Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Sad End of Miss Blanche Magruder

Her family was as old as Georgetown itself—even older than that.  Emily—or Emma--Magruder was the daughter of Nathanial Magruder, whose Scottish ancestor Alexander had immigrated to Maryland as early as 1652.  For generations, the name Magruder was synonymous with wealth, and Magruders had been among the first landowners in the City of Washington.

Emily Magruder was born in the mid-1840s and spent her entire life in same house at 1304 35th Street, near N, and close to Holy Trinity Church.  One of the oldest houses in Georgetown, by the early 1920s it had grown so dilapidated that its paint was peeling and in places, its roof had begun to cave in.   Emma’s sole brother, Charles, and two of her sisters—Kate and Virginia—had died years earlier.  Nothing is known of her sister Blanche, who died in the 1930s.

Emily lived alone and had done so since the turn of the century.  Neighbors rarely saw her—she was considered an eccentric, and their opinion was only confirmed by the fact that the rare times when she left the house, she did not use the front door; instead, she climbed in and out of a front window.

Early in the 1920s, the city of Washington condemned the aging house and presumably warned Emily she would have to leave.  However, when demolition crews arrived to do their work, the aging spinster was so vocal in her resistance that the workers left and never returned. 

In early 1929, Emily made a decision that would later baffle authorities.  She simply picked up and left her house and belongings and moved into the District’s poorhouse. Officially named the Washington Home for the Aged and the Infirm, it was a located at the southernmost tip of Washington’s 8th Ward, an area called Blue Plains.  The Home sat on over a hundred acres, comprising an infirmary, schools for both whites and blacks, a complex of cottages, and assorted other buildings that would one day become the notorious DC Village. 

It the time of its establishment, it was billed as a haven of fresh air and sunshine, where residents could farm and grow their own vegetables and have plenty of fresh milk from the cows that grazed there.  That, at least, was the story given to the public.  The truth was that the Board of Charities’ appropriations were so meager that the Infirmary amounted to little more than a Dickensian work farm.  Buildings were flimsy in design and material; furnishings were sparse; staff was insufficient to tend for a growing number of inmates.  As results, almost since its founding, the Home’s reputation had been blemished by reports of poor standards of living, abuse and worse.  By the 1940s, a shocked Eleanor Roosevelt would announce, “It is sad and horrible if we are going to let Blue Plains be our standard for the nation on the attitude to old age.”

By the summer of 1929, neighbors began to notice frequent comings and goings at the Magruder house and complained to police.  In August, the Washington Post reported that officers of the Seventh Precinct had arrested eleven individuals who had ransacked the house and stolen approximately $1,000 in cash.

As it turns out, that was only a fraction of the fortune Emily had hidden both in the house and its gardens.

When Precinct Detective Norman S. Nodkinson, accompanied by Officers William O’Connor and Charles C. Clay, entered the house, they were stunned to find it furnished with antiques and other curios, including large oil paintings copied after old Masters.  They discovered more than $600 in old currency and silver coins, hidden under stacks of papers, in books or in cracks in the rotting walls.  In addition, Emily had reportedly buried a strongbox containing a “small fortune” in a well in the back garden.  All in all, it was rumored, Emily secreted away approximately $40,000—money she made, it was said, through investments of her early savings.

Here is where the narrative begins to twist:  The story was first reported on August 16, 1929.  However, cemetery records show that Emily Magruder had been buried March 13, 1917, twelve years earlier.   The only Magruder sister still alive in 1929 would have been Blanche, who doesn’t show up as buried until 1934.

Could police and neighbors have been mistaken about the elderly Miss Magruder’s identity?   Could Blanche have simply assumed her sister’s identity so as to retain the house and investments? 

The plot began to thicken. 

And ten days later, it was revealed that it was indeed Blanche who had been living in the ancient manse on Thirty-fifth Street.  Her niece, Ms. Marie Clarke, had stepped forth and hired an attorney to represent Miss Magruder; plans were underway to remove her from the poor house at Blue Plains and place her in a private institution. 

Meanwhile, police continued to comb the house, which was reputed to still be listed under the ownership of Blanche’s father, Mr. Nathaniel Magruder, who had died many years before.  Neighbors gossiped that Nathaniel had left a rumored $40,000 in cash to the spinsters in cash—but police had so far recovered only about $4,000, stashed in the most incongruous of hiding places.  That, combined with the approximate $5,000 value of the house, would be enough to ensure that Blanche would be cared for until the end of her days. 

What happened to Blanche after that is not known.  And Emily, as it turns out, had indeed died in 1917—as an inmate at St. Elizabeth’s Mental Asylum. 

©Cecily Hilleary, 2010

Excerpt from The Workhouse, a poem by Alexander Brand. London: W. Robins & Co., Printers, 1819.

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