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Meet the Presidential Grave Hunter


Join us on a grave journey.

When he was just 9 years old, Kurt Deion embarked on a quest to visit the grave site of every US president and vice president. Now, as a grown-up historian working at his favorite cemetery in the world, Kurt has chronicled his journey in the book Presidential Grave Hunter: One Kid’s Quest to Visit the Tombs of Every President and Vice President.

He shared some of his incredible stories in our latest episode.

Listen now:


Kurt’s interest started with a Scholastic Book Fair flyer, when his mother selected a book for him: So You Want To Be President by Judith St. George and David Small. Once he opened it, he couldn’t put it down.

A delightful children’s book even if it does perpetuate several myths we’ve addressed.

A big part of the appeal of the book were the funny illustrations, showing John Quincy Adams skinny dipping in the Potomac and William Howard Taft being lowered into an oversize bath tub. Recently, as an adult, Kurt connected with the illustrator David Small and shared his love of that life-changing book. Small sent him a hand-drawn illustration that now graces Kurt’s wall:

Before the interview with Kurt, we dig into the mysterious story of William Wirt’s skull and how it became reunited with the rest of his bones at the Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC.

William Wirt has a few claims to fame. He was the longest-serving Attorney General in US history, serving under both James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. He was one of the prosecutors in Aaron Burr’s treason trial. And, he was a candidate for president in the Election of 1832 as the nominee for America’s first third-party, the Anti-Masonic Party. (It did not work out for him.)

William Wirt

After dying in 1834 (following a cold), Wirt was buried in the Congressional Cemetery. In 1853, his body was moved to a family crypt beneath a 12 foot tall obelisk.

William Wirt family tomb at the Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC. Picture added to findagrave.com by Wade Pfau.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that anyone at the cemetery had any idea that some of his remains had been stolen, when a still-unidentified man called the manager of the Congressional Cemetery and asked, “Do you know anything about William Wirt’s skull?”

That phone call eventually led to the examination of a skull in a tin box labeled “The Hon. Wm. Wirt” that was once part of the eclectic collection of a man named Robert L. White. With a business card cheekily calling himself “Baltimore’s #1 Head Hunter,” White had collected more than 30 skulls, along with mementos like the wallets John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln had on them when they were assassinated, locks of hair from George and Martha Washington, an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, and Raymond Burr’s Emmy for playing Perry Mason.

It turns out that Wirt’s family crypt, with 8 total coffins, had been broken into and vandalized sometime in the 1970s or 80s and that is likely when Wirt’s skull was stolen.

The cemetery may have been run down for some time, as an 1897 article in The New Era describes it:

To reach the cemetery gate, which opens on Georgia Avenue, you go out past the Arsenal, the almshouse, the district jail—past long rows of dilapidated negro shanties and groups of sullen prisoners in striped attire, repairing the wretched road under guard, past refuse heaps and malodorous cesspools and the general dumping ground of a great city. Inexpressibly dreary are all the surroundings, as if to enforce a wholesome realization of the common destiny, which lays all heads low at last, however proudly they may have been borne in life.

I once heard a distinguished Congressman say: ‘If I die during my term of Congressional service, bury me anywhere on earth but in the Congressional cemetery.’ And after one glimpse of the historic grave-yard I ceased to wonder at his aversion to it. The place is wholly without any attempts at beautification usually seen in cities of the dead.

Scraggy hemlocks and pines only add to the gloom, tangled grass and shrubbery riot in absolute neglect, and winds rustling the laurel leaves seem the sighs of unquiet spirits echoing the words, ‘Are we soon forgot?’ Yet there are gathered here the dust and ashes of some of the nation’s greatest men, who swayed the country by their eloquence, statesmanship and courage and left their names and deeds inscribed upon material more enduring than marble shaft and storied urn.

Now, Wirt’s skull has been reunited with the rest of his remains, and the Historic Congressional Cemetery is a happening, vibrant place where people visit, take tours, buy honey, watch screenings of movies like Beetlejuice, and even walk their dogs!

One big fan of the cemetery is our guest Kurt Deion. He first visited it as part of his quest to see the grave of Vice President Elbridge Gerry, among many other notable figures, and he fell in love. He’s such a fan, in fact, that he bought a plot there for himself. And not only that—he now works there as an education specialist, helping to curate tours and events that bring the history of the historic cemetery to life. So to speak.

Kurt has also written for the cemetery’s blog, and I have to say — he’s got one of the best bylines I’ve ever seen:

 

Listen to our tale of William Wirt’s skull and Kurt Deion’s journey now:

 


Sources:
“The honorable William Wirt gets his skull back” by Peter Carlson, The Washington Post, Thursday, November 17, 2005
Cemetery Vandalism: The Strange Case of William Wirt” by Mark W. Grabowski, Douglas W. Owsley, and Karin S. Bruwelheide, Washington History 2010
Monumental Discoveries” by Erin Lombard, Heritage Gazette – Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, Summer 2009
“Washington Gossip: The Capital’s Cities of the Dead,” The Semi-Weekly New Era, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, December 1, 1897

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