LOCAL LORE: The Bodies in the Intersection

1887: Col. Jehiel Brooks had died the previous year and his 200+ acres of land had been sold. The first subdivision, named simply “Brookland,” was in the process of being platted. As the surveyors were laying out the roads, they stumbled upon something surprising. Near the intersection of what would be Monroe and 12th Streets, some graves were discovered beneath the pine and cedar trees.

DavidBurnesgravestone

They had not been well-tended. There were three large stone slabs overgrown with weeds, the corners broken on one of them. It looked like they once had rested on short  sandstone and brick pillars, but those had long since disappeared. The inscriptions on the slabs were still legible. One of them read:

David Burnes, Esq

Of  The

City of Washington

died

The 8th of May, 1800,

Aged 60 years, 2 months and 24 days.


The other two were Burnes’s wife, Anne, who died in 1807, and his son John, who died at the age of 20 in 1792.

If any of those surveyors recognized the name of David Burnes they would have been even more surprised. Burnes was one of the original landholders of what would become Washington, D.C. His home was right where Tiber Creek met the Potomac, very near today’s 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. When George Washington began discussions with the landowners to create the capital city, he got to know David Burnes well, referring to him as “obstinate.” That wasn’t a surprise, Burnes was in a strong negotiating position. His 700 acre farm was centrally located and essential to the new city. 

DC-1792 landowners

Property lines and original owners of District land in 1792. David Burnes’s farm is marked with an L and includes the White House and the heart of downtown. Click to enlarge. (Library of Congress)

Burnes was quite willing to sell at the right price, and he and the other landowners made the deal with George Washington in 1791. It was a complex agreement, and its implementation is where problems arose. Burnes was in a constant state of legal warfare with the three commissioners who were in charge of building the city. Burnes wanted to live on the property remaining to him, but had to fight the commissoners to build a modest yet serviceable cottage on the farm. He finally secured permission and there he and his wife Anne raised their son John and daughter Marcia .  

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David Burnes’ cottage in 1894, just before it was torn down. The Washington Monument is visible to the right.   (Library of Congress)

Despite the unpretentious dwelling, Burnes, thanks to his land transactions, was a very wealthy man. His fortune was estimated at 14 million in today’s dollars. How could such a rich man end up in an unkempt grave four miles away from his farm? It all has to do with family.

David Burnes was married to Anne Wightt, who had grown up on her family's farm known as “Inclosure,” a 246-acre tract northeast of downtown that included the future Brookland. Anne Wightt’s brother, John, owned the farm at the time the District of Columbia was being built. When David Burnes’s son John died in 1795 (not 1792, as his grave marker says) he was buried in the family plot at Inclosure. So was David Burnes when he died in 1799 (not 1800, as his grave marker says). With his death, all attention focused on his daughter Marcia, soon to be one of the richest women in the United States, with a plethora of suitors vying for her hand.

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Marcia Burnes Van Ness by Gilbert Stuart. (From the collection of Richard Hampton Jenrette)

On her 20th birthday, Marcia Burnes married the prominent New York Congressman John Peter Van Ness. He was named administrator of the David Burnes estate in 1803. When Anne Wightt Burnes died in 1807, Marcia had her entombed at the family plot on the Wightt estate, next to her husband and son. Marcia and John Van Ness quickly became one of the early power couples in Washington. Van Ness left Congress after President Thomas Jefferson appointed him a major in the District militia. He rose through the ranks to the level of major general. He would later become mayor of Washington and one of the most influential men in the city. 

John Peter Van Ness (Gilbert Stuart)

John Peter Van Ness by Gilbert Stuart. (From the collection of Richard Hampton Jenrette)

Pretty, vivacious and smart, Marcia Van Ness also found her place in Washington, teaming with her friend Dolley Madison and other prominent society women to form the Washington City Orphan Asylum, then joining in other philanthropic ventures. She was the belle of Washington society, and her influence only increased when her husband built their mansion right behind her father’s cottage. It would become the center of the capital’s social whirl.

