Dog walkers help to cut crime at capital cemetery

Choctaw chief and J. Edgar Hoover are among those buried there

May 02, 2002|By David Goldstein | David Goldstein,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - For years, Congressional Cemetery near Capitol Hill was a neglected patch of Washington's past, cloaked in an unkempt blanket of knee-high grass and Queen Anne's lace.

These days, the weeds get cut, but the historic graveyard still is going to the dogs. Literally.

A cadre of dog walkers has helped lower crime and vandalism in the burial ground several blocks east of the Capitol. The fees they pay for pets to scamper freely among the tombstones have helped uncover one of the city's little-known gems.

"Washington is full of unsung monuments," said Donald Ritchie, associate historian with the Senate's Historian Office. "They're the forgotten corners of the city."

How many knew that among city's nooks and crannies was a place where Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, composer John Philip Sousa and Push-Ma-Ta-Ha, the Choctaw Indian chief and comrade of Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans, were buried, and near no less an icon than FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in his family plot?

Or that Presidents John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor had all been temporarily interred in the cemetery's public vault before being moved to permanent plots in other cemeteries. Even Dolley Madison lingered there briefly.

There's more, such as the remains of 80 senators and House members from two centuries ago that lie moldering in its dirt, including those of Rep. Albert G. Harrison of Missouri. He died in 1839.

60,000 graves

Among the 60,000 graves are the bones of soldiers who fought in every major war, from the American Revolution to Vietnam. There are also librarians of Congress buried in its errant rows, diplomats, explorers, suffragettes and three dozen American Indians, including Taza, son of Cochise, the famous chief of the Apaches. He came to Washington with 22 other members of his tribe in 1876 but contracted pneumonia and died.

There's even one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Elbridge Gerry. Vice president under James Madison, he is more famous for his name, which gave us the political term "gerrymander," which means the designing of legislative districts to favor a particular party.

All of them played roles in the life of the nation. But "a lot of people have been forgotten," said Jim Oliver, former president of the cemetery's volunteer association. "It was just so long ago."

Before the Civil War, actually. That was the cemetery's heyday, before Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River in Virginia became the final destination for the capital's elite.

Opened in 1807

The cemetery opened in 1807 on less than 5 acres and soon was deeded to Christ Church, a small Episcopal parish nearby. By 1875 it had expanded to its present size of nearly 33 acres near the Anacostia River.

The members of Congress who died in office were buried under large sandstone cenotaphs instead of in hometown churchyards because travel in the 19th century was not the quick jaunt that it is today. It could take weeks, even months, to go back and forth. A funeral in the capital was less of a hassle.

"Then in 1870, they stopped building the monuments for members, and it's slid into amnesia ever since," said Ritchie, who conducts tours of the graveyard on Halloween.

The cemetery continued to operate through the 20th century, but by the 1970s it was beyond the wherewithal of the church.

"It's a treasure, but it's a treasure that is very expensive," said Associate Rector Bill Doggett. "It certainly couldn't be run on the proceeds of just selling plots."

Some neighbors and others formed an association to maintain it. In recent years, the cemetery has received grants from Congress and the Interior Department.

$25 a dog

The dog walkers entered the picture with their pooper-scoopers more than a decade ago, and their ranks have expanded slowly. At $25 a dog, they chip in about $35,000 toward the operation.

"I started going there because I was walking my dog, and she was eating the muck, which was in the gutter that hadn't been cleaned in years, and I kept getting angry about it," said Patrick Crowley, also a cemetery association board member.

"After a few weeks I realized it wouldn't get done, so I started bringing my shovel and started cleaning the muck in the gutter," Crowley added.

The sprucing up shook cobwebs off a distant era.

President Abraham Lincoln may lie in Springfield, Ill., but his valet, the doorkeeper at Ford's Theater the night of his assassination and one of John Wilkes Booth's henchmen are all buried in the cemetery.

There's a grave for a 10-year-old child who in 1904 became the capital's first motor vehicle accident victim.

The hillside also holds small markers decorated with little lambs for children who died in the capital's influenza epidemic of 1918.

"You still find something new every day," Oliver said.

One of his favorites involves a woman named Mary Hall, who he said has a large plot with "two of the nicest statues we have of angels." The Smithsonian Institution was researching Hall because she had owned a large house on the site where the National Museum of the American Indian is under construction.

Oliver said the project unearthed bottle corks and broken crockery. He said researchers concluded that Hall "had the biggest [bawdy houses] in town during the Civil War at the foot of Capitol Hill.

"Kind of explains how she could afford these big statues," he said.

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