On Its 200th, Cemetery Is As Curious As Its Dead

The Public Vault, across from the cross, has been a holding place for people, such as Dolly Madison, buried elsewhere.
The Public Vault, across from the cross, has been a holding place for people, such as Dolly Madison, buried elsewhere. (Photos By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)
By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007

Along the banks of the Anacostia River, smack against the walls of the D.C. jail, the tombstones cling to rolling hills, and Washington's history romps and blares.

Here, the city sloughs off its torpid identity as a town whose square, stone-white buildings seem to offer an unfortunate parallel to some inhabitants' personalities.

Historic Congressional Cemetery turns 200 this year, and while that fact could, in other contexts, wheeze with import and drone with textbook dullness, the 33-acre cemetery on E Street in Southeast Washington is instead trumpeting -- especially at the grave site of John Philip Sousa -- a vivid sense of Washington history.

Today marks the cemetery's bicentennial Day of Remembrance, complete with a 3 p.m. concert by the U.S. Navy Band and docent-guided tours of the cemetery's more notable, and notorious, denizens.

"You walk around these cemeteries, and you wonder, 'Who was that person, and why is this stone this funny shape?' And there's . . . all these stories you don't know," begins Gene (pronounced GENE-ee) Kim, a Capitol Hill resident and the graphic designer behind the 10 Walking Tour brochures the cemetery offers visitors.

She became fascinated by the illustrious and illicit who have, since 1807, been buried there.

The cemetery boasts such luminaries as Elbridge Gerry, a Declaration of Independence signer and the man for whom "gerrymandering" is named. Plus: Taza, the son of Apache Chief Cochise, and Push-ma-ta-ha, a Choctaw Indian chief who served with Andrew Jackson. Former House majority leader Hale Boggs, who was the father of Washington's Cokie Roberts and is presumed to have died in a 1972 Alaska plane crash in which the wreckage was never found, has a monument in Congressional; and although former House speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill is actually buried in Boston, he's also got a tombstone at Congressional.

But Kim's favorites are the lesser-known ones with sass and edge, whose stories are tinged with things left unsaid, such as:

The grave site of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and how, just a few tombstones down the path, under a large pink stone, lies Clyde Tolson, the man rumored to be Hoover's "partner -- his lover, his homosexual lover," Kim says.

(During official docent tours of the cemetery, says Joyce Palmer, Congressional's chair of education and outreach, "we say, 'The man with whom [Hoover] had breakfast for 30 years.' ")

And there's Mary Hall, the very wealthy madam -- "entrepreneur," official cemetery documents say -- who owned a Civil War-era brothel and employed 18 prostitutes, back when prostitution was legal and Washington was home to 450 brothels and 5,000 prostitutes. Hers was wildly successful, notes the cemetery's brochure on its "Women of Arts [ahem] & Letters." By the time Hall died, in 1886, she was "worth today's equivalent of well over $2 million."

After buying an enormous plot, she left room to bury her mother and sister under a tall, monumental tombstone bearing the statue of an angel. Her own burial statue, though, is of something quite different.

"She herself is the contemplative figure," points out Patrick Crowley, chairman of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, as he walked through the cemetery this week. Hall looks almost like a female version of "The Thinker," except she's wearing more clothes, and she's positioned with her back to the angel.

"Interesting that she's turned, looking away," Crowley says. This, he believes, is not accidental.

Even the more recent deceased, such as historian Ruth Ann Overbeck, who died in 2000, lie under tombstones that make you think. Under Overbeck's name are no birth and burial dates, just an admonition and a life's philosophy: "Look it up!"

"When you think about your own stone," advises Kim, "it should have some personality."

Absent from today's festivities will be the dogs who regularly populate the cemetery, which is one of the few places in the city canines can run free, unleashed but safely fenced in.

During somber public events such as funerals and today's remembrance, the dogs and their owners are asked to walk elsewhere.

Some worry that the dogless cemetery might be a harbinger. In the early- to mid-1990s, the cemetery was an unkempt mess of three-foot-high grass, littered with syringes and fringed with drug dealers. So some 100 dog walkers banded together and began mowing the lawns, organizing yard sales and raising money for upkeep.

Today, the 450 households registered to walk 650 dogs raise about $75,000 a year for the cemetery.

But as they spruced up the grounds, the families of those buried began to return and then clash: The dog walkers may have brought the cemetery back to its former grandeur and atmosphere, but the dogs themselves, some of the families said, are disrespectful to the dead.

The two groups are now in a standoff, with cemetery officials uncertain about how to proceed.

But all of that will be far from the point of today's program, when visitors will be encouraged to steep themselves in history, grab a Walking Tour brochure and take a gander at the graves of those affected by the "Burning of Washington" or the Civil War (where they'll see the pointed stones of Confederate soldiers, shaped so that, says docent Palmer, "no damn Yankee will sit on them") or even past the gravestones of Washington's "Men of Adventure!"

A far cry from current Washington, indeed.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company