Adele Cutts

Adele Cutts, Mrs. Robert Williams

Adele Cutts
Adele Cutts
(Mrs. Robert Williams)
From portrait by George Peter A. Healy

During the four years that Franklin Pierce presided over the nation so many beautiful women came prominently before the public at the capital that his was called the “beauty administration.” Many were the wives and daughters of men in high official position, but the fame of none exceeded that of the daughter of James Madison Cutts, who held the office of Second Controller of the Treasury.

Born within a stone’s throw of the White House, all her young days centered about it, and how near she came to living there as the wife of a President we may gauge by how near Stephen A. Douglas came to possessing that office. Adele Cutts flourished in that truly golden era before material wealth became a necessary adjunct to a woman’s popularity, when men were distinguished by a greater spirit of gallantry and disinterestedness, and in the days before a belle’s powers at a watering place were rated by the number or size of the trunks she took with her; in a word, in the days when the woman herself was preeminent and the accident of worldly possessions secondary.

It was recently said of a wealthy American girl, who, though she has generously expended much of her large fortune in the endowment of seats of learning and similar public benefactions, has yet in herself none of that magnetism that would entitle her to enrollment among the great belles of her country, “Yes, she is a great belle this summer. She brought thirty trunks, and she dresses six times a day.” At the same resort forty years ago, Adele Cutts, remarkable for the simplicity of her toilettes even among a generation that had no conception whatever of the elaborate costuming of women which marks the close of the century was the most renowned of its belles.

While she derived in the preliminary stages of her social career some prestige from her connection with two of the most illustrious families not only of Virginia but of the entire country, “Washington and Madison,” she attained while yet a very young woman a preeminence by reason of her beauty, the distinction of her bearing, and a genuine loveliness of character, which reflected as much honor upon the somewhat remote relationship as it had bestowed upon her. She was born in the home of her grandfather, Richard Cutts, who, in the days when Maine was part of Massachusetts, had for twelve years represented in the Congress of the United States that district which at this end of the century was for so long a period associated with the name of Thomas B. Reed.

In 1804 Richard Cutts married Anna Payne, the youngest sister of the famous Dolly Payne, who some years before had become the wife of James Madison. Still another sister had married George Steptoe Washington, the nephew of our first President. It was of her sister Anna’s family that Mistress Dolly wrote her lines adapted from John Gilpin’s ride:

“My sister Cutts and Cutts and I and Cutts’s children three
Will fill the coach, so you must ride on horseback after we.”

The home Cutts built for his bride, and where his children and grandchildren were born, was in those early days one of the pretentious houses of the capital. It overlooked Lafayette Square, and it’s beautiful garden, where Addie Cutts played as a little girl, skirted along H street to the end of the block. Cutts was a widower when his son James Madison married Miss Ellen O’Neale, of Maryland, and took her to “Montpelier” to spend their honeymoon days with his aunt and uncle, whose namesake he was. On their return to Washington his bride became the mistress of her father-in-law’s home, where in the following year, 1835, Adele Cutts was born.

In the guise of a little flower-girl she made her first formal appearance at the White House when she was but seven years old, at a children’s fancy ball given there in 1842 during the administration of President Tyler.

She was for the most part educated at Madame Burr’s school, in the city in which she was born. Her wonderful grace of manner, however, was not the result of education; it was the manifestation of a character beautiful by nature and developed amid happy surroundings. An only daughter, she was the close companion of her beautiful and brilliant mother, besides spending much of her time until her fifteenth year with her great-aunt Madison, whose genius had sown the first seeds of social life in the barren wastes of the national capital and drawn together the scattered elements of its subsequent levees and dinner parties. After the death of Madison, finding herself unable to support the solitude of her life at ” Montpelier,” which had been theretofore most complete and happy, she returned to Washington and took up her home in the Cutts house, which now belonged to her and which bears her name to this day, though it has had many other distinguished occupants. Richard Cutts had mortgaged it to Madison, and dying before he had repaid him, the house passed into the possession of Mrs. Madison. There she held a court as brilliant as any ever presided over by an American woman, and Adele Cutts was early familiarized with the greatness of a generation that was already passing away. Webster, Clay, Calhoun, as well as every President of the United States whose term of office fell during her residence in Washington, paid her the tribute of frequent visits, and felt honored by his privilege to do so.

