Grief at the Adams Memorial—Washington, D. C.

Rock Creek Cemetery
Rock Creek Church Road, Northwest
Washington, D. C.

N.B. This entry was first published 23 December 2010, as part of my article, “The Haunts of Washington, D. C.,” and republished 30 October 2017, as part of “’Twas the Night Before Halloween—Recycled Revenants.” This entry has been edited and expanded.  

In a self-portrait taken around 1860, Clover Adams’ face is obscured by a large hat and she holds a small dog. From a modern vantage point, one can read this photograph as a commentary on the place of women in the mid-19th century: as something precious to be shielded and treated on the same level as a pet. While this may have not been her intention, the photograph adds to the sense of mystery surrounding Clover Adams.

Clover Adams self-portrait 1860
Self-portrait of Clover Adams, circa 1860. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Born in Boston to a prominent family, Marian Hooper, or Clover as she was called, married historian and the descendent of two presidents, Henry Adams in 1872. An exceedingly accomplished and educated woman, Clover became a leading light in Boston and Washington intellectual and social circles. She even provided the inspiration for two of author Henry James’ novels: Daisy Miller and Portrait of a Lady. She was also a gifted photographer and writer in her own right. This popularity made her sudden death in 1885 even more shocking.

A prodigious letter-writer, Clover Adams took note of much of Washington’s gossip and private life, even noting intimate details of her own life. Her letters reveal that her family life was quite joyous, and she enjoyed the “utter devotion” of her husband. At the time, the couple was occupying a house on H Street while a home designed by H. H. Richardson was under construction on Lafayette Square, across from the White House. While Clover expressed excitement over the new home and had spent time documenting the construction in photographs, she was grieving over the loss of her father in April of that year. The grief had led to bouts of depression.

On December 6th, as Henry Adams was leaving the house for a walk, a friend of Clover’s arrived to visit. Adams offered to summon his wife and going upstairs found her unconscious on the rug in front of the fireplace of her bedroom. She passed away a short time later. The newspapers of the day noted that her death was due to paralysis of the heart, omitting that she was found with a bottle of potassium cyanide, one of the chemicals she used in developing photographs. Henry James wrote to a friend that, “poor Mrs. Adams found, the other day, the solution of the knottiness of existence.”

While her suicide was a sharp, sudden blow to her friends and acquaintances, it most deeply affected her husband. In a letter to one of Clover’s friends he wrote, “During the last eighteen months I have not had the good luck to attend my own funeral, but with that exception I have buried pretty nearly everything I lived for.” Adams’ grief led him to destroy all his wife’s correspondence and even refusing to speak of her for the remainder of his life, only mentioning her indirectly in his memoir, The Education of Henry Adams, which was published just after his death.

Nestled in the Rock Creek Cemetery is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Yard, the oldest burying ground in Washington, D.C. Surrounding the churchyard is the graceful 19th century Rock Creek Cemetery, which houses graves for many of Washington’s elite, including Evalyn Walsh McLean who haunts her former home, now the Indonesian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. The work of many famous American architects and sculptors is scattered throughout this garden-like cemetery including a statue by American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in a setting by architect Stanford White.

The Adams Monument, 2007, by Danvera. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Commissioned by Henry Adams several years after his wife’s death, this monument seems to be a punctuation mark ending his statement of grief. The monument depicts a solitary figure sitting enshrouded in robes. The figure’s hooded face is androgynous, as if to say that grief applies to all humans. The monument is surrounded by a ring of conifers and a lone bench to provide a place for contemplation

Saint-Gaudens named the sculpture, “The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding,” but to the public the monument became known as “Grief.” Adams hated that name and wrote in a letter to the sculptor’s son, Homer:

Do not allow the world to tag my figure with a name! Every magazine writer wants to label it as some American patent medicine for popular consumption—Grief, Despair, Pear’s Soap, or Macy’s Mens’ Suits Made to Measure. Your father meant it to ask a question, not to give an answer; and the man who answers will be damned to eternity like the men who answered the Sphinx.

Nevertheless, the public’s fascination with the mysterious monument has fueled legend. Visitors to the grave have sometimes been overcome with a feeling of grief. Others have reported that a female spirit is sometimes seen in the vicinity, which may be the visage of Clover Adams. The late Mrs. Adams may also be in spiritual residence in the Hay-Adams Hotel (see my entry on the hotel here), which was constructed on the site of the home being built for the couple at the time of her death.

A copy of this sculpture in DRUID RIDGE CEMETERY (7900 Park Avenue Heights) in Pikeville Maryland is also associated with a ghost. Druid Ridge has a number of spirits associated with it, but “Black Aggie” is perhaps the best known. The copy of Saint-Gaudens’ sculpture was created by sculptor Edward L. A. Pausch and placed on the grave of Union General Felix Agnus. For decades, the sculpture attracted vandals and the legend grew that the figure’s eyes would glow red and those looking into the eyes were struck blind. Another tale told of a fraternity pledge crushed to death when he spent the night in the statue’s embrace. Disturbed by the activity the statue attracted, the family had it removed.  The sculpture was given to the Smithsonian and now resides in the courtyard of the haunted Cutts-Madison House on Lafayette Square which faces the Decatur House across the square.

Sources 

  • Adams Memorial (Saint-Gaudens). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 22 December 2010.
  • Beauchamp, Tanya. National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for Rock Creek Church Yard and Cemetery. Listed 12 August 1977.
  • Black Aggie. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 29 January 2019.
  • Clark, Brian. “Clover Adams’ Memorial: From a husband who would no longer speak her name.” Atlas Obscura. 23 July 2013.
  • Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. NYC: Checkmark Books, 2007.
  • Marian Hooper Adams. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 29 January 2019.
  • “Sudden Death of Mrs. Henry Adams.” Evening Star (Washington, D. C.). 7 December 1885.
  • Taylor, Troy. Beyond the Grave: The History of America’s Most Haunted Graveyards. Alton, IL: Whitechapel Press, 2001.
  • Varhola, Michael J. Ghosthunting Virginia. Cincinnati, OH: Clerisy Press, 2008.
  • Varhola, Michael J. and Michael H. Varhola Ghosthunting Maryland. Cincinnati, OH: Clerisy Press, 2009.
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