The Congress of Women: The Wife of Blennerhassett
The Wife of Blennerhassett
Mrs. Mary Thew Wright Curwen was born in Cincinnati, O. Her father, Hon. Nathaniel Wright, of New Hampshire, was a distinguished member of the Cincinnati bar. Her mother, Caroline Augusta Thew, of New York, was a granddaughter of Dr. William Burnet, Surgeon-General in the Army of the Revolution. Mrs. Curwen has traveled extensively, both in this country and in Europe. In 1855 she was married to Marshall Ewing Curwen, a native of Philadelphia, then a prominent member of the Cincinnati bar. Mr. Curwin died in London in 1868. Mrs. Curwen has written a number of short stories, mostly for children. Her postoffice address is 27 Mason Street, Mt. Auburn, Cincinnati, O.
Little is known of Blennerhassett, still less of his wife. It is not much more than fifty years since she died, but in examining the details of her life they assume a strange indefiniteness. To write her history is like making a picture from "the shadow of a dream." Her grandfather, Brigadier-General Agnew, was killed in the Battle of Germantown, October 4, 1777. Her father was for many years Lieutenant-Governor of the quaint, picturesque Isle of Man. To have spent her childhood and youth in that museum of antiquities, to have lived among the weird sights and peculiar people of that island must have influenced her character.
Ideas of wild adventure would take root in the soil of a mind so prepared. The most improbable hopes might bloom out in such an atmosphere. The Isle of Man is a kingdom by itself, a beautiful wonderland. The mild, equable climate, tempered by the sea, makes the whole country a garden. Geraniums grow all the year round in the open air, and their red clusters look in at the second story windows of the peasants' homes. Ambitious fuchsias drape the rocks and hang their crimson eardrops twelve feet high on the branches of the forest trees. The men are stalwart, the women rosy and handsome, for they live out of doors and breathe the invigorating sea air. To the Manx people life is indeed a blessing. Fashion has not found much foothold among this primitive people. They do as their forefathers did. Fishermen's daughters wear the same quaint, striped petticoats and blue jackets which constituted the costume of their great-great-grandmothers. Still the Manx fishermen, descendants of the Vikings, in their herring fleet expeditions, trust to the guidance of the gulls to lead them to a school of herring, just as their ancestors had done hundreds of years before.
This unique island is only thirty miles long and twelve broad, but every foot of land is historical. From the low northern point of Ayr, where women and children wait, singing songs for the returning fishing boats, to the Spanish headland at the south, where the red and blue revolving light plays down hundreds of feet below, and the waves sing triumphantly of how they dashed to pieces the ships of the Armada, the whole air is as full of inspiration as it is of ocean spray.
No piece of Western limestone is more closely packed with petrifactions than the Isle of Man with the remains of former races.
The youthful daughter of the governor could scarcely take a walk without encountering some relic of superstition, some suggestion of antiquity or patriotism.
There are the frightful dungeons beneath Castle Rusline, its Doric columns with inscriptions in Latin and Greek placed there before the Christian Era. The Druidical remains are the most perfect in Great Britain. Relics of St. Patrick, crosses, religious emblems, ruined churches which remind us that in 1488, before America was discovered, Pius II. named the Isle of Man the "Sacred Isle."
To be sure inscriptions in Greek and Arabic get mixed up, and are found in the most miscellaneous manner on door-steps, stiles and other places. They are merely put there for ornament. The schoolmaster not being abroad, they cannot often be deciphered.
Sometimes the epitaph of a Saxon warrior has been transported to the grave of a child. We read with wonder of the death on the battle-field of this three-year-old who might have died with the measles. There are mysterious secrets hid in Runic characters, often upside down, which have been transported to the sides of barns or humble cabins. But in spite of this grotesque vandalism there is an air of romance and antiquity throughout the island.
This little island, so far behind the world in many things, is in advance in others. Women have always voted in the Isle of Man. Their right is never questioned. From time immemorial women had the legal right to dispose of half of their property, independently of their husbands. Would you know why they are more privileged than their English sisters? Ask some Manx peasant woman to tell you. Her eye kindles and she stops her spinning to relate the story. "Long, long ago the Danes attacked the little Island of Man. The battle was going against her people-the king was desperately wounded, the bravest warriors lay dead upon the ground, when a band of women rushed into the midst of the fight, snatched the weapons from the hands of the dead and drove the enemy to their ships. Many a woman fell by the side of her dead husband, but the country was free. Our land is small, but Manx women own it with the men. Our voices led to victory, and we can raise them on Tynwald Mount on election day with the best and bravest of the men."
