The cemetery’s stories illuminate a history that the museums on the Mall don’t cover—for example, that brothels were legal in the District until 1914. Mary Ann Hall, DC’s all-time finest madam, for decades had a brothel not far from the Capitol. She bought nine plots at the cemetery—one for her mother, one for her sister, and several others for men who are now nameless. Lovers? Customers?
In her time, she was famous for keeping a cellar stocked with $100 bottles of wine and Champagne—$100 in 19th-century dollars. She was worth the equivalent of millions when she died. A low stone coping surrounds her plot. WELCOME, it says. Even in death, 125 years on, a graceful host.
District native William H. Cross is buried here—most of him. In 1881, he was part of an expedition to the North Pole that got stranded. When rescue boats finally came, they noted that some of Mr. Cross was missing. “His friends had him over for lunch,” explains Patrick Crowley, the chairman of the Cemetery Board.
Beau Hickman is buried here, but not his spirit. A gambler, carouser, and freeloader, Hickman never held a job and got by on his wits and charm. When he died in 1873, he was buried in a potter’s field. By the time his friends learned of this, they were drunk and Hickman’s remains were being dug up by grave robbers. Hickman’s friends broke up the robbery, carried him to Congressional Cemetery, and put him in a shallow hole they dug themselves. Hickman’s aggrieved ghost is said to haunt what used to be the site of the hotel where he lived, at Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown DC.
Two or three times a month, a bus pulls up at the front gate and unloads a marching band in full dress regalia, and it troops in formation over to the grave of John Philip Sousa. There the musicians play a tune or two. Then they troop back, board their bus, and drive back to Indiana or New Jersey or South Carolina—wherever they’ve come from.
Sousa is buried here not because he’s a national hero and the composer of “Stars and Stripes Forever” but because he was a local kid: Southeast DC–born, –raised, and –buried. That’s also why J. Edgar Hoover is buried here, in a small family plot surrounded by iron fencing.
Alongside these graves celebrating local residents are rows of tombs for important people from distant places who are buried in those distant places. Called cenotaphs and shaped like squarish, half-buried dunce caps, these empty tombs commemorate, not at all artfully, the lives of national political leaders. Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun are here—detesting each other in life, they’re together in death. But not really. Just their names. Tip O’Neill is here, too. Only his name. John Adams. His name. Empty graves.
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