Crestwood in the 1850s: Historical Fiction
By David Swerdloff
As he stood on the porch of the farmhouse, Dr. Nichols was in bad spirits despite a vista that had inspired him for many months. November 1852 was blessed with sunshine, and from his perch on a plateau in Washington County, he could peer through the bare branches to see the dome of the Capitol, the partially-constructed monument to George Washington and the glint off the water from two rivers.
“Yes,” he thought, “this is the only site worth considering for a government hospital for the insane.” But the owner of the property, Thomas Blagden, had refused to sell the parcel called St. Elizabeths.
Dr. Nichols had been patient. His esteemed associate Dorothea Dix had written legislation to establish America’s first federal hospital for mental patients. Together they had shepherded it through Congress, which appropriated the money in August. But he had waited to speak with the property owner out of respect for the mourning period for Mr. Blagden’s twin daughters Anne and Miriam, who had died in June at the age of six months. Thomas and Emily Blagden had also endured a stillbirth the year before. Thomas Jr. had died at age three back in ’49. In all, the couple had had eight children and only three survived.
The doctor’s patience had not been rewarded. Now how could he break the news to Dorothea? At least they would be meeting amid the bustle of Center Market—so they would have to keep inside the emotional turmoil caused by falling just short of their goal. “There is nothing more to be done,” he would tell her. “We shall have to give the matter up.”
Hearing the front door close, Emily called down the stairs, “Thomas, how did Dr. Nichols take the news?”
“I was kind enough not to dismiss him completely,” he replied. “I told him that, despite how much you and the children treasure the farm, I’d sell it for 40 thousand—knowing that Congress only approved 25.”
“Mary, Harriet and George would never have forgiven you if you had taken away their enchanted forest,” Emily reminded him. “Though perhaps they would have appreciated fewer opportunities for you to point out the Capitol and repeat the same stories about their grandfather and how he made sure the stonework would be perfect.”
When Miss Dix made an appointment to see Thomas the next day, he worried she had somehow acquired the extra 15 thousand. He knew he could find another excuse to hold onto the estate. What he didn’t count on was her power of persuasion. By the end of the day, he was shocked to find himself writing these words:
“DEAR MADAM, since seeing you to-day, I have had no other opinion (and Mrs. B. also) than that I must not stand between you and the beloved farm, regarding you, as I do, as the instrument in the hands of God to secure this very spot for the unfortunates whose best earthly friend you are, and believing sincerely that the Almighty’s blessing will not rest on, nor abide with, those who may place obstacles in your way.”
Against their better judgment, the Blagdens had agreed to sell—at Congress’ price.
When Dr. Nichols brought over the papers, he found Thomas in distress. “I don’t want to part with the farm,” he exclaimed as he paced the room. “It is dear to me and my family! But I won’t break my word. I told her she should have it, and she shall.”
It would take nearly a year for the Blagdens to find a similar farmstead to purchase with their $25,000. That parcel, too, overlooked Washington City from a plateau, and included several handsome buildings constructed by the most popular diplomat in the District, Russian Ambassador Alexander de Bodisco.
By then, Emily was again big with child. Joking as she lay in bed, she asked her husband, “Why purchase the Argyle estate from the old man, when you could attend one of his gambling parties and win it from him?”
“The Czar has him on a short financial leash now, and the whist sessions have come to an end,” he explained. “Meanwhile, Count Bodisco’s enemies have been assailing him for speculating in Washington real estate. So this is the perfect time to get him to sell off the property.”
With tearful eyes, Emily turned serious. “Dearest, I believe this can be a fresh start for us. You have just turned 50. We are moving to a glorious new estate. And the baby is kicking like a mule—so I am sure it will be born healthy and strong. If it is a boy, let us again name him Thomas to symbolize our new beginnings.”
And that is what nearly took place. Thomas Blagden was born October 18, 1853. His father signed a deed to the Argyle property four days later. However, Emily never moved to their new enchanted forest. Having a ninth child proved too much for her constitution, and she died in early November—165 years ago this month.
Emily’s four surviving children grew up on the estate, raised by Thomas Blagden and the wife he married four years later: Emily’s younger sister. Laura Blagden lived until 1908 and witnessed the start of new housing projects that would turn the Argyle estate into the Crestwood community we know today.