Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I finished my new article (which is why I haven't posted much in a week). It's about Holmead's Burying Ground.

Anthony Holmead arrived in America in 1750. His uncle, also named Anthony Holmead, had owned a lot of property in D.C. -- most of it along Rock Creek from the State Department north to the U.S. Naval Observatory. It extended eastward to about 17th Street. The young Holmead (he was just 22 yeas old) purchased even more land on the Georgetown side of things. When the District of Columbia was established in 1791, Holmead was one of the "Original Patentees", those 20 or so landowners whose property was seized by the federal government (and properly compensated) to created the new "Federal City" of Washington.

Holmead was kind of civic minded, however, and in 1791 he came up with the idea of a public cemetery on a plot of land just south of what is today the Washington Hilton Hotel. Its location is the yellow patch on the map to the right. Holmead needed to repurchase his land from the government, however. That sale didn't go through until 1796, because the government took a long time to lay out the city blocks and streets and ensure everything was surveyed correctly. Nonetheless, Holmead knew pretty much where 19th Street was going to be, and he began burials on the site in 1794. The city finally approved his repurchase of the land in 1796.

By then, Holmead's idea had caught on. In 1798, the city declared the whole of Square 109 (Holmead's property, plus the rest -- marked in green on the map) to be a public cemetery, to be called the Western Burial Ground. (Yes, there was an Eastern Burial Ground, too.) The city did not have the legal right to seize that property, which was still held by the federal government. But no one seemed to care, as what little there was of Washington, D.C., was mostly clustered around Pennsylvania Avenue and Georgetown.

* * * * * *

Think about cemeteries for a moment: For most of human history, people buried their loved ones wherever they fell. If you were a farmer, maybe you buried Grandma a hundred feet from the house under that old oak tree. But for the most part, cemeteries just didn't exist. They started to exist when people began living in villages or towns. Human corpses don't decompose easily. Underground, where there's little oxygen for bacteria to feed on, a corpse's soft organs can take up to 25 years to decompose -- and longer if the soil is moist. Bones last for a minimum of 75 years. The human body is full of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa -- most of which you could care less about, because your immunse system keeps it all at bay. But once death sets in, the human body generates a massive amount of highly deadly pathogens...and a lot of fluid. These pathogens can remain alive for a hundred years.

Now, people naturally want Grandma and Little Joey buried close by, so they can occasionally visit the grave and say hello. But they don't want their rotting corpses so close that Little Joey's decomposing bodily fluids make the family sick and add extensively to the burial plot. Additionally, religious beliefs often dictate where a person may be buried, and how.

These factors, at least in Europe, usually came together to create a burying ground (the word "cemetery" didn't come into use until the 1850s) next to the church. (Or in a plot outside the village if you were Jewish.) Churchyard burying grounds were usually on the south side, where there was lots of sun. The darker north side was for the sinners (adulterers and the like) who died outside the comfort and forgiveness of the church, and for criminals. Over time, churchyards became crowded, and expanded to the east and then the west. But they stuck close to the church. Nearby housing and other development often limited the size of the churchyard, too, and over time the churchyard became very, very, very crowded. Sextons (the person hired by the church to maintain the burying ground, bury people, and so on) were cramming new burials into teensy, tiny spaces. Only the very rich were permitted to have above-ground memorials or monuments. Most people had to make do with a foot-high wooden slab, and if they were lucky the slab was engraved (not painted). Middle-class folks might afford a sandstone or limestone headstone three or four feet high.

Over time, churchyards took on a chaotic look as burials were shoved into the cracks and crevices of the yard. There was little incentive to maintain the churchyard, since most people were buried there free of charge (they belonged to the church), and headstones leaned like drunken sailors hither and yon. Weeds and tall grass grew everywhere. Most families died out soon enough, and the church had no incentive to keep things looking nice.

Some churchyards compensated by adding two or three feet of soil to the top of the graveyard every few years. That way, they could "bury" more bodies. Most churchyards also buried three or four coffins in each grave. People were buried in cloth shrouds (not wood coffins) to speed decomposition. But even so, a body needed to be at least six feet down in order to stop the pathogens, stench, and fluids from reaching the living. Churchyards quickly became unsanitary as they filled beyond capacity and bodies were buried only five, four, three... sometimes just two feet down.

