Legend has it that on a rainy day in Congressional Cemetery -- if the wind is especially fierce -- a person wandering alone might hear the voices of the hundreds of senators, congressmen, city mayors, Supreme Court justices, soldiers, and Indian chiefs buried there since 1807.
But at night, the legend goes, the cacophony of history is hushed and the graveyard is silent. And it is deserted and rarely patrolled by police -- a fact that made it easy for the vandals who scaled the historic cemetery's brick wall along 18th and E streets SE last month and ravaged one corner of the 33-acre tract, toppling and smashing more than 120 tombstones and monuments.
In an act that police and neighbors called "senseless" and "unprovoked," the vandals made a shambles of the tree-shaded Birckhead family plot, where Charles (1862-1910), Ella (1855-1895) and Amelia (1825-1877) are buried. The hooligans completely smashed the life-size marble replica of 10-year-old Marion Kahlert in her tidy high-necked Victorian dress -- the outfit she was wearing the day in 1904 when she was hit and killed in the city's first automobile accident.
Overall, police estimated the damage, which included the smashing of some marble benches on a path leading to composer John Philip Sousa's grave, at $30,000.
Though by no means the first case of desecration at the run-down graveyard, the incident shocked and frustrated area residents and members of the Congressional Cemetery Association, a nonprofit organization of historians, merchants, bankers and local citizens who have financed and monitored the church-owned cemetery's upkeep for the past 10 years.
But this time the anger was matched with action: the cemetery association sent out emergency mailings to all its members asking for donations and equipment that could be used in repairing the graveyard. Two civic groups in nearby Southeast neighborhoods -- Concerned Citizens of Potomac Avenue East and Neighborhood Associates -- will meet at 8 p.m. Nov. 2 at the Boys Club Eastern Branch, 17th Street and Massachusetts Avenue SE, to discuss setting up a crime-watch patrol which would include the cemetery area.
Perhaps most important for the cemetery's future, the vandalism caught the attention of Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.), who unsuccessfully sponsored legislation in 1976 to make the federal government responsible for the cemetery, and Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D.-Mo.), who visited the cemetery to observe the damage.
James Bellis, a spokeman for Eagleton, said the senator soon will take formal steps -- in the form of a bill or an ammendment -- to make the graveyard's restoration and upkeep a responsibility of the Architect of the Capitol, a government office that oversees federal property in the District.
Eagleton will also propose that the task of patrolling the cemetery -- which Metropolitan Police now handle -- be given to the Capitol Police, Bellis said. The next step for Eagleton's proposed legislation is the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over both the Architect of the Capitol and the Capitol Police.
While Eagleton's plan awaits action on Capitol Hill, members of the cemetery association are taking more immediate steps to remedy the graveyard's disrepair. Along with their call for donations, they are paying special attention to the plans for this year's fund-raising gala, scheduled at the cemetery for Halloween day.
"It's a different set-up than last year when we charged admission at the gate," said George A. Didden III, a National Capital Bank senior vice- president who manages the cemetery association's finances. "We hope to get a couple thousand dollars through donations and sales from craft tables and an auction of grave sites."
Supporters of the graveyard agree that lack of money is at the root of the Congressional Cemetery's plight. Currently, the association has almost total responsibilty for the tract. Christ Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill still owns the land, but leases it to the association, which runs the cemetery on a shoestring annual budget of $40,000, gathered through donations and the returns on several small investments. "I would say we need about $100,000 a year to run this place right," Didden said.
Other members of the association explained that maintaining the cemetery becomes harder every year. "It costs $25,000 to mow the lawn five times a year," noted association vice-president Florian Thayn, a historian in the Architect of the Capitol's office. "You can imagine how much it would cost if we could mow it as often as it needs to be mowed.
"I was just shocked when this happened," Thayn said, pointing to one toppled and smashed 15-foot monument at the cemetery. "You know, in the old days, people used to stroll through cemeteries. And this is a national monument. It's part of our history."
William McFarland, a neighbor of the cemetery who is active in local civic groups, explained that his concern for the historic graveyard prompted him to put up a $100 reward for information leading to the capture and arrest of the vandals.
"I have lived across the street from this cemetery for 54 years," McFarland said, noting that five generations of McFarlands are buried in its hilly acres.
"When I was just four years old, my father and I took walks through here," McFarland remembered. "It's part of our neighborhood . . .; people should realize that."
The Reverend Henry Myers, rector of the Christ Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill, said the vandalism may be a sign of the troubled times.
"As long as the cemetery is alive, our culture has a chance. . . . Cemeteries are important because they remind us of something we need to remember but have trouble dealing with -- our own mortality," Myers said. "If people can't deal with that, they run away, or they come and destroy graves."