John Kelly
John Kelly
Columnist

In search of a dubious distinction: D.C.’s first auto fatality

John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST - The grave of Marion Kahlert in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery.

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Congressional Cemetery in Southeast Washington is full of famous people. Marion Ooletia Kahlert is not one of them.

I’m sure she was a lovely person, or as lovely as a child can be, unformed and incomplete as most are. Marion was just 10-years-old when she died on Oct. 25, 1904. Her parents buried her in Congressional under a beautiful statue of a curly-haired little girl in a frilly dress and high-button boots. It is Marion herself, and she is wearing the outfit she wore when she was struck by an automobile and killed, becoming Washington’s first automobile fatality

That, at least, is how many D.C. history buffs know Marion. There are a number of references to Marion’s singular, sad achievement: the first Washingtonian killed by a car. They appear in travel books, in architecture guides, in newspapers, on blogs, in old walking tour pamphlets for the cemetery.

Some of the accounts provide interesting details. One says that Marion was struck by a bread truck from Mineberg’s bakery. No, it was a milk truck, and she was on her way to a birthday party, says a another. Yet another says she was “carrying a doll in her arms when she was killed.”

If any of this were true, Marion should be famous, in her way. But is it?

As I looked into the early days of the automobile in Washington, I pondered Marion. None of the local papers mentioned the manner of her death. Nor does her tombstone, which bears the inscription “God takes the loved ones from our homes, but not from our hearts.”

Then I heard about Lisa Rauschart.

Lisa chairs the history department at Georgetown Day School. For years, she’s been using Congressional Cemetery to introduce her students to historical research. The story of a child killed by a car seemed a natural way to engage her pupils. In 1999 they scoured newspaper microfilm to see if they could find any reference to Marion.

“We found that her parents ran a memorial notice every year for maybe 10 years in commemoration of her death,” Lisa said. But the notice didn’t mention how Marion died.

“Then we decided to get the death certificate,” Lisa said.

“It was very dramatic,” Lisa said. They carried it out of the vital records office upside down, so no one could sneak a peek, then they turned it over. It said Marion died of acute tubercular nephritis. Immediate cause of death: uremia, i.e., kidney failure.

“She had been sick for six weeks,” Lisa said.

When Lisa delivered the news to the cemetery, a volunteer there said, “It’s tough when the truth ruins a good story.”

Lisa feels differently. “For me, as a history teacher, it was great. I could say what you read in the history books isn’t always the truth.”

And not only in history books. Lisa’s students tracked down an elderly relative of the Kahlerts who remembered growing up with the Marion-was-killed-by-a-car tale. “Even family stories aren’t always true,” Lisa said.

So, what gives? The earliest reference I could find to Marion being the District’s first auto fatality was from 1955. It was written by a “Mrs. Detwiler” and was used by guides as a text for a Capitol Hill tour. “And there she is,Mrs. Detwiler wrote of Marion’s statue, “. . . ready to lead a sad little parade of children into infinity beneath the wheels of the horseless carriage.”

Now, it just so happens that there’s another little girl buried at Congressional, and she was killed by a car a long time ago. Her name was Violet Springman, and her death at age 9 (or 11; sources vary) on Sept. 7, 1905, was covered fairly extensively in the D.C. press. She is buried under a marker that is much more modest than Marion’s. (Incidentally, Marion’s statue was damaged by vandals in 1981 and was restored and reinstalled only in October.)

Sandy Schmidt, Congressional’s historian, thinks perhaps the two children somehow became conflated. It’s easy to see how that might happen. One girl had a nice statue but a routine death. The other died in a possibly historic way but had a routine marker.

So is Violet the person who led Washington’s “sad little parade of children into infinity beneath the wheels of the horseless carriage”?

No. Last week, Sandy did some research. “I’ve been looking for evidence that Violet was the first one and now I’ve proved she wasn’t,” she told me.

So who was?

Thursday: “Crushed Under Auto Car: Negro Newsboy Instantly Killed on Busy Street Corner.”

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

 
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