In the 1700s, many cities founded "urban cemeteries" to take the pressure off churchyards. These were owned by the city or a nonprofit cemetery association chartered by the city, and were usually secular. They tended to be much larger than churchyards, often taking up an entire city block. Furthermore, urban cemeteries were laid out in a grid, to avoid the chaotic look of churchyards, and contained straight pathways to provide easy access for mourners. Because they were in the middle of urban neighborhoods (to allow mourners to visit their departed loved ones easily), they often were surrounded by high walls -- both to mark their sacredness but also to prevent vandals, grave robbers, and "resurrectionists" (body-snatchers who stole corpses for medical schools) from disturbing the dead.

But urban cemeteries soon suffered from the same problems of overcrowding that churchyards did. To attract customers, urban cemeteries often kept the price of burial plots low. But this left no money for establishment of a perpetual trust to pay for the cemetery's upkeep. While urban cemeteries were better able to cater to the emerging desire for elaborately carved headstones, memorials, statuary, and other funerary monuments, over time they became so crowded and featured such an eccentric and diverse number of styles that they looked downright ugly. Soon, even urban cemeteries were putting three or four coffins in graves. Soon, even urban cemeteries were adding layer upon layer of soil to the top to permit more burials. (Highgate Cemtery in the middle of London is nearly 20 feet above the surface of the surrounding roads!) Massive retaining walls were built around the cemetery to keep the burying ground from bursting and scattering corpses onto the street. Cemeteries took on the look of fortresses, unwelcoming and increasingly unvisited. The stench, the noxious fluids, the disease of urban cemeteries become notorious. In some cases, receiving vaults and chapels had to be aired out before use -- because the bacteria from decomposing corpses used up all the oxygen in them.

Over in France, they were unhappy with urban cemeteries. The French Revolution had also broken the power of the Roman Catholic Church (for a time), and the French Assembly was determined to build a new, modern, "scientific" cemetery free from all the Catholic symbols of death, sin, and so on. In 1804, the city of Paris opened a brand new cemetery: Père Lachaise. Père Lachaise was on the outskirts of town, gigantic (110 acres), and beautifully landscaped. It had winding (not straight) paths, and plenty of benches, ponds, meadows, and other areas attractively designed and strategically located. The goal was to make the cemetery a place of beauty, one where people wouldn't feel sad about death but happy about the hereafter. People were encouraged to visit, picnic, and even go boating and have parties at Père Lachaise.

Père Lachaise was a new type of cemetery -- the "rural" or "garden" cemetery.

* * * * * * * *

So back to Holmead's.... Anthony Holmead laid out his little cemetery like a churchyard. The city laid out the Western Burial Ground like an urban cemetery. In 1820, the city asked the Holmeads to donate their little burying ground to the city, so it could be added to the Western Burial Ground. The Holmeads (who by this time had sold most of their nearby property and weren't interested in running a public cemetery anymore) agreed.

Although the name "Western Burial Ground" was used for a while, most people called the entire, unified cemetery after the original name: Holmead's.

Holmead's Burying Ground began to fill. The northeast corner (the original Holmead's) was used for burying whites. The southeast corner was used for burying white soldiers. And the southwest corner, which was cut off from the rest by a little ravine (and, later, a hedge of thorn bushes) was used for blacks. A solid wooden fence was built around the entire block. There was a sexton's house, and night watchman, and a few wealthier families placed memorials or monuments on their family plots and ringed them with wrought-iron fences. But most people used four-foot-high sandstone slabs, and Holmead's began to take on the traditional look of a traditional urban cemetery.

Until the 1850s, Holmead's was one of the most prominent cemeteries in the city.

That changed.

