Congressional Cemetery Offers History Lesson

No known ghosts -- but the Historic Congressional Cemetery is home to a number of storied Americans, including Abraham Lincoln's most famous photographer; one of the conspirators who was hanged for Lincoln's assassination; the original twentieth-century G-Man; and the composer who gave the "Monte Python" gang their start.

Not too shabby for the graveyard long overshadowed by its more famous cousin across the river, in Arlington.

Tucked away in Southeast Washington, a short walk from the Capitol Building, the Congressional Cemetery began as the burying ground for the local parish of Christ Church, and welcomed its first souls in 1807. For decades, the cemetery served as the capital's sole place of burial for members of Congress. In all, 19 senators and 71 members of the House of Representatives lie here.

There are also "cenotaphs," or monuments, for another 120, including House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. 

"He's one of the most prominent, most powerful politicians here -- or not here, rather," Patrick Crowley, chairman of the cemetery's board, says with a laugh. 

Privately owned, the cemetery is managed by the nonprofit Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery. It relies on private donations to maintain and restore the many buildings, grounds and monuments.

Strolling across the cemetery's 33 acres, a visitor finds a small, cracking chapel and tens of thousands of gravestones of all shapes and description. Some are ornate, some plain; some feature towering spires and miniature Georgian mansions; some consist of tiny stones without marking, others of grassy slopes where the dead were not honored with stones at all.

The cemetery's most famous structure is the "public vault," a kind of 19th century morgue where some 6,000 bodies have been temporarily stored while awaiting transfer to other burial grounds. Among those who have passed through the vault are Dolly Madison and three U.S. presidents: John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor. 

"Harrison, of course, was the president who gave the long-winded speech in his inaugural [and died of pneumonia soon thereafter]," Crowley notes. "He spent one month in the White House and three months in our public vault."

Every tombstone tells a story. Pry open the unlocked, black iron door to the Labbe vault -- a red-brick and cement structure erected in the 1830s as the final resting place for Francois (died 1848), Alphonse (d. 1850), and Mary (d. 1865) -- and you'll glimpse a ramshackle mess of twigs, dirt, splintered wooden boards, and human bones. 

"We'll fix it up when we raise the money for it," says Crowley, a soft-spoken consultant on energy regulation issues whose 16 years of involvement with the cemetery makes him its longest-serving veteran.

Steer him in any direction on these grounds, and Crowley will spin you a fascinating yarn about human nature, American history, or the often cruel economics of dying that author Jessica Mitford, half a century ago, chronicled in her book, "The American Way of Death."

He'll take you, for example, to the saddening grave of Matthew Brady, the legendary Civil War photographer and taker of Lincoln's portrait. "Really the first celebrity photographer," Crowley says of Brady.

"He took [tens] of thousands of photographs of the Civil War, expecting the federal government to pay him back at the end of the war. And of course, at the end of the war, the government was broke and said, 'No, thanks.' So he was actually penniless."

Broke and dejected, Brady left New York to live with his sister Julia in Washington, where he received a pauper's burial. The date of death on Brady's original grave marker is not even correctly listed. "It's a very humble stone, considering what a great impact he had on American culture," says Crowley. 

But Brady's story took an upturn about two decades ago: In the late 1980s, a group of Civil War buffs paid for a more ornate tombstone for the pioneering lensman, complete with the correct date of Brady's death.

Each month, the cemetery offers a Civil War tour, led by historian and Gettysburg native Steve Hammond. He and Crowley like to say that "the first and last blows" of the War Between the States are represented here. 

In January 1857, South Carolina Rep. Preston Smith Brooks was interred in the public vault, less than a year after he assaulted Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane in a clash over slavery. 

And buried at Congressional Cemetery is David Edgar Herold, the Maryland native who plotted with John Wilkes Booth to kill other high Union officials, escaped with him after Lincoln's assassination, and who was captured by Union cavalry in the same raid that saw Booth shot and killed. 

Herold was hanged on July 7, 1865.

Elsewhere, one finds the well manicured tomb of longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, keeper of the capital's secrets and one of its most fearsome figures. The cemetery was in bad shape in May 1972, when Hoover died, but he insisted on being buried there anyway. 

Three years later, Clyde Tolson, Hoover's longtime assistant and the object of persistent rumors about the nature of his relationship with Hoover, was buried in a separate plot alongside his old boss. "A lot of FBI agents come here to pay homage," says Crowley.

And not far from the front gates on E Street one can pay homage to John Philip Sousa, the turn-of-the-century composer and conductor whose marches became the official anthems for entities as diverse as the U.S. Marine Corps and a group of offbeat British comedians known as "Monte Python's Flying Circus." Sousa's "The Liberty Bell" could be heard beneath the opening credits for the innovative comedy series during its original run on the BBC from 1969 to 1974.

Crowley and others who have stalked the cemetery's tree-lined walkways say there is no serious talk of ghosts here. But there is the curious case of William Cross. His brother, Jeremiah, was the caretaker here during the Civil War, and William, a widower, used to help out around the grounds. 

He contracted a disease, though -- one that made him suffer so badly he would wish aloud for death to claim him. And one day, in September 1864, someone entered the horse stable on the grounds to find William hanging from a beam, his neck broken by a rope he had tied with his own hands. The maps say he is buried in plot R-52/65, with the wife who predeceased him by a full decade, Sarah Cross. 

But only her name appears on the tombstone.

James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).