How Congressional Cemetery Got Its Name

Aug 17, 2012
Originally published on August 17, 2012 11:06 am

Back at the turn of the 19th century, Uriah Tracey was something of a trendsetter. The Connecticut senator was one of the first to fight in the Revolutionary War — and then one of the first to attempt secession from the Union. And in 1807, he was the first member of Congress buried in what later became known as Congressional Cemetery, in Washington, D.C.

The cemetery was called the Washington Parish Burial Grounds when it opened. But Tracey died just a few months later, as Rebecca Roberts, the cemetery's program director, tells NPR's David Greene, on a recent tour of the grounds in Southeast D.C.

Tracey's death presented a problem. As Roberts says: "Where were you going to put him?"

These were the days before a railroad track had been laid between Washington and Connecticut, she says. And, "This is really before embalming was common, so you couldn't wait," Roberts says. "When you think about it, Washington was a really new town then."

But why did the Washington Parish Burial Grounds become the official site for members of Congress to be laid to rest? Well, after Tracey was buried there, "it became clear that that need wasn't going to go away," Roberts says.

Eventually, Christ Church, which has operated the cemetery since its first days, set aside 100 burial sites for members of Congress and their families, and other government officials. That number has since grown to nearly 1,000.

Reading the list of the people buried at Congressional Cemetery is like skipping through U.S. history.

The "American March King," John Philip Sousa, is there. So is the first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, and his family. And oddly enough, the body of David Herold, one of the co-conspirators who was hanged for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, was moved to the cemetery with the approval of President Andrew Johnson in 1869.

Herold's grave still has no tombstone, though — a decision the director of the cemetery made to keep away vandals.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's time for another trip to the cemetery, for our series "Dead Stop."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This summer, we've been touring unusual gravesites around the country. Today, we visit one in our nation's capital.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah, Renee, as I found out, this place - it's not so much who's buried here, but who's not.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

GREENE: It's called the Historic Congressional Cemetery, and it's really a quirky place in Southeast Washington, D.C., and I'm walking in a metal gate right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF GATE SQUEAKING OPEN)

GREENE: I came here to meet the person who is the true expert at this place.

REBECCA ROBERTS: I'm Rebecca Roberts. I'm the program director here at historic Congressional Cemetery. This cemetery was founded in 1807; and when you think about it, Washington was a really new town then.

GREENE: No buildings.

ROBERTS: No buildings; rolling hills; big, tall trees; and it all slopes down towards the Anacostia River. And if you see a cemetery like this - where they let the tall trees grow, and none of the monuments match, and it's all a little catawampus and weird - it has to be pre-1870s.

GREENE: And this place kind of plays a catawampus, weird role in D.C. I mean, it's a place to kind of hang out...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: ...and I have some friends who actually walk their dogs here.

ROBERTS: So this place is used and loved, and lived in - odd thing to say about a cemetery, but it's lived in. And that's what it was designed for. Back in the early 1800s, there were no parks in Washington. People came to the cemetery. You'll see stones shaped like picnic tables, to bring people here to spend the day and have a picnic, and enjoy it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

GREENE: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, the boom mic.

GREENE: Sorry. (Laughter) How are you? This seems like a pretty good dog park.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah, it is. It's great. They get to...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ...they get to...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

GREENE: That bark came from Poncho, who didn't seem to like our microphones very much. He's one of several dogs we saw while visiting the cemetery. It was, actually, dog walkers who brought this place back to life. And today, you'll find dogs - often, not on leashes - leading their owners past these boxy, stone monuments that commemorate members of Congress.

ROBERTS: There are 171 of them. And this is, actually, really kind of where Congressional's reputation came from. It was originally called Washington Parish Burial Ground. It wasn't associated with Congress, at the very beginning. But just a few months after it opened, in 1807, a member of Congress died - Senator Uriah Tracey, from Connecticut. And where were you going to put him? I mean, there wasn't a railroad, to send him back to Connecticut. This is really before embalming was common, so you couldn't wait. And they decided, you know, hey. We hear there's a new burial ground on the east side of the city. Let's put him there.

GREENE: We need a place to put members of Congress.

ROBERTS: It became clear that that need wasn't going to go away. And of the 171, 59 of them have bodies buried under them.

GREENE: Oh, so a lot of these have no bodies buried underneath them.

ROBERTS: And there's no way to tell, when you look at it, whether it's an empty grave or a full grave.