The rapidly growing city needed more cemeteries, and as these were built they competed with Holmead's. These new cemeteries included the Presbyterian Burying Ground in 1802 (which drew wealthy and middle class whites from the Georgetown neighborhood), the large 35-acre Congressional Cemetery in 1807, the Roman Catholic Holy Rood Cemetery in 1832, the landscaped and luxuriously designed 22-acre Oak Hill Cemetery in 1848 (also in Georgetown), the landscaped and massive 90-acre Glenwood Cemetery in 1854, the gigantic 85-acre Roman Catholic Mount Olivet Cemetery in 1858 (which largely replaced Holy Rood), and 15-acre Lutheran Prospect Hill Cemetery in 1858. There was even competition for African American burials, as new blacks-only cemeteries such as Mount Zion Cemetery (1808), the Harmoneon (1829), the Female Union Band Cemetery (1842), and Columbian Harmony Cemetery (which replaced the Harmoneon in 1859) were constructed. Fewer and fewer whites people were interred at Holmead's, and most of the burials which occurred came from the city's African American population. The lack of activity at Holmead's attracted vandals, who knocked over monuments and desecrated graves there. The situation became so serious that the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department began patrolling the grounds in the 1850s.

Burials continued at Holmead's, however. But as the cemetery deteriorated, poor people saw their opportunity. If you couldn't afford to buy a burial plot, just sneak onto the grounds and night and bury your spouse surreptitiously. It was a common solution, especially among poverty-stricken African Americans. Maybe you had a few bucks, but not enough to buy a burial plot. Use the money to bribe the sexton at Holmead's to allow an "unofficial" burial. If you could afford a plot, you were probably a working-poor white family -- who could affrod to bury, but not afford to mark the burial site.

By 1870, there were 10,000 bodies at Holmead's -- but only about 9,000 of them were official burials. The cemetery was bursting. Four or five coffins lay in each grave. Graves were jammed right next to the walls, the sidewalks, next to other plots. On the southern end of the site, the water table was just three or four feet down. Graves could be only two feet deep... and when the rains came, coffins were washed out of the graves. The city graded Florida Avenue in 1870, lowering it by nearly eight feet. This left an embankment on the northern boundary of the cemetery. But no retaining wall was built. When the rains came, coffins were exposed -- and some washed into the street, where they were hit by carriages, bones and body parts splashing (along the decomposition fluids) all over the pavement.

The city tried to close Holmead's in 1871, but the "no more burials" order was ignored. In December 1873, some "resurrectionists" were found walking down Connecticut Avenue NW with a large sack. The police arrested them for drunk-and-disorderly, and discovered that they'd plundered a recent burial from Holmead's. This forced a new attempt to close the cemetery in March 1874, and this time the city was successful in preventing new burials. Families began moving their loved ones out of the cemetery in 1874, anticipating its closure. A city-funded round of disinterments occurred in 1878. A federally-funded effort came in 1880, and again in 1882.

About this time, the city learned -- to no one's suprise -- that it had illegally seized Square 109 way back in 1789. Not only did the city not have the right bury bodies on the land, it had no right to sell burial plots. Furthermore, now that it had put bodies there, it had no right to remove them! Congess was forced to act in 1879, giving the city title to the property. This law, however, did not clearly give the city the right to sell the property once it had title. So Congress acted again in 1884 to give the right of sale to the city, provided the proceeds were used to fund the city school system. The city anticipated a big income from this land sale, so it spent another $4,000 to remove another 3,000 bodies from Holmead's.

The city sold the entirety of Square 109 in December 1884 to John Roll Mclean, the publisher of the Washington Post for $52,000.

Playing the "numbers game" is kind of hard. Just how many bodies were removed from Holmead's? By one estimate, families removed about just under 1,000 bodies, while the city removed another 3,000. That would have left a whopping 6,000 corpses beneath the ground. If one assumes that it cost about $2,000 to remove 1,000, then the expenditures of the federal government and the city account for closer to 5,500 disinterments, with families removing another 985. So that left just 3,500 bodies beneath the ground -- and it is legitimate to assume that many of these had decomposed into dust, minerals, and other chemical components by 1885.

John Roll McLean built a park on the square, and called it Holmead Park. In 1905, he built the huge Cordova Apartments (now the President Madison Apartments) on the northwest corner of the site. The rest of the land was eventually subdivided and the park destroyed. Small apartment buildings and large townhouses were constructed on the 19th Street side of the old cemetery, and smaller rowhouses on the S Street section (where the blacks and soldiers were buried). The National Italian American Foundation building and a row of brick townhouses sit where once white people were buried.

No comments:

Post a Comment