The Isle of Man has a masculine sound, but there, women without asking have their rights.
Everything in this island is quaint, made after a type of its own. The little cats have six toes and no tails to swell out in fury at the sight of a dog. Was there ever so absurd a coat of arms as three armed legs with no body or head, only the motto, "Whichever way you throw me I stand!" A sort of kicking defiance to the three larger neighbor islands.
It was in this mysterious island that Margaret Agnew grew up, reveling in the antiquities and traditions of the place. To her the life of adventure offered by a residence in the New World had great charms. There was a fascination in the very vastness of the Western Continent.
Harmon Blennerhassett was the son of a wealthy Irish gentleman, though he was born in Hampshire. After studying law in King's Inn, Dublin, he visited France. It was soon after the destruction of the Bastile. He did not agree with his friends, the Emmets, but believed that a revolution would be bloody but hopeless for Ireland. He was already wealthy when by the death of his father he inherited a great estate.
Scholarly, devoted to science, he determined to leave the Old World and make his home in America. Amid the agitations and political excitements of Europe he sought repose. He visited his sister in Kingsale to bid her farewell. She was the wife of Admiral De Courcy-Lord Kingsale. How all the patriotism and chivalry of the English heart is wakened up by the name of De Courcy! "The fearless De Courcy, who fought for the honor of England, but not for false King John."
I believe were I an Englishman I would rather give up the Magna Charta than the story of De Courcy, perpetuated as it is by the honor granted to his descendants:
To this day their right assume,
And when every head is unbonneted
They walk in cap and plume."
At all events it would be hard to choose between our rights and our romance. People will get their rights some time, but romance may escape us.
While visiting Lady De Courcy, Blennerhassett met Miss Agnew. She was a young, beautiful, enthusiastic girl, trained in a school of romance and with a passionate love for her island home. With great energy of character, intelligence and a wealth of affection, in Blennerhassett she met her fate. Such a woman must have a hero to worship; the young Irishman was her ideal. They were married, I believe, in 1796. Mrs. Blennerhassett never wavered in her affection for her husband. She always believed in him. Eagerly adopting his views about settling in America, she was charmed to go with him to that land of her dreams.
Mr. Blennerhassett was kindhearted, devoted to science, but could not adapt himself to those around. He certainly lacked common sense. He was one of those students who are more careful in their cross-examinations of nature than of humanity. Such people are often made game of by the average boy. Though a gentleman in all his feelings, he was not quick to see those side lights upon a subject which result in humor or wit in many minds, and keep people from being absurd, but in the eyes of his wife he was perfect. The young girl had absolute faith in her husband. Was he imposed upon, she never blamed him; did he fail in any undertaking, it was the fault of adverse fate; did he stoop as he walked, it was only a proof of his devotion to science. So thought his devoted wife. What cannot a glowing imagination paint when it is inspired by love!
How shall I describe Lady Blennerhassett? Not ennobled by any earthly monarch, but by the grace of God, who made her what she was, and by the unrecorded vote of those among whom she lived, and who best know her, so she was universally called in her Western home, and so we must speak of her.
Lady Blennerhassett! The glamor has not yet faded from her name. She was taller than most women, but exquisitely proportioned. Fair, with Grecian features-but we can not bring her before you by a catalogue of her beauties of mind and person. Her winning, gracious manner would have adorned a court. It was prompted by a warm heart and quick interest and sympathy in all that appealed to her, either in enjoyment or misfortune.
In 1797 these two favorites of fortune started for the New World. Like the prince and princess in the fairy tale, they went to seek their fortune in an unknown country. Mr. Blennerhassett took his chemicals, his retorts, his telescope and extensive library with him. A large fortune placed almost everything at his command, the hopeful nature and enthusiasm of his beautiful wife was more than any mine of gold in its promise of happiness. They crossed the Alleghanies, and a keel boat carried them from Pittsburg to Marietta, Ohio. Four miles below this town, and two below the Little Kanawha, they were entranced by the sight of Bacchus Island. The willows dipping into the water and forest trees garlanded with vines made a magical picture to the two homeseekers.
Mr. Blennerhassett paid forty-five hundred dollars for the upper part of the island. The house that he built upon it cost sixty thousand dollars.
