History Lesson: Black Aggie
July 17, 2014
Every few weeks, we want to share some off the beaten path sites that make DC such an incredible place. Its fun for us, because even though we know a lot of nooks and crannies of Washington, we are always uncovering some cool stories. Our first in the series is the spooky history of the Black Aggie statue:
Just finding Black Aggie is an adventure itself. It actually sits a few hundred feet from the White House in a tucked away courtyard behind the US Courts Building and Dolley Madison House. You can find it here. But the mystery of finding the statue is far surpassed by the legends that surround it.
The story of Black Aggie begins with the marriage of Henry and Clover (Marian) Adams in 1872. Henry was the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams. They were Washington socialites in the finest sense and lived a happy life in their house, just a block from the White House (where the Hay Adams hotel sits today). Things were great for a few years until Clover’s father passed away in early 1885. Clover was inconsolable and eventually took her own life in 1886.
With the loss of his wife, Henry became deeply depressed himself. After a trip to Japan to grieve, he returned home in 1886 and asked one of the countries most respected sculptors, Augustas St. Gaudens to create a statue with an “eastern” look to it, to grace the grave of his wife in Rock Creek Cemetery. The memorial took 4 years to create and Adams had it placed on Clover’s grave in 1891. Though, Adams never gave it an official name, many called it the “Adams Memorial” or more hauntingly, “Grief.”
Henry refused to speak of the memorial or its haunting nickname and rarely talked about Clover’s death after that. He also added shrubs, bushes and trees to make finding the memorial even more difficult. This combined with his national fame made the statue and people flocked to the grave for the mystery.
Soon after, a sculptor made an unauthorized copy of “Grief” which would become even more fascinating than the original. The copy was purchased by Felix Agnus. Born in France, Felix grew up with a passion for adventure. He fought in Napoleone III’s army and served with General Garibaldi in Italy. Then he moved to New York and began work at Tiffany’s as a silver chaser. The Civil War soon broke out and he enlisted as a private in the Union Army. He was so talented that he became a Brigadier General by the time he was just 26 years old. He saw actions in dozens of battles and was wounded over 12 times by bullets and swords.
After the war, he married and remained in service to the country as Consul to the United States. Later, he became publisher of his fathers newspaper. At this point, Agnus began construction on a family plot in Druid Ridge Cemetery where he placed his copy of the “Grief” statue. He inscribed the statue with his name “Agnus” on the base and the statue soon earned its nickname “Aggie.” Felix’s wife died in 1922 and he assed three years later.
Soon, mysterious happenings occurred around the statue. It seemed quiet and beautiful during the daylight, but when darkness fell, those who encountered her began calling her “Black Aggie.” At first it was said that the spirits of the dead rose at night and gathered around her. Later, stories circulated that those who looked on her at night became blind. It was said that her eyes burned red at night and that if you sat in her lap, you would die within two weeks. Local fraternities started to use it as initiation for new recruits. New members would have to spend a night of their initiation on the lap of Black Aggie. Fantastical stories would pop up of recruits claiming she came to life and even going so far to be blamed on the unexplained death of a frat member found at her feat.
One night in 1962, a night watchmen lost his arm and claimed Black Aggie had cut it off. Flowers, grass and shrubs refused to grow in front of it. Pregnant women who looked at her were said to miscarry shortly thereafter. A theory given credence by the fact that Clover Adams could not bear children herself. Newspapers and citizens blamed unexplained tragedies and deaths on the mysterious statue. Finally, the destruction for the nighttime visitors became so much that the Agnus family had the statue donated to the Smithsonian in 1862.
The Smithsonian found out it was a knockoff of the original statue, so they never displayed it in any of their museums. Eventually they gave it to the General Services administration who placed it at its current place where it only haunts a few workers in the nearby buildings. Here you can visit it, in daylight hours, and remember the stories that haunted one cemetery for nearly 50 years.
Read More: We learned a lot about the Black Aggie from sites like Praire Ghosts, the Washington Post, and the Travel Channel.