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Civil War-Era Casket Vandalized in D.C.

Cast-Iron Relic Found in Columbia Heights

By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page B03

Construction workers digging outside a Northwest Washington apartment building have unearthed a cast-iron casket that experts believe probably dates to the late 19th century.

The discovery was made Friday afternoon by a construction crew working at 1465 Columbia Rd. NW in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. The workers covered the casket with a tarp and over the weekend left it in place in a seven-foot ditch behind secured gates, project manager Randy Boyd said.

Construction workers surround the cast-iron casket they found at a construction site in the 1400 block of Columbia Road. (Photos Randy Boyd)

On Monday evening, after word of the archaeological find spread through the neighborhood and crowds of onlookers had gathered throughout the day, workers locked the casket in the empty building for safekeeping.

But that night, vandals went to work. According to Boyd, they bashed in the building's back door, cracked the casket's iron faceplate and broke the sheet of glass beneath it.

"When I saw the damage the next day, I was shocked that someone would be so stupid, so animal-like that they would do this to something so historic and to someone's tomb," Boyd said. "It was like these people were grave robbers or something."

He said that some neighbors told him they had observed several youngsters breaking into the building about 8 p.m. but did not call police.

Because of the damage, Boyd could partially see the contents of the casket: a head with strands of blond hair, leathery skin and a scarf wrapped around it. He said he could not tell whether the remains were those of a man or woman.

Boyd said that the workers subsequently taped the casket and moved it to another building owned by DBT Development, the company doing the work at the Columbia Road location.

Boyd said that DBT will keep the casket until a representative from the Smithsonian Institution takes custody of it next week. But Randall Kremer, spokesman for the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, said that one of the organization's forensic anthropologists first plans to examine the casket.

"We will look at it next week to see whether we want to take it and add it to the national collection," Kremer said. "It could take a few days to complete the examination."

Nancy Kassner, an archaeologist with the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, said that she has yet to examine the casket but has concerns about the effects of the vandalism on the artifact and its contents.

"Air has gotten into it and probably done damage. Air can facilitate disintegration," Kassner said. She said that her office eventually would like to see the body reinterred "somewhere suitable because that's what should be done out of respect for the dead."

Kassner said she believes that the casket predates Calvary Methodist Church, which is next door to the Columbia Road apartment building and was constructed in 1902, because the soil around the coffin does not appear to have been disturbed.

Jane Freundel Levey, a historian for the nonprofit group Cultural Tourism D.C., said that beginning in the late 1860s, what is known today as Columbia Heights was one of the District's earliest upper-middle-class developments, checkered by large, free-standing houses. She also noted that the area between the Duke Ellington Bridge and 14th Street NW once had five Civil War hospitals.

Other experts pointed out that cast-iron caskets were expensive at the time and that the individual buried in the one found in Columbia Heights might have been a person of note.

Boyd said his construction team had to hold onto the casket, which was found about three feet below a gas line, because it could not get the police department or any other District agency to pick it up.

Lt. William Farr of the D.C. police homicide unit said the casket was not a police matter because a homicide was not involved.

"If it was just bones, it would have been a police issue," Farr said. "But because this person was in a casket, it constitutes a proper burial. There was no indication of foul play."

He said that police notified the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and was told that someone from the agency was "on the way."

But no one from DCRA came, Boyd said. An agency spokeswoman, Gwendolyn Davis, said that "DCRA had no role in that instance."

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