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Urban Legends of the Capitol - an Eternal Flame?

Like most bloggers, I avidly watch Google Analytics, trying to find out if a.) anyone is reading this damned thing, and b.) what they are looking for. "How much is the Smithsonian" is a perennial favorite, "Height Limit in DC" comes up quite a bit, and we saw quite a lot of searches for Lauren's Christmas worship options. I hope the school system from Wisconsin is helped by my Korean Veteran's Memorial post, as they seem to search for it a lot, and to whoever is asking for a dive bar in Federal Triangle, I wish them good luck!

But after I discussed President Kennedy's eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery, I started to get a lot of searches along the lines of "eternal flame U.S. Capitol". I was flummoxed. Was there a misunderstanding? Did people think the flame was at the Capitol? I get weird searches all the time but the volume and consistency of the searches threw me.

And then I read Dan Brown's new book, The Lost Symbol. There it was, in Chapter 20:

"The hole in the floor [in the Capitol Rotunda]," Langdon told them, "was eventually covered, but for a good while, those who visited the Rotunda could see straight down to the fire that burned below."

Sato turned. "Fire? In the U.S. Capitol?"

"More of a large torch, actually - an eternal flame that burned in the crypt directly beneath us. It was supposed to be visible through the hold in the floor, making this room a modern Temple of Vesta. This building even had its own vestal virgin - a federal employee called the Keeper of the Crypt-who successfully kept the flame burning for fifty years, until politics, religion, and smoke damage snuffed out the idea."

So, in the hopes of forestalling an urban legend, let me state as authoritatively as I know how that no eternal flame, whether tended by a Keeper of the Crypt or a conventional virgin, has ever been kept at the Capitol. Their once were two furnaces on the Crypt level, but these were clearly intended for heating. Now, a ten foot hole did exist in the ceiling of the Crypt, allowing visitors to look down from the Rotunda, but this was closed in 1828. Had an eternal flame been there, it would have gotten real smoky, real quick. And, generally speaking, open flames were discouraged in the Capitol thanks to the very real fear of fire, which was unfortunately realized in 1851 when the Library of Congress went up in smoke.

In Dan Brown's defense, I did find one reference in an 1884 tour guide to a "Keeper of the Crypt", whose description sounds eerily familiar to the quote above. So, maybe he didn't invent the story out of whole cloth.

The Crypt itself, for those of you who don't know, was originally intended for a quite different ceremonial purpose: to house the mortal remains of George Washington. However, no one seemed to clear it with George, and by the time it was completed, no one wanted to be the one to defy his very particular will, which asked that he be laid to rest just down the river at Mt. Vernon. You will almost certainly walk through it on your tour, and if it's a slow day your guide may spend a few minutes here. Incidentally, this is reason number 49 to love the new Visitor's Center. Previously, this was a jam packed madhouse, filled with tourists hitting the gift shop here and trying to find their group.

So with that we wrap up our tour of the Capitol. We have just begun to scratch the surface of urban legends here, so I'm sure we'll be back. But for now, can anyone (who is not a tour guide) tell me where there is an eternal flame in Washington, DC? We'll talk about that one next week.

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Reader Comments (10)

Is there a top 10 list of reasons to like the new Captiol Visitors' Center. #10 would be the "friendly" Capitol Police near the entrance.

January 15, 2010 | Registered CommenterLauren S. Kahn

There's an indoor one in the Hall of Remembrance in the Holocaust Museum. There was supposed to be an outdoor flame installed at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, but that got shelved in favor of a permanent blue laser light, which also got dropped from the plan (although one is lit every May during the annual inscription ceremony).

April 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThe Good Doctor

I am reading Dan Brown's book, "The Lost Symbol," and as I usually do, I like to check on the historical references the author gives. That, to me, makes the book more interesting than just reading the words on the page. Your notes referring to Moore"s "Picturesque Guide" are especially interesting. I wish I had had your blogs and Moore's book when I took my grandchildren to Washington. Thank you for your insight.

June 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterR. C. Stokes

I do find where President Garfield notes in 1882 and even earlier, in 1877, that a LIGHT was kept burning in the Crypt...which is not exactly a flame. He does also mention a Keeper of the Crypt.

Further research indicates that Garfield's description may have its origins in an 1871 book by James Parton, which mentions a humorous anecdote about the Keeper of the Crypt. However, Parton's account (which the Harvard Advocate later denounced) does not include any reference to a light being kept.

Finally, while searching for a light or flame in reference to the Crypt, I happened upon this passage from a 1902 book by George Cochrane Hazelton. It was hands-down the best reference I hit upon, and pointed me in the direction of what may be the genuine origin of the 'light in the Crypt' idea, which was from John Trumbull of Connecticut, from his 1824 - 1828 era of writings:

The statue [of Washington] being there must be lighted and as projection of the porticos must necessarily screen all light which might otherwise have been obtained from arches between the piers of the ground floor, it was evident that the object could only be attained by down light from the summit of the dome; and to this it would be necessary also to pierce the floor of grand room with an opening large enough for the purpose say twenty feet diameter at least.

If anyone comes across any other concrete information, I would be interested to read it!

November 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterivyclarice

Whether "The Lost Symbol" is historically accurate is not the point. The book is a work of FICTION...if the facts can't be verified, do not is still a great story with lots of intrigue, villainery, and heroism. Just like going to the movies and declaring," there is NO WAY that car could jump that far!!" Isn't fantasy a part of escapism? I don't go to a movie to have real life shown back to me and I do not read a work of fiction to determine it's historical accuracy....goodness sakes!

January 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

I find the relationship between the Capitol/Temple Building and Hagia Sophia as somewhat interesting. I learned about Hagia Sophia by examining the John Trumbull paintings and I wanted to know more about "Belesarius" and reading about who he was led me to understand the building of Hagia Sophia. Could the Capitol building and it have things in common? How about Dan Brown's "DaVinci Code" and his name chosen for it's female character? It was "Sophie" .... Does "Art Imitate Life" or does "Life Imitate Art" ???????

February 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Hagia Sophia "House of Wisdom" in Istanbul Turkey is something to ponder as it relates to the Capitol Building.and something really to consider when thinking about Dan Brown's latest work "The Lost Symbol" Why? "The Lost Symbol" is centered around the Nation's Capitol and the female lead character is Dr. Katherine Solomon. You will note her last name. In the King James Bible, Solomon is known for His Wisdom and, of course, the building of Solomon's Temple. Which has everything to do with what "The Lost Symbol" is talking about concerning it, Free Masonry etc.

February 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike
Hagia Sophia means Holy Wisdom. The Davinci code lady partner's name was chosen because her name meant New Wisdom. Solomon points towards the historical origin of the Masons, master and apprentice and all that. It's all pretty straight forward. Of course Dan Brown takes liberties and blurs/fabricates 'facts' - the world really doesn't work the way it does in Langdon or Indiana Jones stories, sadly, it'd be much more exciting.
February 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermonty
In July 1877, the Atlantic Monthly published a piece entitled “A Century of Congress,” written by the man representing Ohio’s 19th District. Within it was a short paragraph with the following story: “In the crypt constructed under the dome of the Capitol, as the resting-place for the remains of Washington, a guard was stationed, and a light was kept burning for more than half a century. Indeed, the office of keeper of the crypt was not abolished until after the late war.” - See more at:
August 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMe
I posted under 02-04-11 and yes,, I'm aware of Sophie Nevue (New Knowledge) and she was the character in Dan Brown's "Lost Symbol" and not "The Davinci Code" as the writer tried to relate 02-28-13. Dig deeper folks. I gave you the path to follow. Think...Think
February 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMike

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