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Van Ness mansion. It stood for 92 years until it was razed in 1908 to make way for the Pan American Union Building.  (Library of Congress)

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In 1806, Marcia's uncle, John Wightt, died and the family farm, Inclosure, passed to his son John Magruder Wightt. He died in 1819 and the land then passed to his mother and his aunt Eleanor Queen, wife of Nicholas Queen. In 1830 Queen’s daughter, Ann, married Jehiel Brooks (left, much later in life), and the land passed down to them. They lived at first in Louisiana, then came back to Inclosure, where they built their mansion between 1837 and 1840. Jehiel Brooks was certainly aware of the burial plot on his property that contained the three graves of the Burnes family. Very shortly after completing his mansion, he wrote to John Peter Van Ness, whose wife Marcia had died in 1832:

Near Washington, D.C., Dec. 26, 1840

Genl J.P. Van Ness

Dear Sir:

I presume you are aware that the parents and brother of your deceased Lady are interred on the farm which was owned at the time by a relation named Wightt. Through the lapse and mutations of many years the tombs, constructed over their remains of brick and free-stone, have become more or less mutilated, and now in a state of dilapidation. The place, also, tho' kept, as far as known to me, enclosed from the depredations of domestic animals, is become too public and exposed, in my opinion, for a suitable repository of the recorded and venerated dead. I therefore, take the liberty of suggesting a removal of these remains to such place as you may deem more accordant with the respect due to their memory.

I am Sir very respectfully,

Your Obt Servt.

J. Brooks

Van Ness Mausoleum - Washington, D.C.

Brooks got no response from Van Ness, so wrote again a year later. He was obviously hoping that Van Ness would reinter the bodies in his ostentatious new mausoleum (right), which he had built in 1833 at 9th and H streets, on the property of the Orphan Asylum, to house the body of his wife, Marcia.

Near Washington, D.C., Novr 25, 1841

Genl. J.P. Van Ness

Dear Sir:

On the 26th December last I took the liberty of addressing you a note of which the following is a copy, to wit: (see copy above.)  Having received no reply I presume it failed to reach you. I will barely add at this time that the bad locality of the Burns' graves is a subject of remark by almost every visitor at my house, which is very near to the old residence of the Wightt family. Why not remove these remains to your family vault, where the whole family might repose together? Setting aside the unsuitability of the locality here, these tombs are so much defaced and fallen, that were they over the remains of my relations, I would rather they were demolished outright than continue as they are. A conviction of the importance of doing some thing with those remains must be my excuse for this urging the matter upon your attention.

Very respectfully, 

J. Brooks

John Van Ness finally responded a week later:

Washington Dec. 4, 1841

Coll. J. Brooks

D. Sir

Yours of the 25th ult. is received. I recollect I did before receive a communication on the same subject; and the suggestion it contained was not promptly acceded to because, besides my having an inherent aversion from disturbing the bones of the dead, be they whose they may, the spirits that once animated them now in question assigned, before their departure from this world, their present location to their remains. My lamented wife and her mother repeatedly assured me that old Mr. Burns, before his death expressed an anxious tenacity on that subject - insisting on being buried among the ancestral tombs of his family and friends. From similar motives his wife and son were placed by his side. My wife and myself had the graves of her parents and brother, many years ago, properly entombed and attended to, she still thinking this continuance in their present repository the most proper; and we considered that to whomever that family estate should descend, the interred remains would be regarded as a legitimate and sacred deposit whose repose would not be interrupted.

Now, Sir, whilst I thank you for your urgent suggestions to which I concede all the credit of kindness, tho not of originality, I assure you I have long been thinking of the plan you propose; and nothing but the reasons intimated above induced me to hesitate. Pardon me for respecting considerations which may appear to some uninfluential.

