The Washington Post

‘Black Aggie’: From Baltimore to Washington

An unauthorized copy of the famous Adams Memorial by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens sits in the courtyard of the National Courts Building in Lafayette Square in Washington, DC. (John Kelly/PHOTO BY JOHN KELLY/TWP)

What do you know about a statue called “Black Aggie”? Is it in a courtyard at Lafayette Square?

— Norma Courlang,

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Silver Spring

Death awaits us all. And after death, what?

Did Felix Agnus contemplate the Great Beyond as he lay wounded on a Civil War battlefield? Did Marian Adams — known to her friends in Washington society as “Clover” — ponder the Other Side as she lifted a beaker of potassium cyanide to her lips?

Answer Man supposes they did. They probably never met one another, but they are forever linked thanks to two bronze statues.

Clover Adams was the wife of Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of presidents. The two were fixtures in 19th-century Washington, hosting a lively salon at their home on Lafayette Square. But Clover was given to fits of depression, and it was in just such a slough of despond in 1885 that she took her life, drinking chemicals that she used in her photography hobby. She was 42.

Henry was bereft. To memorialize Clover, he turned to one of America’s greatest sculptors, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Henry had become fascinated by Eastern religion and, as art historian Cynthia J. Mills recounted in a 2000 article in the American Art journal, he asked the sculptor “to design an ideal figure embodying ideas similar to the Buddhist concept of nirvana: release from the cycles of life and death, desire and pain— an extinction of the passions, leading to inner quietude.”

The artist created a moody and evocative draped figure for Clover’s grave at Rock Creek Cemetery. The sculpture has no title — Adams resisted such simple names as “Grief” — and is known as the Adams Memorial.

The artwork became a sensation. People clamored for copies, but Adams wanted to keep his mourning private and refused nearly all entreaties.

And now we come to Felix Agnus. He was born in France in 1839 and lived a life right out of a boys’ adventure book. He ditched college for work as a seaman, circling the globe under sail. After his return to France, he trained as a sculptor, then abandoned that to become a soldier in the Austrian War. He immigrated to the United States, where he worked briefly as a worker for the jewelry maker Tiffany & Co. before volunteering for service in the cause of the Union.

Agnus entered the federal army as a sergeant. He left four years later as a brevet brigadier general, his body so full of shrapnel that he supposedly clanked when he walked. Twice wounded, he spent one convalescence in the home of Baltimore newspaper publisher Charles C. Fulton. He fell in love with his nurse — Fulton’s daughter, Annie — and married her. When his father-in-law died, Agnus became publisher of the Baltimore American and then launched the evening Baltimore Star.

Agnus wanted to leave as big a mark in death as he had in life. He purchased a family plot in Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikes­ville, Md., and looked for the perfect monument to adorn it. Fortuitously, a dealer said he had been authorized to furnish life-size duplicates of the Adams Memorial. Agnus’s copy was erected in 1907. He shipped his mother’s body over from France and buried her under it.

But the dealer was lying. The Agnus memorial was a copy, cadged from the original by a sculptor named Eduard L.A. Pausch, heretofore best known for making President McKinley’s death mask. When Saint-Gaudens’s widow, Augusta, learned of the unauthorized duplicate, she threatened legal action. But she was unable to persuade Agnus to remove the bronze copy. He was buried next to it in 1925.

Answer Man will not speculate on how Baltimoreans treat their cemeteries as compared with Washingtonians, but it is a fact that over the years the Agnus memorial became covered in graffiti. It got the nickname “Black Aggie” and was the subject of superstitious folklore. It was said that a witch was buried underneath. The eyes of the figure were said to glow red. Jump in its lap at midnight, and you would die within two weeks.

In 1967, the Agnus family, believing it to be a Saint-Gaudens-approved replica, donated the work to the Smithsonian. When it was determined to be a knockoff, it was given to the General Services Administration, which in 1987 moved it to the courtyard of the National Courts Building on the east side of Lafayette Square.

And that’s where it is today, not far from where Clover struggled with her demons and lost.

In God he didn’t trust

Want to learn more about Robert Ingersoll , the Great Agnostic and the subject of last week’s column? Check out the current issue of White House History (No. 31), published by the White House Historical Association. It features Steven C. Lowe’s article on Ingersoll and his time in Washington. Go to

Send questions about the Washington area to


Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Deaf banjo player teaches thousands
Unconventional warfare with a side of ale
It's in the details: Five ways to enhance your kitchen makeover
Play Videos
Drawing as an act of defiance
A fighter pilot helmet with 360 degrees of sky
Border collies: A 'mouse trap' for geese on the National Mall
Play Videos
Bao: The signature dish of San Francisco
This man's job is binge-watching for Netflix
What you need to know about Planned Parenthood
Play Videos
How to save and spend money at college
Pandas, from birth to milk to mom
Europe's migrant crisis, explained

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.