05 Mar 2012

Lost Capitol Hill: Anatomy of a Scandal (part 1)

In researching my scandal book, I was surprised in how often the scandal, as generally told differed from the scandal as it was initially reported. To researchers of urban legends, those supposedly true stories that we tell each other to make a point, this would come as no surprise. Changing details to either improve the story or make a point is as old as human nature. One story that was not included in the book, but that neatly illustrates this very human habit, was the story of the keeper of the crypt.

During a hearing on District of Columbia appropriations in December 1921, Representative Ben Johnson of Kentucky told the following story: “When [the Capitol] was erected, it was contemplated that the remains of George Washington would be kept in the crypt. A crypt keeper was appointed. By and by, an assistant crypt keeper was appointed, and they went along for something like 85 years holding those two positions of keeping the crypt, with nothing in it.” Johnson wanted to point out that bureaucratic inertia was not an acceptable reason to continue doing anything.

Johnson’s story had its genesis in a newspaper report printed on January 28, 1869 in the New York Tribune. In it, the writer mentioned that the Committee on Appropriations was discussing the Legislative Appropriations bill, and that General Benjamin F. Butler, Representative from Massachusetts, had noticed a line appropriating 1,440 dollars for a “Superintendent of the Crypt”.

The Tribune continues: “Not understanding what this meant, he sought knowledge from his fellow-members, but they were no wiser than he. He then consulted the Appropriations bills for 50 years back and found the same thing charged in each bill. After a determined search among the employes of the Capitol the Superintendent of the Crypt was found. He was brought forward and made to relate his history. It seems shortly after Gen. Washington died an act was passed by Congress providing for the building of a vault beneath the Capitol which was to hold the remains of the immortal statesman and warrior, and to be called the Crypt. The duties of the Superintendent was to sit near the Crypt daily, from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., and see that only one gas burner was used. This the present occupant has done for the last 40 years, and now Gen. Butler cruelly proposes to abolish the office.”

The rose that is just above the empty crypt built for George Washington.

From here, the story rapidly spread through the newspapers of the day. Newspapers in as disparate places as Warren, Ohio, Virginia City, Montana, and Columbia, South Carolina all ran some version of the story.

From the newspapers, it then spread to magazines, including Harper’s Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly, and from there was picked up by numerous books, including a large number of guides to Washington, DC. In the process, it became part of the lore of DC, and was particularly loved by those who felt that those in Washington were wasting the money that they had been elected to watch over. In the next two weeks, we will look at the origin of the legend, as well as it spread – and how it continues to resonate today.

If you’re interested in following the progress of my scandal book as it makes its way through the publisher, as well as reading about tangentially-connected scandals, as well as the opportunity to get a good deal on the book, “like” my book’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/RobertPohlAuthor

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