At the time of her death her great-niece was fourteen years old, and already possessed a beauty of the purest Greek type, whose stateliness increased as she advanced towards womanhood. The faultless outline of her profile, the shapeliness of her head, her large, dark eyes, her chestnut hair that showed glints of a golden hue in the sunshine, the creamy tone of her skin, the perfect proportion and development of her tall figure, all combined to make the rare beauty of a personality whose charm was augmented twofold by her own unconsciousness of its rich possessions.

Like many girls of southern proclivities, she spent her summers at that famous old resort that has witnessed the rising and going down of so many social stars, the White Sulphur Springs. There, dressed always in white, with a white kerchief in the mornings folded across her bosom and showing her fair throat, there was about her a freshness and simplicity that suggested her descent from the Quaker Paynes.

The spirit of gallantry has no age limit in the South, and she, like many another girl in the blossom of her youth, received the homage of men of all periods of life. The beautiful Imogene Penn, afterwards Mrs. James Lyons, of Richmond, and whose belleship days were contemporaneous with those of Adele Cutts, encountered the irrepressible Richmond wag, Tom August, one morning as she was returning from the spring-house between two devotees, one of whom was the unsuspected possessor of forty-five, while the other concealed about his person as many as fifty summers. “I thought. Miss Imogene,” said August, bowing profoundly to the trio and availing himself of a wit’s privilege, “that you were just eighteen, but I see you are between forty-five and fifty.”

Some Virginia beaux, who were young then, have treasured up and still relate an anecdote of the manner in which one of Adele Cutts’s elderly admirers lost the only opportunity she ever gave him to propose to her. He came from New Orleans, and was blessed with many good things, including sons and daughters older than Miss Cutts. At a fancy dress ball she appeared completely disguised in the character of a housekeeper, having borrowed the entire costume, including the cap, apron, and bunch of keys at her side, from the house keeper of the hotel. Before anyone had had an opportunity to speculate on her identity, discovering her old admirer among the spectators of the gay and bewildering scene, she approached demurely and asked him if he did not need a housekeeper. He parried the question somewhat playfully, and ended by answering in the negative. She dropped him a courtesy with a grace no housekeeper could emulate, peeping at him with laughing eyes over her mask, and disappeared in the throng of the ballroom.

At a White House reception, early in the winter of 1856, she met Stephen A. Douglas, who was then prominent as a Presidential possibility; he was also one of the Illinois Senators, and his ringing speeches had won him a national fame equal to the intensity of his local popularity. His able defense of Andrew Jackson on the floor of the Senate so gratified and touched the old President that he preserved a copy of the speech, laying it aside as an inheritance for those who should come after him, and endorsing it as a defense of himself and his administration. The one great fault of that administration, in his own estimation, was none of those for which popular opinion of his day condemned him, but that he had not hanged Calhoun. “Douglas,” writes one of his biographers, “had wonderfully magnetic powers, and usually carried his audience with him.” It is small wonder, then, that at the end of a few months of ardent and eloquent debate, with an audience consisting of one young girl, that he should have carried her completely with him.

He was a widower with two sons when he met Adele Cutts, and, like many a less fortunate man, he was instantly impressed with her absolute loveliness. He would go to her direct from the Senate chamber while the whole city was ringing with the fame of his speeches, which she not infrequently heard from a place in the gallery, and throw all his irresistible eloquence into his courtship of her.

In the Democratic Convention of the summer of 1856 Douglas and Buchanan were rival candidates for the Presidential nomination. Pierce, also, though there had been some doubt in the minds of his own towns-men about his making a successful President at all, was seeking the nomination for a second term. “Frank Pierce is all very well up here where he knows every-body and everybody knows Frank Pierce,” said a New Hampshire sage during the summer preceding Pierce’s election, “but when it comes to spreading him out over the whole country, I’m afraid he’ll be mighty thin in some places.” The thinness had evidently been apparent, for while he had the high honor of coming in almost unanimously, as Senator Benton said, he went out with as great a unanimity.

When it became evident that the nomination was not for Douglas, so intensely was he beloved by the people of the West, and particularly by those of his own State, that many a sturdy, hard-featured delegate from that section, to all appearances the embodiment of stoicism, put down his head and wept like a little heart broken child.

