One of the 19th-century skeletons uncovered in the 3300 block of Q Street, NW, Washington, DC. Photo courtesy Dr. David Hunt, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
The dead couldn’t quite wait until Halloween to start rising in Washington, DC, this year.
On September 10, construction workers excavating to make way for a residential parking garage on the bucolic 3300 block of Q Street in the city’s northwest quadrant found the first of five adult remains. After the medical examiner determined that the bodies were not part of a crime scene, Ruth Trocolli, Washington’s city archaeologist was called in to excavate the site.
The design of the coffins, the absence of grave goods, and the position of the bodies within the coffins were all consistent with early 19th-century burial practices, leading Trocolli to ballpark their deaths in the 1820s. Trocolli also discovered that the bodies -- all African Americans of adult age -- were oriented east to west, suggesting that they were not random burials, but the remains of a cemetery. The question was, which one?
Ruth Trocolli (left) and Charde Reid working on the excavation. Photo courtesy Dr. David Hunt, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
It turns out there used to be a cemetery belonging to a Georgetown Presbyterian church, dating to 1806, just across Q Street where Volta Park now stands. Trocolli says that before development of the area, the cemetery could have extended beyond Q, or, because of segregation, African Americans may have been buried outside the formal grounds.
But I wanted to know how so many burials could turn up so unexpectedly.
Trocolli had an interesting explanation for that, too. , Georgetown was still a part of Maryland, which could explain why the District had no record of the remains. She also explained that the city of Washington did not always cover the entire diamond that is now DC, and in 1858, with property values rising, Congress decreed that all cemeteries (except Congressional) be moved north of Boundary Street -- present day Florida Avenue -- and into what was known as Washington County.
Cemeteries sold their property and moved the burials, putting ads in the church squire or local paper asking residents to claim loved ones or headstones. But as one might expect, they missed some here and there.
This isn’t the first time centuries-old burials have turned up in the District. Old newspaper accounts are full of burial findings, says Trocolli, and some of the cemeteries that were moved were huge. Payne’s Cemetery in the southeast quadrant contained as many as 39,000 bodies, and what is now Walter Pierce Park in the Adams Morgan neighborhood also had a significant number.
Looking from Volta Park, the alley where the skeletons were found. Photo courtesy David Robert Weible.
“Some people are very stressed to hear that their playground is on top of a former cemetery, and it just doesn’t faze others,” says Trocolli.
Though finding bodies has been uncommon, it is not unknown, and so Trocolli has developed a plan for predicting them. Using the recent book by local cemetery scholar Paul E. Sluby Sr., Bury Me Deep, to create a database of all the historic cemeteries in the District, she overlaid their locations onto a map of the current city via GIS software, allowing her to see where development projects might encounter bodies. And with development again reaching a fever-pitch in Washington, Trocolli expects the dead to continue rising, regardless of Halloween.
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David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.