You have ascertained correctly the state of my particular family relations, and I am obliged to you for reminding me of my duty, as respects the collection & permanent deposit of their remains. Since it seems I was mistaken in my anticipation as to the probable condition & fate of the tombs on the Wightt estate, and that they are defaced, fallen and probably will before long be demolished, I will soon remove their contents to my family vault, and thus terminate the trouble which I fear they give to one who can not reasonably be expected to feel the same interest in their preservation or protection that I do myself.

With great respect I remain you obdt Servant

John P. Van Ness

Jehiel Brooks was incensed when he got the letter. Reading between the lines of 19th century polite correspondence he saw numerous insults. He quickly dashed off a seething response.

Near Washington D.C., Dec 6, 1841

Genl J.P. Van Ness,

Dear Sir:

I have just perused yours of the 4th inst. You say "whilst I thank you for you urgent suggestions, to which I conceded all the credit of kindness, though not of originality, I assure you I have long been thinking of the plan you propose," etc. Being somewhat at a loss to understand your meaning, I deem it due to myself to say that in my communications addressed to you I have not been influenced by any urgency of feelings, motive, or design in my "suggestions" beyond the plainest dictates of propriety, enforced by almost daily observation for a period of nearly five years.

Again you say: "Since it seems I was mistaken in my anticipation as to the probable condition and fate of the tombs on the Wightt estate, and that they are defaced, fallen and probably will before long be demolished, I shall," etc. To suppose that I would desecrate those or any other tombs (if such be your meaning,) is doing me great injustice; and I feel great repugnance to such an inference on your behalf, as all who know me will not believe me capable of such vandalism; and yet without the inference I am in doubt as to your meaning. It must be plain to the commonest mind that my allusion to the entire demolition of those tombs as preferable to their present condition, was simply to express in that way my sense of their neglect, as I do not believe a brick belonging to them has been disturbed by the hand of man since I have resided on the "Wightt estate."

Under the circumstances, Sir, in which I am placed, after more reflection you will scarcely think it strange that I should have enquired after the genealogy of those names I found engraved on their tombs; and that I should have informed you of their condition without necessarily inferring an impertinent disposition on my part to "inform you of your duty." Nor can I admit the inference that any obligation attaches to me as the mere owner of what was once the Wightt estate, to keep these or any other tombs I may find on the place in repairs - so far from it I cannot but feel that the very position of those graves must ever be whilst they remain there a source of regret to myself and family and of desecration to themselves.

This much, Sir, I have felt required to say in reply to your singular letter, in defence of my motives; and will barely add that I shall be ready at any time to render whatever aid you may desire in disinterring the remains.

I am, Sir, very respectfully

Your Obt. Servt.

J. Brooks

Our Colonel Brooks was a crusty, argumentative, litigious man who seemed to enjoy adversarial clashes, but was he right in this case? Whose responsibility should it have been to tend to the graves on the property? 

Whatever the answer, John Van Ness never fulfilled his promise regarding the graves to “soon remove their contents to my family vault.” He died in 1846, with the issue apparently unresolved. The graves remained as they were until the Civil War. Then, according to Dr. J. Henry Brooks, Jehiel Brooks’s son, soldiers stationed at Fort Bunker Hill raided the gravesite and took the bricks so they could build fire flues in their tents. The weeds then took over.

RockCreekcemmap

After the graves were re-discovered in 1887, the developers of the Brookland subdivision, Benjamin Leighton and Richard Pairo, took up a subscription to buy a lot in Rock Creek Cemetery and have the bodies reinterred there (see map, left. Click to enlarge). The graves can be seen today with their original gravestones in Section C, near the cemetery lake. Based on the above letters, we can now say that John Van Ness and his wife Marcia were the ones who created those gravestones (with their incorrect dates).

In 1875, the Van Ness Mausoleum, which houses the bodies of John Peter Van Ness and Marcia Burnes, was moved from 9th and H streets to Oak Hill Cemetery.

The original letters about the graves from Colonel Brooks and the response from John Peter Van Ness are available online through the Catholic University of America archives.

DBurnesgrave


© Robert Malesky 2016