What began as a blog post about the controversial son of Dolley Madison, John Payne Todd, quickly evolved into a more personal study. This isn’t uncommon around here, or frankly, any historical institution where archival records are full of bits and pieces which quickly lead to other files, and other topics. We have a few different types of files here at the Cemetery, not including our historic Range and Site books: 1) range and site files, which typically include deeds and interment forms; 2) our archival files, which include letters, receipts, and occasional newspaper articles pertaining to cemetery administration; and finally, 3) our family files – my personal favorite. The family files are spotty, as they were not systematically compiled. Instead, they are filled with materials that researchers, family members, and staff have contributed over the years. There is no guarantee that there will be a file for your person, but there is the intriguing possibility that it will contain all sorts of goodies, including photographs, newspaper articles, letters, and anecdotal information. You never know what you will find, which is part of the fun of it.
When I pulled the Todd file, I discovered a few things I expected to find: a photocopied portrait of John Payne Todd and copies of death certificates of other Todd residents. However, I was also happy to discover a photograph of John Payne Todd’s headstone, a few yellowed newspaper articles from 1950 describing the marking of Todd’s grave, and a handwritten letter.
John Payne Todd’s grave marker is a new-ish one, but I never looked into when or why it was placed. Todd doesn’t exactly have the best reputation around here, or anywhere, for that matter. While his mother Dolley was beloved, and his stepfather James Madison was, well, the President of the United States, Todd didn’t quite live up to expectations. In life, he was known for gambling, womanizing, and generally wasting everyone’s time. He is the main reason that his mother lingered in our Public Vault and Causten Vault for almost eight years, as his detrimental habits ensured that there was never enough money to transport her to her final resting place at Montpelier beside her husband. In short, the phrases I most often hear paired with Mr. Todd are “ne’er do well” or “he whose name must not be spoken” (our archivist’s favorite). Dolley was and is well-loved. John is not remembered quite so fondly.
So it was with interest that I read the newspaper articles, helpfully titled “Dolley Madison’s ‘Wastrel’ Son Gets a Headstone at Last” and “Grave of Dolley Madison’s Playboy Son Gets Marker After Ninety-Eight Years.” Who cared enough to mark the grave of a questionable character who died in the mid nineteenth century? Mrs. Eleanor Fox Pearson.
Mrs. Pearson figures prominently in the newspaper articles and is also the author of the aforementioned handwritten letter. She apparently undertook a one-woman crusade to mark the grave of John Payne Todd, firmly believing that both Todd’s peers and the annals of history had gravely misjudged him. As she stated in one of the newspaper articles: “He may have gambled a bit, and probably drank too, but that was the custom with men of good breeding.” Further, she claimed that he didn’t squander his family’s estate; instead, his financial failures were due to the disappearing plantation system.
To a historian, or really anyone with a critical soul, this all sounds a little too forgiving. But Mrs. Pearson’s adamant defense of John Todd’s character is touching, and it is gratifying to note that her mission to restore Todd’s good name resulted in a headstone for his grave.
Although there is no way to know an exact number, thousands of graves are unmarked at Congressional Cemetery. We have over 65,000 people buried here and “only” 14 to 15,000 headstones. Some of this is due to multiple names on a family stone, but some are simply unmarked.
During my time here at Congressional, a few people have marked graves of individuals who are no relation to them. A former cemetery employee, Terri Maxfield Lipp, was fascinated and touched by the story of Mary Fuller, a silent film actress who faded into obscurity and poverty. Terri purchased a beautiful bench for Ms. Fuller to mark her grave. Similarly, Board member Amy Ballard was intrigued by the story of Nicolas Dunaev, a Russian actor and writer who could bend a dime with his fingers (really). Thanks to Amy, his grave will be marked by the end of the year. And historian Stephen Schell took it upon himself to mark the grave of Charles Preuss, a cartographer on the Fremont Expedition. Stephen even made the trek from Colorado for the grave marking ceremony. And although ultimately unsuccessful, both cemetery President Paul Williams and circus-aficionado Guy Palace launched Kickstarter campaigns to mark the grave of hapless circus worker Charles Siegert, who was killed by a tiger.
There are many stories, both well-known and overlooked, tucked away in the cemetery’s archives and history. What is amazing to me is how a historical figure, long forgotten, can still capture our imagination. With each of these stories there was an aspect of the deceased’s life that sparked something beyond casual interest, even with a supposedly disreputable character such as John Payne Todd.
I’ll close with an excerpt of Mrs. Pearson’s letter to the cemetery administration. It is dated October 20th, 1950, a few days after the grave marking ceremony for John Payne Todd.
Regarding John Payne Todd:
“I sincerely feel that his life has been grossly misinterpreted and I am convinced after study of his letters and accounts, and after reading his will, that he deserves more than complete oblivion. His mother always said – ‘His heart is alright’ – what more need be than this?”
I would venture to say that no one deserves complete oblivion – no snarky comments about serial killers or Hitler, please. Hats off to Mrs. Eleanor Fox Pearson, and to everyone else who takes it upon themselves to rescue the forgotten from obscurity.