I imagine her in a bonnet, dressed in black, walking through the streets of downtown Washington with a sense of purpose. When she was young, people had said she was not as beautiful as the other women in her family. But no one was more resolute than she. She was determined to make the world remember her late husband.
It’s our good fortune that we remember her, too: Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, the widow of Alexander Hamilton. And to think Eliza lived the last years of her life on H Street NW.
Wendy Kail wasn’t aware of that history, although as the archivist at Tudor Place, a historic mansion in Georgetown, she knows a lot about famous D.C. families. In the 19th century, they were always intersecting with one another, through receptions and balls, through marriage, through business.
And through tragedy.
Capt. Beverley Kennon and his wife, Britannia Peter Kennon, were among the prominent capital residents invited aboard the USS Princeton as it sailed on the Potomac on Feb. 28, 1844. Britannia was from the Peter family of Tudor Place, a descendant of Martha Washington through the first lady’s first marriage. Capt. Kennon was an accomplished officer who had recently been promoted from the commandant of the Navy Yard to a post overseeing all of the country’s naval construction.
Among the armaments on the warship that day was a 12-inch gun capable of hurling a 200-pound ball five miles. It was called the Peacemaker, and it had been discharged on the ceremonial cruise twice without incident. But the third time it was fired, the gun’s barrel exploded. Six men were killed, including Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Navy Secretary Thomas Gilmer and Capt. Kennon.
Never, wrote Elizabeth Crawford Davidson, who lived at Evermay, a few blocks from Tudor Place, “has death in the space of time been so busy in high places.”
Britannia was uninjured. Although her husband was dead, to spare her nerves she was told that he had been only slightly wounded. She went to the home they had settled into only a few months before at 1325 H St. NW and prepared a room for him to convalesce in.
There would be no convalescence. Britannia’s brother broke the news that Beverley had perished. She moved with her infant daughter back to Tudor Place. In 1848, she rented her H Street residence to a woman whose husband had been killed 44 years earlier in a duel with Aaron Burr.
“She comes down here with her daughter to lobby for money for [Hamilton’s] papers to be edited and saved,” said Kail, who started looking into the Eliza connection after someone researching a children’s book asked what Hamiltoniana Tudor Place might have. (Kail was perfect for the task: She has seen “Hamilton” the musical 23 times.)
Eliza and her daughter, Eliza Hamilton Holly, rented the three-story brick home on the north side of H Street NW between 13th and 14th streets. The house and one next to it were sometimes called the Chain Buildings. Chains out front were convenient hitching posts for horses.
“Good tenants they were,” Britannia wrote, “paying the rent always on the day it was due.”
Eliza became a familiar figure in Washington. Well into her 90s, she would walk to Capitol Hill to visit friends. The founder and benefactor of New York City’s Orphan’s Asylum, she donated to D.C.’s orphanage, too, which was just down the street from her house. She knitted pillowcases to raise money for orphans.
Eliza was tight with Dolley Madison, who lived on nearby Lafayette Square. Both attended the laying of the Washington Monument cornerstone on July 4, 1848. After all, both had known the first president.
One contemporary credited Eliza with introducing ice cream to Washington, although that was back in Andrew Jackson’s administration, before she’d moved to the capital. (“By the Eternal!” Jackson is said to have exclaimed in delight before vowing to make ice cream a fixture at the White House.)
I’m not sure when the Chain Houses were demolished. Every time I walk past the office buildings that are there now, I think of Eliza.
Kail has written a 30-page paper about the Kennon-Hamilton connection. It will soon be up on the Tudor Place website, tudorplace.org.
“When I first started researching this, I thought, ‘Well, this will take me two days,’ ” she said. “It wound up taking three months. It just got bigger and bigger.”
Not long ago, I visited Kail in the basement of Tudor Place. She opened an archival box and lifted out a curious fabric assemblage about 14 inches square. It’s a knitted pillowcase with a white background and geometric accents of yellow, blue and red. Stitched to it is a paper tag on which Britannia wrote: “Made by Mrs. Alexander Hamilton a short time before her death, for Mrs. Kennon.”
Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton died in the H Street house in 1854. She was 97. Britannia Kennon died in 1911. She was 95. Neither ever remarried.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.