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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