Ghosts, Graves, Spirits at Oak Hill Cemetery



This week, our interview on “The Community Corner” takes place well beyond a Zoom screen. We actually headed to Oak Hill Cemetery, a historic cemetery located in the Georgetown neighborhood that was founded in 1849, for a walking tour.

From the father of American viticulture to the ghost of Willie Lincoln, Andrea Seiger, Washington, DC-based author and tour guide, spoke with The Hoya about the people buried in this cemetery and the stories their lives tell.

Listen to hear why Seiger thinks Oak Hill is a “best address” in Washington, DC, and how cemeteries are an underrated type of museum living about a place and the people within.

Podcast transcript:

GB: I’m currently at Oak Hill Cemetery, going up a pretty big hill, waiting for my tour and the subject of the show to come up here.

GB: From The Hoya, my name is Grace Buono (COL ’23) and this is “The Community Corner”, a weekly show about the life of the Hoyas near and far from Hilltop. Today our story does not unfold on a Zoom screen but in Oak Hill Cemetery, a 22-acre cemetery that was first incorporated by an act of Congress in March 1849. Oak Hill Cemetery was founded by William Corcoran, a banker and founder of Riggs National Bank, which is now known as PNC Bank. And yes, Riggs like in the Francis Riggs library here on campus. You might be wondering why you suddenly found yourself listening to a podcast about a cemetery tucked away in the Georgetown neighborhood, but that’s because Oak Hill is a story in itself. And to help tell this story, I went to Oak Hill one November morning to meet Andrea Seiger.

AS: My name is Andrea Seiger and I am a guide author. I am the author of “111 must see places in Washington.” ”

GB: Seiger began giving tours at Oak Hill in partnership with the Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC after the publication of the 2017 book “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders. The book is set in 1862 when Willie, the son of President Abrabam Lincoln, dies. While this book is the fictional account of Willie’s rather supernatural experiences in some sort of purgatory state, the 11-year-old boy was actually buried in a mausoleum right here in Oak Hill before his body could be brought back to Illinois. But we will come back to that.

AS: This cemetery is a better address. You know, we think the best places are a fabulous neighborhood or apartment building where the people who once lived or lived. Well, it’s a who’s who of who has lived and who no longer lives, as far as we know. The people that are buried here or buried here or who haunt the place or all of the above, maybe.

GB: With that, Seiger and I started to walk. As you heard from the start, Oak Hill Cemetery is primarily hilly. There are tombs nestled row after row on these hills, many of which face a downward slope leading to what is now Rock Creek Parkway. Other than a team of people scattered around the cemetery gardening and doing some renovations, I felt like Seiger and I were the only two people walking through the cemetery this morning.

AS: So one of the graves I’d like to present to you, this one – this story is one of my favorites. It’s John Adlum. John Adlum was a decorated revolutionary war soldier. But what makes him such a fascinating story is that he is considered the father of American viticulture.

GB: And yes, by that she means that Adlum grew grapes for wine.

AS: This man kept going, you know, his first turn wasn’t that good. The second round of wine he sent to Thomas Jefferson, who had a renowned palate and, you know, he was a farmer and innovator himself, and Jefferson actually wrote enough – a really nice answer. They must be matching. They were friends for 15 years until Adlum died.

GB: Adlum, by the way, was born in 1759 and died in 1836. You will recall that Oak Hill Cemetery was not founded until 1862, but Adlum’s body was exhumed and moved. at Oak Hill. The cemetery was, even from its launch, the perfect location, especially for the kind of distinguished American families in Washington, DC, at the time.

AS: I think part of it because of where it’s located, you know, it’s a great view of Rock Creek Park and Rock Creek, which is just down the hill. If you were to ride there you would end up in the water. And that was in Georgetown, which was not yet part of the District of Columbia. Thus, Georgetown was not incorporated into the city of Washington until 1791. Georgetown was therefore in a way the place where the elite lived and circulated. This was where some of the wealthiest people lived.

GB: While we were walking away from Adlum’s grave, Seiger told me that she believed there were about 20,000 people buried here in Oak Hill.

AS: Looking around on the lower levels further and further back, closer to the east side, you will see the giant mausoleums, and there are a large number of people in these family mausoleums.

GB: Yeah. It makes sense.

GB: Then Seiger and I ended up walking down a fairly steep stone staircase to what looked like the edge of the cemetery. And all of a sudden we stopped.