GREENE: So we're standing amid empty graves of members of Congress.

ROBERTS: We are, in fact.

GREENE: That's just...

ROBERTS: So like, Henry Clay - and John C. Calhoun is up there. Neither of them are buried here, although I sort of love that they're right next each other, considering how much they loathed each other in life.

GREENE: Yeah, OK. So interesting fact one: Some members of Congress - with gravestones - are not actually buried here. Interesting fact two: There are people who stopped here for various periods of time, before heading on to their final resting places. Their temporary home was the public vault. It's this echo-y, underground room with an arched doorway.

ROBERTS: So this is the public vault. It was built in the 1830s, with congressional appropriation money, because there were a lot of fancy funerals going on here. And Congress decided it was worth it, to invest in a holding place. Even if people weren't actually buried here, sometimes they just rested here for a day or two while arrangements were being made, or while family was coming to town. And now, it's totally empty. You want to look inside?

GREENE: I would love to, but I have to see this big, metal key you're holding, put to use.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING, CLOSING)

GREENE: Oh, wow. We're like, going downstairs here.

ROBERTS: Yeah, so...

GREENE: It's like a crypt.

ROBERTS: ...most of it's actually below ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

GREENE: There are spiders all over ...

ROBERTS: And they're ...

GREENE: ...the ceiling.

ROBERTS: ...jumping spiders.

GREENE: Really?

ROBERTS: Yeah.

GREENE: OK. No, no...

ROBERTS: It is a cemetery.

GREENE: I mean, that's fine.

ROBERTS: I mean, we do have creepy stuff here.

GREENE: Yeah, everything will be fine.

ROBERTS: But as you can see, there's no shelving or anything. So when bodies were stored here temporarily, they were just kind of slid on in. So it only lasted a couple days. There is one exception - Dolly Madison was in here for two years.

GREENE: Yeah. I'm happy to get away from the spiders now.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

GREENE: Locking up the vault.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

GREENE: One grave I was really excited to hear you talk about, was the first female journalist to ever get a presidential interview?

ROBERTS: Anne Royall was a real pioneer. I mean, not only was she a suffragist and a feminist, she was a suffragist and a feminist at the end of the 18th century, beginning of the 19th century - you know, a hundred years before women got the right to vote.

So she moved here to Washington, and she decided she could actually make a difference here. And she started a newsletter, called "The Huntress," which dug up corruption and scandal, and exposed it. But the famous story about her - and I really hope it's true because it's so great - is that when President John Quincy Adams took his daily dip in the Potomac, she went down there and sat on his clothes, and wouldn't give them back until he gave her an interview. And that's how she became the first woman to get a presidential interview.

GREENE: That's bold. He came out...

ROBERTS: I know.

GREENE: ...in a bathing suit, or naked?

ROBERTS: You know what? Bathing suits were not common then. That's all I'm going to tell you.

GREENE: It is easy to see how someone could get caught up in all the fascinating history here. J. Edgar Hoover is buried here, with his parents; and of course, you can march over to see the grave of John Philip Sousa, the composer. And there's also a place here that's deeply personal for our tour guide.

ROBERTS: My grandfather's not actually buried here - because he's not buried anywhere. He was a member of Congress from downtown New Orleans. And in 1972, there was a congressman from Alaska, named Nick Begich - the father of the current Senator Begich from Alaska. And Begich was in a tough race, and my grandfather Hale Boggs flew up to Alaska, to help out in the last couple of weeks of the campaign. And they were in a little, bitty plane that never landed, and was never found. And my grandmother had found out about the tradition of putting the empty grave here, and made that - all that happen. And then she took his seat in Congress - Lindy Boggs.

And she comes to visit now and then. My mom comes to visit. My mom's brother owns a plot here. People are involved. And in a town where a lot of people are transient and don't necessarily feel connected to the place - if you're a local, you do. But also, if you're proud of Congress - which is a really tiny percentage of the population these days. (Laughter) But if you're proud of its tradition - and both my grandparents were members, and that's not something I'm ashamed of. And this is a place that's associated with the best of the history of Congress. And that's worth remembering.

GREENE: And that is our tour of Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: My tour guide there? Rebecca Roberts. She's program director of Congressional Cemetery. She's also an occasional guest host here at NPR. And she is also the daughter of Cokie Roberts. If you'd like to see a slideshow of our visit - you can see photos of the dogs, the gravesites and all else, and much more from our series "Dead Stop" - go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.