Ironically, Hillyer died on the water anyway. He suffered a fatal heart attack as his Pullman car was being floated across the Hudson River on a ferry to Jersey City, N.J., where it would have been placed on the tracks to continue its journey south.
Not all rich men are interesting. Hillyer was. His life was marked by great wealth, great accomplishment and great sorrow.
Hillyer was born in 1828 in Ohio. He graduated from Yale in 1850, then went to Cincinnati to study law. In 1852, he accompanied an uncle to Northern California, a trip intended both to improve Hillyer’s health and his wallet. There was gold in them thar hills.
Hillyer worked his claim successfully, then turned to a less labor-intensive way of making money. He moved to the Nevada Territory and set out a shingle as a lawyer specializing in mining issues. Among his clients were the owners of the Comstock Lode, the massive vein of silver ore. They paid Hillyer a $2,000-a-month retainer — roughly $40,000 today — to, as one newspaper put it, “keep the numerous fusses quieted down and to see that peace reigned.”
Hillyer clerked for a judge in Nevada but apparently was never on the bench himself. Even so, for the rest of his life, people called him “Judge Hillyer.” He served in Nevada’s state legislature, representing Storey County, and it was in that capacity that he rose on Feb. 16, 1869, to deliver a speech in favor of giving women in Nevada the vote.
Barely literate men were allowed to vote, Hillyer said, while smart women were not. That didn’t seem right.
Hillyer appealed for support to his fellow Republicans, arguing that the party was successful because it was not stuck in the past. Republicans had succeeded, he said, because they were progressive, “because we had the courage to pluck out, from the overwhelming mass of prejudice in which it was buried, a principle of eternal truth; dared boldly to inscribe it on our banners and to march to battle with the watchword of universal freedom.”
Amazingly, the bill squeaked through, but faltered in the next legislature and was never passed.
Hillyer moved to Washington in the 1870s, around the time Alexander “Boss” Shepherd became the city’s governor. He became part of a group of wealthy investors who bought up parcels of land north of Dupont Circle, expecting the city to grow in that direction. They were collectively known as the “California Syndicate.” The group included another attorney, Thomas Sunderland, whose name lives on in Sunderland Place NW.
Hillyer Place runs between 20th and 21st streets NW, between Q and R. Several of the houses Judge Hillyer built there remain, including those between 2010 and 2023 Hillyer Place. For himself, Hillyer built a 16-room mansion where the Cosmos Club stands today. (Hillyer Court, which snakes behind the Phillips Collection, was the carriage lane for that house.)
Hillyer and his wife, Angeline, had four sons and a daughter, Bessie. In the autumn of 1887, Bessie became engaged to W.L. Trenholm, son of the comptroller of the currency. On Dec. 22, two months before the planned wedding, Bessie, 18, showed up in Baltimore with Grassie Bulkley, the 20-year-old son of a District physician. With Antonio Nogueiras, son of the Portuguese ambassador, serving as a witness, the couple married.
The scandal rocked Washington’s blue bloods. “Young Bulkley,” as he was called, was no slouch. His ancestors had come over on the Mayflower and his father was head of the District Medical Association. Still, Bessie’s family was opposed. They tried to get the marriage annulled.
Bessie gave conflicting messages about her preference. She stayed with Bulkley for a while, then moved back to her family’s home on Massachusetts Avenue. It was there, on April 11, 1888, that she swallowed arsenic. She died the next day.
The suicide attracted even more attention than the elopement. Wrote The Post: “The terrible mental anguish that had produced this result and had changed a beautiful and apparently happy bride into a miserable and half-demented woman, who, to end her troubles, ended also her existence, and all in the course of a few short months, has yet to be explained.”
Bessie Hillyer Bulkley was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, her grave unmarked. Eighteen years later, her father, the patron of Hillyer Place, joined her there.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.