AS: This is Elizabeth Washington. She was 27 years old. It was the first burial here in the cemetery. There are not a lot. I couldn’t find much on her. Yes, she is descended from these Washington.

GB: As you can probably hear in the background, Washington’s once-serene painting paradise is a little different these days. Although she once sat at the very site of her grave looking at the Rock Creek babbling, nowadays just beyond the treeline is a freeway.

AS: And the reason she is buried there, well first of all, she was the first person buried here in 1849. But the reason she was buried here at this particular place was that it was. was his favorite place to come to draw and do needlework. So she would come here and sit on the lawn and sit on this beautiful hill and look at Rock Creek and paint and draw and do needlework.

GB: Seiger is a pure conseguir of history. She sees stories all around her, from signs on buildings to names on graves. Just stop and read them. That’s what she told me as we walked out of Washinton’s grave on a narrow path. On our left was a row of mausoleums, built directly into the steep hill. To our right was a drop off which, as Seiger told me, is where we would fall in Rock Creek if we did.

AS: You know here in Georgetown, for those of you who live in Georgetown, even if it’s only for the four years of your college career, there is so much to do here. And if you don’t feel like going to a bar or a bakery, there are plenty of cool places to walk around and, you know, stop and read some historical landmarks.

GB: Seiger, who has a history for what looks like all the other graves in this cemetery, sees this place as more than just a list of names carved into the rock. For her, beyond just a place to walk, cemeteries are an underestimated source of stories to keep alive.

AS: So here is the mausoleum of the William Thomas Carol family. And on February 20, 1862, when Willie Lincoln, who was President Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, died of typhoid fever, William Carol, who was the Clerk of the Supreme Court, he actually held that position for 34 years. . , he was the longest-serving Supreme Court clerk in American history today. He donated his family mausoleum to place Willie until the family could return to Illinois and properly bury him on the family land in Springfield, Illinois. What ultimately happened after the President was assassinated – they finally brought the President and Willie back to Springfield, where they are now. The president, and it’s true, it’s documented, that the president used to come here in the dark of the night. And he was riding his horse in the White House and apparently he was way too big for his horse and he would show up at the gate and the keeper would give him the key to the mausoleum and he would come here and just hold his dead son. Which is really heartbreaking.

GB: Despite all the talk about graves, ghosts and spirits, Seiger was not always a fan of cemeteries.

AS: I used to be scared of cemeteries, and I don’t know if I would like to make a living from them, but I’ve learned over the years that cemeteries are great places for stories. Cemeteries tell you the story of where you are and the people who came before us. And even if you’re not interested, if you’ve got that – if your mantra is “Ugh, I don’t care about the story” which, PS, you should, are just nice pieces to go through. They are beautiful parks. If you see a name that sounds intriguing or familiar, search for it.

GB: For those who are now intrigued by a visit to Oak Hill Cemetery, Seiger has a message: keep your eyes peeled and who knows what you will find. His stories alone bear witness to this advice.

AS: When you get to a place like this, get your face out of your phone. So not only is it just a beautiful cemetery that has a lot of history, it’s also a museum in the sense that they preserve American history, they preserve Washington history, they preserve Georgetown history. Not just through the graves, but through some of the artifacts we take for granted, like the keys.

GB: These are just a few of the stories Seiger told me when I visited Oak Hill Cemetery. And she is only a tourist guide. Each guide, she said, organizes its own theme. For Seiger, his tours focus on “Lincoln in the Bardo”. For others, they are notable women, or journalists, or members of Congress. With 20,000 graves, there are countless stories to tell.

AS: But there’s, you know, this place where if you look around and you’re a photographer, it’s a great place to come. There is a six point resident who enjoys making an appearance here. And if you see it, it is gigantic. He scared me to death. I saw it one day, I thought it was a gravestone. And then his ear twitched and I almost had a heart attack.

GB: This podcast was recorded, edited and produced by Grace Buono. Many thanks to Andrea Seiger for taking the time to share her stories about Oak Hill Cemetery with me. Before signing here, a special announcement. After Thanksgiving, I’m delighted to announce that two media staff, Mia Rasmany (COL ’24) and Valerie Blinder (COL ’24) will be your next senior media writers. So, for all devoted listeners, if you hear another host on “The Community Corner”, that’s why. That’s all I have for today, tune in for more soon.



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