Monday, March 22, 2010

Update on Lena Gray (Quondam Washington,Jan. 17, 2009)

Lena Gray, three of whose photos appear on QW's 1/17/2009 posting, may have been Josephine L. Gray, daughter of John A Gray, a prominent African American restaurateur in Washington during the second half of the 19th Century.  

Gray was nominated by President Ullyses S. Grant, April 13, 1871, to serve as a member of territorial Washington's council of the legislative assembly, along with Frederick Douglass and others.  

Gray's restaurant was said to have been one of the "first" restaurants in the city, and the African American newspaper, the Washington Bee, listed him as one of the "moneyed" members of DC's black society.

Gray was born in Washington, DC in 1835 to Jane and Basil Gray, a laborer.  The family appears in the 1850 census as living in Ward 4.

By the 1850s, John had established himself as a caterer in Washington.  For awhile, he had a restaurant which, according to the Bee and other sources, was popular among a predominantly white clientele. 

The Gray family found itself the subject of some unwanted attention in February of 1859.   John rented out a house he owned--at 383 15th Street, N.W., just two blocks away from Lafayette Square.  His tenant?  The dashing rake, Phillip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key.  Phillip was a US District Attorney who fell in love with the beautiful Theresa Bagioli, the wife of N.Y. Congressman Daniel Sickles. 

For two years, the couple carried on, using the Gray house as their "love nest," according to George Rothwell Brown in his 1930 book,  Washington:  A Not too Serious History.  Whenever Key wanted to meet his lover, he would stand in Lafayette Park within view of her windows and flap his handkerchief as a signal.

On Saturday night, February 26, Mrs. Sickles broke down and confessed everything in writing to her husband  (published in Harper's Magazine, below, right).
The next evening, an unsuspecting Key waved his handkerchief as usual.  It was Mr. Sickles who met Key, not Mrs. S.  

Key, you scoundrel!" Sickles allegedly cried. "You have dishonored my bed–you must die!"  

With that, he pulled out his two-dollar and fired at Key.  He missed the first shot and as Key begged for mercy, he calmly walked up closer and shot him twice again.

As readers likely know, Keys died, Sickles was tried and acquitted of the murder by reason of temporary insanity.  This was the first time such a defense had been admitted in US jurisprudence.

This is not so terribly surprising, as according to the thinking of the times, a man had a right to exact revenge on his wife's seducer--even if she had been a consenting party.

Sickles reunited--at least publicly--with his wife, but was shunned by Washington society forever after.  
He retired in 1861.

Theresa died of TB in 1867.

And Quondam Washington supposes that John A. Gray found another tenant soon thereafter. 

However, none of this answers the fundamental question--what really did become of the lovely Lena Gray?

© Cecily Hilleary, 2010

Photo credits:
Lena Gray, courtesy of the Photography Collections, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Washington Bee, courtesy the Library of Congress and National Endowment for the Humanities.  Chronicling America is sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress as part of the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP).

No comments:

Subscribe to HistoricWashington

Powered by