29 Jan 2024

History:

Lost Capitol Hill: Ann Sprigg, pt 2

When we last looked at Ann Sprigg, she was a young widow with five children to look after, running a boarding house near the Capitol to survive. It looked to be a reasonably secure existence for her.

Her life did not get any better, however. Young Benjamin died on July 16, 1834, and then, almost exactly five years after the death of her husband, her daughter Eleanor died, as well. The Washington Native American of September 22, 1838 published this haunting obituary:

Died in this City, on Sunday last, the 16th instant Eleanor Sprigg, aged sixteen, and daughter of Mrs. Sprigg, the widow of our former fellow citizen, Benjamin Sprigg, Esq., of the Clerk’s Office, House of Representatives. We make the announcement of this young being’s death with peculiar pain, because we had known her almost from childhood up to the time of her decease. She was beautiful in person and face, and gentle and lovely in her disposition; and well did she deserve the fond affection of that widowed heart, which, amid all afflictions, turned devotedly to her children, and to Eleanor, the eldest. We sympathize sincerely with that good and meek parent, and hope that her Christian faith will fortify her against the accumulating agony that tracks a parent’s life after the loss of the smallest and youngest of its offspring.

So young and pure a spirit as her departed daughter’s, will haunt her memory – conjuring up emotions of mingled melancholy and pleasure. Those who have lived through many agonies in this iron world, should almost rejoice at the departure to sunnier realms of those beings of innocence and beauty.

The piece is signed “Ed. N. Am.” which presumably stands for Editors of the Native American, who at the time were Henry Johnson Brent (nephew of Robert Brent, first mayor of Washington) and Dr. T. D. Jones.

In one way, things had gotten better: When the 1840 census was conducted, while Mrs. Sprigg still lived in a large household ––14 to be exact–– none of them were enslaved. And, as she continued to operate a boarding house, it became well-known as an abolitionist headquarters, which is why when Abraham Lincoln was elected as a Whig from Illinois in 1846, he joined other Whigs at Mrs. Sprigg’s boarding house, now located on First Street, right across from the House wing of the Capitol.

It was time filled with turbulent incidents, including the kidnapping of one of her workers.

Artist’s conception of Lincoln at Mrs. Sprigg’s boarding house. From Helen Nicolay’s book The Boys’ Life of Abraham Lincoln published in 1906. (Archive.org)

Mrs. Sprigg moved her establishment shortly after Lincoln left office, but stayed a landlady. Her new premises were further south on First St SE, between N and O Streets (Across from Nationals Park today)

The location meant that she was not handling the same clientele as before: The 1850 census indicates that her boarders are clerks, not members of Congress.

By the time Lincoln returned to Washington as President, Mrs. Sprigg had moved on and was living with one of her sons, who was a clerk in the city post office. Sprigg apparently had no further income, which is evidenced by a 1864 letter that President Lincoln wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, recommending he find a job for her:

The bearer of this is a most estimable widow lady, at whose house I boarded many years ago when a member of Congress. She now is very needy; & any employment suitable to a lady could not be bestowed on a more worthy person.

Lincoln’s words worked, as Sprigg receives an appointment at the treasury. Sadly, she did not work there long, as she died on December 20, 1870. She was laid to rest at Congressional Cemetery, near her husband and those children who had predeceased her.

Next week, we will look at her children.


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