MOUNT OLIVET CEMETERY
1300 Bladensburg Road, NE
Washington, D.C. 20002
Bella Morte Rating: 1 Tombstone
Mount Olivet is the largest Catholic cemetery in Washington, DC.. While it is certainly not anywhere near the worst we have ever visited, there is little by way of beauty to distinguish it from most other Catholic burial grounds. Statues of Jesus, Mary, angels and saints proliferate like cheap lawyers after a fender-bender. Most are stock figures and hardly worth a second glance to all but the uninitiated. There are several large sections dedicated to the burial of members of various religious orders and these can be somewhat engaging but are hardly enough to make a cemetery noteworthy.
We will give major kudos to Mount Olivet with respect to its distinction as being open to all races from its inception. When one considers the American Civil War began only three years after the cemetery was established, and takes into account the proximity of the Confederacy, the recognition of all races as being equal was truly “progressive.”
With regard to tangible features, the one we found most engaging was also…locked. We are referring to a mausoleum accessed by turning right upon entering the cemetery and then following the roadway to the top of a hill.
The one-story building is semi-circular in shape and surmounted at its center by a stone cross beneath which the following words are inscribed:
Blessed are the dead
Who die in the Lord,
For their works follow them.
A peek at the interior reveals a large open “lobby” and two gated rooms beyond which can be seen the tantalizing glimmer of crypt fronts.
Perhaps the most famous…or shall we say, infamous…resident is Mary Surratt, who was convicted of participating in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln. On 7 July, 1865, she became the first woman to be executed by the U.S. Federal Government. After her death by hanging, her body was not returned to her family. Instead, she and her three co-conspirators were placed in simple pine coffins. The name of each was written on a piece of paper and sealed in a glass vial that was placed next to the corpse. All were buried in shallow graves hastily dug along the wall of the Washington Arsenal where the executions took place. They remained there for two years when they were disinterred and buried in a nearby warehouse. Another two years passed, and in 1869 they were released to their respective families. On the 9th of February, 1869 Mary Surratt was finally laid to rest in Mount Olivet. One of her co-conspirators, John Lloyd, rests a few yards away. Before we close the books on this one, however, we will give you a bit of information about one of Mount Olivet’s more interesting “lodgers.”
His name was Robert Emmet Odlum and he was born on 31 August, 1865 in Ogdensburg, New York. From his youth, Robert loved the water and thus it was little surprise to anyone that he became an accomplished swimmer. After a tumultuous childhood of family moves and the untimely death of his father, Robert relocated to Washington, D.C. where he started a swimming school he called the Natatorium (literally…a building containing a swimming pool). Among his students were the sons and daughters of presidents, soldiers and politicians. He also made a name for himself for the oftentimes daring rescues of endangered swimmers in the Potomac and elsewhere. Despite Odlum’s financial success with the Natatorium, his spirit was restless. He dreamed of feats of swimming prowess and was known to challenge various individuals to water races. Failing to be thus engaged, he determined to entertain passersby on Potomac riverboats by diving off various objects, including, on 4 July, 1881, a 90’ leap off the Occoquan Falls Bridge.
By 1882, Odlum’s business had foundered. It was another failure in a string of many. He took a job as a lifeguard at a hotel and there distinguished himself by saving three swimmers at one time…one of whom was the 16 year old son of Vice President Colfax.
Yet Oldum’s spirit was restless. Despite the death of his friend, Captain Matthew Webb, who drowned while attempting to successfully swim through Niagara’s Whirlpool Rapids (1883), Oldum believed a feat of daring would be his ticket to the big time…and that he was up to the task.
He dreamt of fame but also desired to make more money so that he and his mother could enjoy a better standard of living (he never married and lived with his mother most of his life). Thus, encouraged by his former jumping success, and ignoring the failures of friends and others who attempted to cheat death, Odlum made a 110’ leap off of a ladder attached to the flag mast of the steamer, Martha Washington. This stunt was a close-call as, according to accounts of the day, he twisted during descent and actually hit the water face first!
Unharmed and undeterred, Odlum determined to fulfill his lifelong dream of surviving a leap from the Brooklyn Bridge. This, he believed, would not only win him acclaim and the money he and his mother desperately needed, it would also eradicate a common fear of the time i.e. people trapped in burning buildings would often fail to leap into nets held by firefighters because of the belief that the mere act of falling through the air from any considerable height would prove fatal for lack of oxygen.
On 19 May, 1885 Odlum went to confession, attended Mass and received communion at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Brooklyn, New York. Then, with the help of several accomplices who were instructed to distract the police (who had been alerted to the plan) by throwing a dummy from the opposite side of the bridge while Odlum leapt from the other, he began his journey toward death.
With police following his accomplices, Odlum rode in a horse-drawn cab well behind the decoy vehicle and its police tail. At 5:30PM, he instructed the cab driver to lead the horses close to the bridge’s first piling support, allow him to disembark and then quickly pull back into traffic. After slight hesitation, the driver did as instructed. With no time to reconsider, Odlum, dressed in a red shirt embroidered with his initials and grey diving tights, mounted the bridge’s railing. At 5:35PM, he raised his right arm above his head, placed his left close against his side, and with heavy winds prevailing and friends waiting aboard a tugboat below, stepped from the Brooklyn Bridge.
According to his dear friend, Captain Boyton, the first 100’ of Odlum’s descent went well, with the jumper’s feet pointed straight down at the water. Then, disaster struck. The wind shifted Odlum’s body so that, with no time to try and right himself, he slammed into the river at an awkward angle with his back and side taking the force of impact. Odlum disappeared into the murky water.
Unfortunately, the man charged with acting as a rescue swimmer was too far away in a little rowboat to act with sufficient speed. It was Captain Boyton who hurriedly threw off his shirt and jacket and plunged into the cold river. Boyton was himself an expert swimmer and had effected many rescues, but this time, things would not end happily. Though Boyton was able to retrieve Oldum, it was clear his friend was not long for this world. Once on the tug, Odlum regained consciousness long enough to stammer…”Is it over? Did I make a good jump?” Then bright arterial blood began to spill from his mouth. Odlum inquired whether he was spitting blood, to which Boyton responded by assuring him it was merely some brandy he had poured into Odlum’s mouth. As the tug churned toward the docks and medical assistance, Odlum groaned in pain and could be seen gripping the edges of the table upon which he rested.
At 6:18PM, forty-three minutes after stepping off the bridge, Odlum breathed his last. The cause of death was listed as a concussion, ruptured spleen, liver and kidneys.
Sadly, the following year one Steve Brodie made a successful jump from the bridge and went on to considerable fortune as a result. (Note: There remains much controversy as to whether Brodie actually jumped or simply managed to fake the stunt).
An hour in this cemetery is probably all that is necessary to consider oneself as having “been there and done that.”