Ghost Stories (On the Rocks) at the Congressional Cemetery
Anyone who walks the historic streets of our capital city will undoubtedly have a few unexplainable stories to share…even if one of them only involves tripping on one of those wayward bricks and stumbling away with a forehead raspberry. Smacked heads or not, strange stuff happens in old D.C. neighborhoods and the spook quotient naturally spikes around Halloween.
One Washingtonian especially versed in good D.C. ghost stories is Cindy Hays, executive director of the Congressional Cemetery on E Street, SE. In fact, she relishes the graveyard’s best tales from the crypt.
“One of our ‘residents’ has apparently been seen in town,” she says. She’s speaking of Robert “Beau” Hickman, who died in 1873 and lived in the old National Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. “When he died penniless, his drinking buddies decided he deserved better than the Potter’s Field where he had just been buried, and went to retrieve him,” says Hays.
According to legend, upon returning to the cemetery to collect their friend and give him a proper burial, Hickman’s posse came face-to-face with a group of grave robbers who were collecting bodies for medical experiments, a common, “no questions asked” practice at the time. Despite saving their friend’s remains from an undignified second purpose, the friends were spooked and ready to exit the cemetery as soon as possible. They quickly dug a grave for Hickman and ran out to soothe themselves with a drink.
However, it seems they were followed by their grateful (though deceased) companion. “Beau, it seems, missed the good times too much to stay put for long, and began to haunt their card games at the old hotel. After the National was torn down, Beau was often seen standing at the corner at 6th & Penn looking for his old friends.” Apparently, the cash-poor but spirited man managed to be stylish, even in the afterlife. “He’s been spotted in modern times, looking as dapper as ever,” says Hays. “He is easily recognized by his beaver hat, cane, and diamond stick-pin.”
Hickman is one of the ‘residents’ who will be making a comeback for the cemetery’s Halloween “Ghosts and Goblets” event. The cemetery has hired actors to dress in costume and lurk by the graves of the people they are portraying. Those with tickets to the event will go on a torch light tour of the headstones, where the actors will be ready with spine-tingling stories of dirt, death and drama. “We’re calling it the ‘Sinners and Scoundrels’ tour,” says Hays. It’s going to be pretty scary to visit the actual burial sites of these people at dusk while hearing their stories.”
Begged for more salacious details of the Congressional dwellers, Hays delves into the tale of Mary Hall, a famed nineteenth century Capitol Hill madam with a penchant for leaving her mark. “Her story came to light when the Smithsonian began construction on the new American Indian Museum,” says Hays. “As the foundation was dug, archeologists found a surprising number of champagne bottles and gilt dinnerware shards.” Evidently, capitalism was good to Hall in the capital city. Having managed a thriving booty business for years, she had some extra funds to plan for the inevitable. She bought 18 plots at the cemetery in 1867 for her family and friends.
Hays says when she first toured the cemetery years ago, she found the graves of Hall’s mother and sister marked with a lovely, twelve-foot-tall angel statue. “I found a long, dirty pink silk scarf around the neck of the angel. Thinking it unsightly, I had it removed immediately.” But the change in décor didn’t sit well with someone roaming the grounds. Hays found a new scarf draped around the angel’s neck a month later. “How did this happen?” Hays still wonders. “To get to that neck would require a ladder. We don’t allow driving in the cemetery, and there are families walking their dogs all hours of the day and night.”
Chilling, sure. But a cemetery director gets used to the natural—and the supernatural. Sure enough, Hays’ most startling story came at the most inconvenient time: while planning a high-profile funeral.
“An event manager had been hired by the family to plan an extravaganza,” she remembers. “He was describing in great detail what he wanted to do as we walked out of the chapel. The afternoon air was totally still, not a breeze to be felt. As we turned the corner, all of the drawings and loose papers flew from his hands into the air. Some were propelled as far as half a block away.” Hays imagines a spirit was none too pleased by the conversation. “Whoever she was, she was obviously not happy about what she was hearing that was being planned in her cemetery!” Hoping to avoid another paranormal protest, the funeral planning was simplified. “The extravaganza was significantly toned down and we had a very dignified service, with no more outbursts.”
There are plenty of stories at the Congressional Cemetery and visitors can get their fill at the Halloween party Oct. 29. A skeleton key scavenger hunt and a demonstration of the chapel’s immense organ are on the schedule, along with, uh, spirits and a buffet. Tickets are $75 a person and can be purchased on the cemetery’s website at CongressionalCemetery.org.