The mansion has been variously described. As it has long since been burned to the ground, no mirage eludes us more effectually than the truth about it. One authority speaks of the magical effect of this palace on the voyagers descending the river: "The colored glass, the groups of turrets are not unlike a Moorish palace in Andalusia, as embowered by shrubbery, with long, sweeping vistas, showing grand forest trees, and suggesting wilder scenes of sylvan solitude." On the other hand, Parton, resenting Wirt's flowery description on the trial (as if the beauty of the house made Burr more guilty), speaks of it as "the country seat of an eccentric, romantic, shiftless Irishman, who contrived to spend a fortune in building a house of original ugliness." He says, "It suggests the idea of semi-circular barracks, though, of course, there were gardens and bits of primeval wilderness, forming a pleasant but not very sumptuous residence." Oh for a good photograph! Prejudice does not influence the sun. He gives us impartial pictures.
In this fairy isle Lady Blennerhassett passed eight years of ideal happiness. Devoted to her husband and children, she still entered with quick sympathy into the sports of her friends and neighbors. The corn-huskings lost much of their rusticity but none of their merriment, when she was present. She adorned the primitive feasts of log-rolling and barn-raising, and was the ruling spirit of every assembly. She was interested in wrestling matches, foot and boat races. In deer hunts and parties for chasing the fox she was a Diana Vernon. Her grace in dancing was the poetry of motion. She was beloved everywhere and inspired everyone to do their best. She was a fearless horsewoman, and attired in her scarlet broadcloth habit and cap, whose ostrich plume fell over her shoulders, she was a delightful vision. A young farmer rented a cornfield on the island simply to catch a glimpse of Lady Blennerhassett in her daily walks and rides. It was a delight to her to teach her slaves to read, to visit the sick, and often to act in plays in her own house. She was particularly fond of Shakespeare's. This woman made people good by first making them happy. Her life was brimming with enjoyment. She was universally called "The Queen of the Isle." Poetry she composed with ease and pleasure. The poems that I have seen were written after the sad change in her life, and their pathos disarms all criticism.
And now Colonel Burr appears upon the scene. In considering the life of this brilliant man, we must bear in mind the words of St. Augustine: "The human mind is never altogether a sanctuary, or altogether a sewer. There are potentialities of good in the felon and of evil in the saint." We all know how the fascinating Aaron Burr entered this paradise, and won the heart of the lady of the mansion to his views. Guileless herself, she had no conception of his treachery. By forged papers, purporting to be government endorsements, and plausible arguments, Burr obtained complete control of the Blennerhassetts. He ruined them financially and in reputation, and then sacrificed them remorselessly. We cannot but pity Blennerhassett after the President's proclamation, calling for all residents of the United States to bring to punishment all persons engaged in such treasonable enterprises as Burr's Expedition. The unfortunate Blennerhassett was sitting in the cabin of a flatboat with Burr-betrayer and betrayed-when one dark, dreary night they sunk the chest of arms in the middle of the Mississippi River. So ended all the hopes of the success of Burr's conspiracy. Though Burr was acquitted by jury of the crime of treason, the verdict of the nation was guilty, and Blennerhassett shared the odium.
Whether we see Lady Blennerhassett in her scarlet riding dress flying along in the sunshine, the embodiment of hope and womanly beauty, the guardian spirit of the "Fairy Isle," or on a December midnight, escaping with her sons in a flat-boat, cheering, encouraging the frightened boatmen as the ice crashed and ground around them; or whether we see her supplying her husband with energy and pluck in his last venture on a cotton farm in Mississippi, energy which, but for the embargo, would have retrieved their fortunes, we see hope, blossom of immortality, ever alive in her heart. We behold her again in the Old World, sustaining her husband in his miserable search after health and employment. We see her standing by his deathbed in the Island of Guernsey; but though the shadows close around her, and the air is full of minor music, she is always the same unselfish, noble woman, who cannot be subdued by circumstances, because undying affection gives her strength. Unconquered, she had seen her home rifled, destroyed by Virginia militia; she had looked calmly upon its ashes, and beheld an utter ruin where she had once reigned queen.
After her husband's death Lady Blennerhassett used every effort to support and educate her children in England. It was in vain. She determined to return to America. She petitioned the government of the United States. Her house and furniture had been destroyed by the officers and soldiers of a government pledged to protect its citizens. Her husband had been put to great expense in defending himself in Richmond. She asked for her rights, not for alms. Robert Emmet forwarded the memorial of his friend's widow to Henry Clay, who was in the United States Senate. It prayed for redress for her. Mr. Clay presented the memorial and eloquently advocated its justice. The committee to whom it was referred returned a report, "Not to grant this memorial would be unworthy a wise and just nation."
But it was too late. Before any compensation reached her Lady Blennerhassett died in a humble chamber in New York City. She was tended in her last hours by Sisters of Charity.
Alone, in a foreign land, under a darkened sky, she drifted from our sight to that shore where "the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest."