- Historic Sites
George Washington had his Martha; John Adams had his Abigail—and Henry Knox had his Lucy. Or did Lucy have him? She was high-strung, demanding, and stubborn, but she loved him unto death
April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
Harry could usually accept Lucy’s foibles with humor and he adored her always. She could babble foolishly and annoy him—as she undoubtedly had in 1783 when she greeted the great news of the Peace of Paris with a complaint about having to find a new home—“This plaguey peace has set us all moving again.” One time when she suddenly changed her mind about going riding, Harry told the groom, “John, put Mrs. Knox’s horse in the stable and do not take it out again until God Almighty or Mrs. Knox tells you to.” Always his anger was softened by compassion. Her extreme behavior at Montpelier may have been caused by the relentless succession of tragedies that did not cease even when the haven in the country was reached. Here William Bingham Knox, aged eleven, and Augusta, aged nine, died on the same day, probably of diphtheria, and within a year, Julia Wasdworth, an enchanting girl of fifteen, died of rapid consumption. Lucy’s final pregnancy brought her a stillborn child. A bedroom in Montpelier became known as the “dead room,” where each victim in turn was laid out. In the end only three children were spared her of the thirteen she bore—the eldest, Lucy; Henry Jackson, who caused endless heartache by his instability; and the youngest girl, Caroline.
When thoughts of bereavements could be pushed aside, the Knoxes’ life for the next ten years was a happy one. They spent winters in Boston and returned to Montpelier in the spring, when Harry toured his acres, planning, expanding, running up debts. Eventually it was Lucy who urged that the Boston winters should be abandoned. It seemed a wise plan, for bills were always soaring and Harry’s good humor became ruffled when creditors clamored at the great gates of Montpelier. All his land speculation would pay off in time, he was sure …
But suddenly time was no longer his. He swallowed a sharp chicken bone, which lodged in his esophagus, and within three days, on October 25, 1806, he was dead at the age of fifty-six. Life without Harry—eighteen years of it—faced Lucy. When the military funeral was over and the last reverberations of the gun salute were stilled and the rich tones of the Paul Revere bell at Harry’s church had dwindled to silence, the frightened birds settled back in the trees and Lucy closed herself into Montpelier.
Her two surviving daughters remained faithfully close. Lucy lived nearby with her husband, a lawyer who assisted his mother-in-law in her struggles with the estate’s tangled affairs. Caroline lived at Montpelier with a feckless husband who welcomed the haven the crumbling mansion offered. On one occasion, Lucy’s son, Henry Jackson, roused her to try to get a commission for him in the Navy. John Adams, over eighty and in retirement at Quincy, wrote to Thomas Jefferson, nearly eighty, at Monticello, “Mrs. Knox not long since wrote a letter to Dr. Waterhouse, requesting him to procure a commission for her son in the Navy; that Navy, says her Ladyship, of which his father was the parent, for says she, ‘I have frequently heard General Washington say to my husband that the Navy was your child.’ ” The two old men dug in their memories, and both tried to recall who did what in the distant past. Henry Knox, one of whose last official acts had been the launching of the Constitution , was fading from the minds of even the men he had worked with, and the public had forgotten him altogether. Only the recluse at Montpelier had him constantly in her thoughts.
Houses encroached on Lucy’s aristocratic isolation, the forest was hewn down behind Montpelier. Harry’s pet projects were swept away; his ornamental gardens grew ragged, the paint peeled off the house, and the piazzas became unsafe and were removed. The horses were gone, dust was thick on disused carriages. When privation and danger came to the town in the War of 1812, Lucy tried to guess what action Harry would have taken. He had always made the decisions, which she had often contradicted, and they could fight, and she could weep, and then came the joy of making up.
Few visitors came. Lucy did not want rich and elegant friends to see the ruins of her life, and besides, many were dead. Interest for a day came from a total eclipse of the sun; bears were reported in the beech woods, there were tales of wolves and catamounts that killed the sheep and cattle; there were local tragedies such as a child drowned in a creek or a man lost at sea or in a quarry. Her daughter Caroline joined in the life of the community, but Lucy never left the house. She accepted at last, however, some friendly overtures of some of the gentlemen of the neighborhood who came to play whist with her, and rewarded them with cozy suppers and good bottles of wine. These evenings were not shared by the wives, and even today, 140 years or so later, her memory in Thomaston is not kindly dealt with by some of the womenfolk. I have heard people speak of her as if she were a living presence, and the rumor is that she drinks!
Lucy’s health declined; then a severe illness when she was sixty-eight brought fever and delirium. She laughed and talked of gowns and hairdressing and friends long gone and called out to Harry across a crowded ballroom. On the night of June 19-20, 1824, she became frantic and her daughters struggled to restrain her, until the tumult was suddenly over and her tempestuous spirit departed at 3 A.M.