What do you know about a statue called “Black Aggie”? Is it in a courtyard at Lafayette Square?
— Norma Courlang,
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.
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 www.whitehousehistory.org.
Send questions about the Washington area to firstname.lastname@example.org.