Removal of Bodies From Graceland Cemetery Leads to Lawsuit

GoDCer Ronnie tweeted a request for a Woodlawn Cemetery and Ward 7 post this week, so I’m happy to oblige. In fact, I’m going to share a story which dates back to the origins of the cemetery off of Benning Rd. SE.

Woodlawn Cemetery traces its roots back to Graceland Cemetery, which was located at the intersection of H St., Florida Ave. and Maryland Ave. in northeast. More importantly, one of our favorite GoDC figures lived about a block away … that’s right, Officer Sprinkle. The map below from 1903 shows the cemetery near the bottom right.

1903 Baist real estate atlas of Trinidad
1903 Baist real estate atlas of Trinidad

The city was rapidly expanding west and the land on which Graceland Cemetery was built was needed for development. So, the officials in charge of the cemetery decided to sell and move to a new plot of land in a much more rural part of Washington … where Woodlawn Cemetery is now.

True to the litigious nature of this country, owners of family plots in the cemetery filed suit against the cemetery, asking for a restraining order. Below is the report from the Washington Post on August 28th, 1895.

Harrison Davis and others yesterday through Ralston & Siddons, filed a bill in equity against the Graceland Cemetery Association, asking for a restraining order to prevent the cemetery company, without consent of petitioners, from removing or disturbing any monuments, trees, or shrubs or in any way defacing the burial ground, and from subdividing the city of the dead into building lots or selling the same for anything except the purposes of the sepulcher.

The complainants state in their bill that they are lot owners in the cemetery and as such are stockholders in the association. They claim that without the consent of a majority of the stockholders several of the board of the association, with other persons, formed a private corporation known as the Woodlawn Cemetery Association, which has acquired possession of a tract of 26 1-2 acres in Maryland, located about three miles from Graceland. It is claimed that the defendants are removing the bodies of the dead from Graceland Cemetery to the new place without the consent of the lot owners in the former cemetery, the defendants refusing to bear the expense of removing the same to any other cemetery than Woodlawn. The distribution of the proceeds is unfair and unjust, the net under which it is being done being attacked as unconstitutional.

The officials of Graceland Cemetery did not issue a reply to the suit until late September, at which time they denied the bulk of the allegations, but did confirm that they had been removing bodies to Woodlawn Cemetery. They stated that about 400 graves had been relocated to the new cemetery, but not until the relatives of the deceased had been notified.

Ultimately, Chief Justice Bingham of the District Supreme Court refused to grant an injunction to Harrison Davis and others and Graceland was free to move their cemetery to Woodlawn and sell off their land.

Woodlawn Cemetery (source: woodlawndc.org)
Woodlawn Cemetery (source: woodlawndc.org)

Oh, they have a website which you can check out … www.woodlawndc.org.

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • Anna Murray Douglass was buried in Graceland, initially.

    Tyrone “Papa” General with his volunteers is doing great work in trying to restore and maintain Woodlawn. Much respect.

  • Bechw1

    There is a public notice from Graceland Cemetery appearing in the Washington Herald, July 2, 1912, page 2 notifying all persons who filed against the company to appear before the Board of Officers to prove their claims. From 1895 to 1912 is a long time to settle.