J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

Louisa Catherine Adams Gossips about the Vassalls

I spent yesterday at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, originally the house of John Vassall. One part of the event was the “potluck” dinner that Gen. George Washington (portrayed by Bill Rose) offered to John Adams (portrayed by Tom Macy) in January 1776. Yesterday was considerably warmer.

That’s enough of a tie-in to share this helping of gossip from Adams’s daughter-in-law, Louisa Catherine Adams, about Vassall’s first cousins, the daughters of his uncle William Vassall, in London in the 1790s:

The Vassalls were the most singular family, consisting of three or four females I dont recollect which; very tall, gaunt, masculine women, entirely independent and wealthy—their manners were like their persons coarse and unpleasant. They were old Maids and even their large fortunes could not lure a husband—

Each of them had some peculiarity but Miss Margaret [1761-1819] was the most conspicuous—She had fourteen Dogs who already slept in her chamber, a number of them in her bed, and whenever she went out to dine she carried a paper bag to take the gizzards of the fowls which she always made a point to ask for of the Lady of the House, and the conversation almost always turned upon little exploits of these charming puppies for the pleasure and edification of the company which she did the honour to join— The Sisters echoed the cry and we had the felicity of hearing the hounds without the possibility of flying the chase.

Lady Holland was the Cousin of these Ladies, and has likewise given some strong evidence of brutish tastes
That last cousin was Elizabeth Vassall, daughter of Richard Vassall. She was still in her mid-teens in 1786 when she married the thirty-eight-year-old baronet Sir Godfrey Webster. In 1794 the Websters were traveling in Naples when Elizabeth fell in love with Henry Fox, Baron Holland (1773-1840). Two years later, Elizabeth and Henry had a son. Sir Godfrey divorced her in exchange for keeping the Jamaican property she had inherited, but by 1800 he had gambled that away and shot himself.

Elizabeth and Henry wed two days after her divorce became official. Then Elizabeth’s uncle Florentius Vassall left her more Jamaican plantations. As Baroness Holland, Elizabeth was an important hostess in Georgian and Victorian England until her death in 1845. She gathered politicians and authors, introduced the dahlia to English gardens, and praised Napoleon, but was best known for both encouraging and dictating conversation at her dinner table. As for Baroness Holland’s “brutish tastes,” at least two of her portraits (including the one above) show her with dogs.

The gossipy passage above comes from the just-published volumes of Louisa Catherine Adams’s writings.

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