Every October, Congressional Cemetery hosts Soul Strolls, twilight tours of the cemetery grounds featuring actors who share the stories of some of the graveyard’s interred residents. The cemetery has no shortage of noteworthy denizens to choose from, including a vice president, a Supreme Court justice, 19 senators, and 71 members of the House of Representatives. Journalist Cokie Roberts, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, District mayor Marion Berry, and composer John Philip Sousa are among the cemetery’s more famous occupants, though Soul Strolls often focuses on the stories of figures who are less familiar to us today. Here is a sampling of tales from the Soul Strolls tour of 2016.
On the same night that John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, another conspirator, Lewis Powell (aka Lewis Payne), attempted to kill Secretary of State William Seward. Emerick Hansell, a State Department messenger was in Seward’s house during the attack and was stabbed in the back by Powell. Some argued that Hansell was a coward who was injured as he fled Powell. However, the Hansell we met in during Soul Strolls disputed that account, arguing that he had attempted to protect Seward and his family. Hansell died in 1893.
Suffragist Belva Ann Lockwood was a pioneer in more ways than one. In 1880, she became the first woman to argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. She also ran for President in 1884 and 1888 as a candidate for the National Equal Rights Party, decades before women’s right to vote was enshrined in the Constitution through the 19th Amendment. As Lockwood said, “Even if women in the United States are not permitted to vote, there is no law against their being voted for and, if elected, filling the highest office… Why not nominate women for important places?” Lockwood died in 1917.
Abel P. Upshur served as Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of State in President John Tyler’s administration. He died in 1884, in what The National Intelligencer newspaper described at the time as a “Most Awful and Most Lamentable Catastrophe!” During a demonstration of the firepower aboard the steam warship USS Princeton, a gun exploded, killing Upshur and five other dignitaries.
Pioneering journalist Anne Royall once interviewed President John Quincy Adams as he bathed naked in the Potomac River. According to legend, she retrieved the President’s clothes and refused to return them until he answered her questions. This was the first presidential interview ever “granted” to a woman. Royall’s aggressive style of reportage was noted in her time. Isaac Bassett, who served as the Senate’s doorkeeper, noted that Royall was particularly assertive as she pressed people to purchase her newspaper. “If you refused, you were called all of the ugly names in and out of the dictionary.”
Soul Strolls runs from October 18th-26th. Tickets are available on the Soul Strolls website.