s buried, no one seems to know.

Then there are the dogs.

In the 1990s, dog owners who lived in the area were looking for a place to walk their buds, and there was that big, empty, overgrown, and pretty dangerous cemetery. The dog owners banded together, picked up used needles each morning, deliberately walked past cars in which drug deals were taking place, and eventually began to cut the grass, the dead trees, and generally spruce up the place.

Take a look; they have a swell website: http://www.cemeterydogs.org

Today, the waiting list to join the K9 Corps is long. The cemetery looks great. The dogs get to run off-leash, bless their cold little noses. A great win-win.

And let us not forget the goats. Despite the impressive work done by volunteers, weeds, poison ivy, and kudzu invaded many parts of the cemetery, choking trees and providing way too much shelter for ticks and other unwanted critters. Sending in teams of workers to cut out and poison all these intruders would have been expensive and ecologically suspect.

What else could be used? Hmmmmm . . .

Enter Eco-Goats, whose owner and operator knows his employees (?) will eat almost anything. In August 2013, a herd of 70+ goats stripped one area of the cemetery bare of unwanted greenery. Here’s a video story on the goats from Politico: http://www.politico.com/multimedia/video/2013/08/congressional-cemetery-goats-did-they-work-.html

If Congressional Cemetery lacks anything, it’s a ghost. None are reported wandering the premises, which may mean nothing more than that ghost aren’t fans of the cemetery’s tidy geometric layout.

The best one can find is two men who, although laid to supposed rest in the cemetery, prefer to wander the homes they inhabited for decades, each of which is only a few blocks from Congressional Cemetery.

General Archibald Henderson, the longest-serving commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps, died in 1859 and was buried in a family plot.


His ghost has been seen often, wandering through the Commandant’s House, in the Marine Barracks, in a quiet, gentlemanly manner. Until, that is, one night in 1942, when he apparently let loose a jolting flare of temper. On 12 October, the then-commandant of the Corps, Major General Thomas Holcomb, held a dinner party. A portrait of General Henderson hung in the dining room, over a handsome side table on which sat a silver tea service. Manpower, of course, was a critical issue for Holcomb; Marine numbers had swelled from 16,000, before the start of World War II, to 300,000, and more men were needed on the battlefields. But someone had to take care of all the administrivia that keeps a bureaucracy running. With deep reluctance, General Holcomb was about to welcome women to the ranks of the Corps, something that hadn’t happened since World War I.

Someone at the dinner party said, “General Holcomb, what do you think about having women in the Marine Corps?”


The portrait of General Henderson toppled from the wall, landing on the tea service. Message received. But not heeded, and women have graced the Corps ever since.

Only a few blocks away from the Marine Barracks, Commandant Thomas Tingey supervised the construction of Washington DC’s Navy Yard in 1804, then served as its first commandant until his death in 1829.

Thomas Tingey

He is seen walking the Yard, or peering at people out of the windows of Quarters A, where he lived for many years.

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