History
1:56 am
Tue July 29, 2014

Ghost Cats And Musket Balls: Stories Told By Capitol Interns

Originally published on Tue July 29, 2014 8:04 pm

Every summer thousands of interns flood the offices of Capitol Hill. One of their primary duties is to give constituents tours of the famous buildings. They parade visitors from the rotunda to statuary hall, offering stories and anecdotes.

But while these intern tours provide a great deal of information, they are sometimes a little short on actual history.

On any given day in the Capitol, thousands of visitors listen to Senate and House interns. They point to the paintings and murals, the statues and architecture and talk about U.S. history. You can forgive them if sometimes things get a little jumbled.

The Capitol burned down during the War of 1812 — not the Civil War, as one intern told his group. One of the largest paintings in the Senate shows Commodore Perry during the Battle of Lake Erie — not Washington crossing the Delaware. And the frescoes were painted by Constantino Brumidi — not, as one intern said recently, Benito Mussolini.

But summer after summer, some of the stories have become so entrenched, they have begun to sound like facts, even though they're not.

In the old Supreme Court chamber on the first floor of the Capitol, for instance, an intern is describing a large clock. It was ordered in 1837, when Roger Taney was chief justice.

"He actually set the clock 5 minutes early, and if anyone was late on his time, they weren't let in," the intern said. "And today, the Supreme Court still runs on Taney time."

She's telling an often-repeated story — and none of it is true.

"The 5 minutes fast is not something Taney asked for," says Melinda Smith, head curator for the Senate. "There's just no telling where this myth started."

Smith's office has scoured the Capitol's records and cannot find a single mention that this clock was ever set 5 minutes ahead.

"We do know from examining the mechanism of the clock itself that it is designed to strike 1 minute before the hour," she says.

Interns go through tour training, but they must absorb a lot of information. Visitors are sure to ask tricky questions, such as when one constituent asks whether Supreme Court justices sit in particular seats.

"I don't believe so," an intern guesses. "I think they just sit in the same seats every time. But I don't believe they are assigned. OK?"

The Capitol's official tour guides are called Red Coats, because that's what they wear. This room's Red Coat visibly bristles at that answer. The chief justice sits in the center, the most senior associate justice to the right, the second most senior associate justice to the left, and so on.

But she can't say anything. It's Senate tradition: Red Coats don't correct interns unless they are asked a direct question.

So in the hallway, when interns tell visitors that the pockmarks on the corncob columns are musket-ball holes from the War of 1812, neither Melinda Smith nor the Red Coats can pipe in that it's just the sandstone oxidizing.

"There's a lot of facts and a lot of information throughout the building, and it's very easy to kind of intertwine stories," Smith says. "Hopefully the visitor comes away with the larger story, and the smaller facts kind of float to the bottom."

Smith says that larger story starts with the architecture, especially in the small Senate rotunda. Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed a circular colonnade, with 16 columns topped with leaves of the native American tobacco plant and flowers, supporting an ornate dome. From the center, you can see all the way into both ends of the House and Senate galleries — open, accessible and of equal stature.

But most tours passing through are talking about something else — a set of markings on the concrete floor.

"Well, it all started back in 1783," intern Zac Santos tells his group. "There was a den of black cats on Capitol Hill ... "

Santos says the markings may be from the Ghost Cat of the Crypt.

Smith laughs and tries to continue her story of the architecture, but another intern starts pointing at the floor markings.

"They're cat prints," the intern says. "They used to release cats in here to catch the mice ... "

But then the intern turns and steps under the rotunda and tells his group about Latrobe, about his 16 columns and tobacco leaves, about the open nature of American government. Smith is beaming.

"Terrific," she says. "That's terrific. I like that."

Architecture, democracy and black ghost cats — that's about as American as a tour can get.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Every summer, thousands of interns flood the offices of Capitol Hill. One of their primary duties is to give constituents tours of the famous buildings. They parade visitors from the rotunda to statuary hall, offering stories and anecdotes. But while these intern tours provide a great deal of information, NPR's Laura Sullivan reports they are sometimes a little short on actual history.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: On any given day in the capital, thousands of visitors listen to Senate and House interns. They point to the paintings and the murals, the statues and architecture and talk about U.S. history. You can forgive them if sometimes things get a little jumbled. The capital burned down during the War of 1812 - not the Civil War, as one intern told his group. One of the largest paintings in the Senate shows Commodore Perry during the Battle of Lake Erie - not Washington crossing the Delaware. And the frescoes were painted by Constantino Brumidi - not, as one intern who recently said, Benito Mussolini. But summer after summer, some of the stories have become so entrenched, that they have begun to sound like facts, even though they're not, like in the old Supreme Court chamber on the first floor of the capital, where an intern is describing a large clock. It was ordered in 1837, when Roger Taney was Chief Justice.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERN 1: He actually set the clock five minutes early and if anyone was late on his time, then they weren't allowed in. And today, the Supreme Court actually still runs on Taney time.

SULLIVAN: She's telling the often repeated story that Taney set the clock five minutes fast and that the Supreme Court still runs on Taney time. The problem is, none of that is true.

MELINDA SMITH: The five minutes fast is not something that Taney actually asked for. There's just no telling where this myth started.

SULLIVAN: Melinda Smith is head curator for the U.S. Senate. Her office has scoured the capitol's records and cannot find a single mention that this clock was ever set five minutes ahead.

SMITH: We do know from examining the mechanism of the clock itself, that it's aligned to strike one minute before the hour.

SULLIVAN: Interns go through tour training, but it's a lot of information. And there are just going to be questions that stump you, as when one constituent asks whether the Supreme Court justices sit in particular seats.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERN 1: I don't believe so. I think they just kind sit in the same seats every time. But I believe they're not assigned, OK?

SULLIVAN: The capital's official tour guides are called red coats because that's what they wear. This room's red coat visibly bristles at that answer. The Chief Justice sits in the center, the most senior associate justice to the right, the second most senior associate justice to the left and so on. But she can't say anything, it's Senate tradition. Red coats don't correct interns unless they are asked a direct question. So in the hallway, when interns tell visitors that the pock marks on the corn cob columns are musket ball holes from the War of 1812, neither Melinda Smith nor the red coats can pipe in that it's just the sandstone oxidizing.

SMITH: There's a lot of facts and a lot of information throughout the building and it's very easy to kind of intertwine stories. And hopefully, the visitor comes away with the larger story and the smaller facts kind of float to the bottom.

SULLIVAN: Smith says that larger story starts with the architecture. Here especially in the small Senate rotunda, Benjamin Henley Latrobe designed a circular colonnade supporting an ornate dome. From the center, you can see all the way into both ends of the House and Senate galleries - open, accessible and of equal stature. But most tours that are passing through are talking about something else. They're talking about a set of markings on the concrete floor.

ZAC SANTOS: Well, it all started back in 1783. There was a den of black cats that lived here on Capitol Hill.

SULLIVAN: Intern Zac Santos tells his group that these markings may be from the ghost cat of the crypt. Smith starts laughing. She tries to pick back up explaining the architecture...

SMITH: It's the one space that you can really see all...

SULLIVAN: ...When suddenly another intern starts pointing at the floor markings.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERN 2: They're cat prints, these two. They used to release cats in here to catch the mice.

SULLIVAN: But then, the intern turns and steps under the rotunda and tells his group about Henry Latrobe, about his 16 columns and tobacco leaves, about the open nature of American government. Smith is beaming.

SMITH: Terrific. That's terrific. I like that.

SULLIVAN: Architecture, democracy and black ghost cats - that is about as American as a tour can get. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, the capital. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.