27 Apr 2020


Lost Capitol Hill: Authoress Mary Clemmer

Finding new items to research for this column is a haphazard business. It sometimes feels like a stochastic walk through history, with my research leading me to a completely different area from what I set out to find out about. For instance, I found a charming little tale about newlyweds at the Capitol written by Mary Clemmer Ames in 1874. That story led me to filming at the Capitol – and that’s what I ended up writing about. I never did get back to the original tale– an oversight I will begin rectifying today with an outline of the author’s life.

Mary Clemmer was born in 1831, and already as a schoolgirl was noted for her ability to write both poetry and prose. One of her poems was published in the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican while still a student at the Westfield Academy in Massachusetts.

However, her family did not see her as an author, and instead induced her to marry the Reverend Daniel Ames at the tender age of 17. Her talent was not to be denied, however, and while living in New York City with her husband, she began writing again, getting a series of letters from New York published in the Morning Herald of the city of her birth.

Her fame began to spread nationally when she published a serial novel called Eirene, or a Woman’s Right in Putnam’s Monthly during the Civil War. As she was by then living in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, she had a front row seat to some of the fighting, and included a scene from the Battle of Maryland Heights in the novel.

Artist’s conception of Clemmer observing the Battle of Maryland Heights (HathiTrust.org)

After the war, she settled in Washington, and began writing letters from that city for the New York Independent. The letters covered the whole gamut of her experiences, including those gleaned from time spent in the ladies galleries of both the Senate and House of Representatives. In 1871, she would write a book about her experiences in the nation’s capital: Ten Years in Washington; Life and Scenes in the National Capital, as a Woman Sees Them. In spite of the title, it was actually a complete history of the city, though it included many personal observations as well.

In 1874, she would divorce her husband, and reclaim her original name. She would also live, on and off, in Washington, and so the 1883 city directory indicates that Mary Clemmer “authoress” resides at 134 Pennsylvania Avenue SE. It was, according to an 1883 biography “a large, hospitable brick mansion, book-lined and picture-hung; with its souvenirs of friendship from names honored among men, its dainty elegance, its sweetness of repose.” This house was one of the many torn down to make way for the Library of Congress.

On January 16, 1878, she was involved in a carriage accident, striking her head on the curbstone of 20th Street NW. She would feel the effect from this injury for the rest of her life. In spite of this, she married Edmund Hudson, a well-known journalist. While they would manage to spend time on their honeymoon in Europe, her strength was ebbing, and they returned to Washington. She would die of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 18, 1884. Her book Poems of Life and Nature would be published posthumously.

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