On the 20th of November, a few weeks after the election of Buchanan, he was married to Adele Cutts, and it has been said that, of the many beautiful women who witnessed the incoming of Buchanan’s administration at his inaugural ball, Douglas’s wife was the most beautiful.

Already known to the South and the East, her fame now spread westward, and when it was rumored that Douglas would take her to Chicago, where he had maintained a legal residence for some years, the people of the town made ready to receive her with the enthusiasm which she inspired in them then primarily as the young wife of Stephen A. Douglas. She made her first appearance among them at St. Mary’s Church, where many people who had never been in a Catholic church before were found in the congregation that Sunday morning, and far more than the usual external contingent waited patiently on the sidewalk to see her as she came out. When she appeared with her husband at the celebration held on the State line between Illinois and Wisconsin, in honor of the union of the two railroad companies between Chicago and Milwaukee, she was hailed with uproarious cheers. There was that in her very presence which seemed to completely satisfy every man’s ideal of all womanly perfection.

It was in the year of the great contest for the Legislature between Lincoln and Douglas that the people of the West came to know her, however, as she was already known at the East, and to love her with that same loyalty and devotion. Her home in Chicago was always in hotels, sometimes at the Tremont House and again at the Lake View. Many of the men who have made Chicago the queen city she is to-day were then young. Among them were professional men and men full of commercial enterprise, all brainy and ambitious, and a fair number of them Democrats and followers of Douglas. These gathered about her in her parlors or under the trees in the garden overlooking the lake, and though she never entered into any political discussion, the very fact that Douglas possessed such a wife inspired them with renewed ardor for his cause. In her gentle graciousness, infinite tact, and entire unconsciousness of the admiration she everywhere aroused, they felt the full force of her high breeding.

Lincoln and Douglas are so conspicuously identified as political enemies, that few people realize that personally they were friends. Not infrequently they traveled a whole day together only to take the platform that night against each other and to pommel each other, figuratively, out of recognition. Douglas was adroit, however, and Lincoln once said of him that it was difficult to get the best of him in any debate, because his power of bewildering his audience was so great that they never knew when he was worsted. During the summer in which their political enmity first achieved so much prominence, Douglas’s wife went with him through the State winning favor for him in all eyes, even including those of the “ablest Whig rascal in all Springfield, Abe Lincoln.” He liked to sit beside her as they journeyed from place to place and pour some funny story into her attentive ears, or, perhaps, divining the tender sympathy of her true woman’s soul, tell her some incident of his early days, touching off its sorrowful details with a bit of homely philosophy or a stroke of his inexhaustible humor; and as the train pulled into some expectant town, and the two opponents were greeted by factions whose enmity was real, he would say, “Here, Douglas, take your woman,” and so they would part to meet again as foes. As the final victory was with Douglas, he and his wife made that tour of the Southern States that was much in the nature of a triumphal procession, and was a forerunner of his Presidential campaign which shortly followed.

His real home was in Washington, where as a Senator he spent the greater portion of each year. There he built a commodious house, with a ball-room, by no means a frequent adjunct at that time, which witnessed much generous hospitality in those difficult days preceding secession, when a woman like Mrs. Douglas could best hold warring elements in abeyance.

The result of the campaign of the summer of 1860, in which Lincoln and Douglas again confronted each other, this time for the higher prize of the Presidency, precipitated that crisis which at length brought these two lifelong opponents together in defense of the Union. The whole aim of Douglas’s life had been for the Presidency. He had accomplished all else he had ever set his heart upon, and he was so absolutely the idol of the people that it had not seemed possible to him he should fail here. He swallowed the bitterness of his disappointment heroically, however, and was a generous and even a graceful friend to Lincoln.

It is related that, when Lincoln rose to read his inaugural address, he hesitated a moment, uncertain as to what disposition to make of his hat; it was a new, high silk hat, too elegant an acquisition to the mind of one reared in the more than frugal atmosphere of Lincoln’s home to be entrusted to the pine boards of the flag-draped stand in front of him. Douglas, divining the mental process of which Lincoln himself, in the embarrassment of the moment, was scarcely conscious, stepped forward and relieved him of the hat, holding it for him till the conclusion of the address.

During the early days of the conflict between the North and the South, which he had patriotically done his utmost to avert, he aided Lincoln with able counsel, pointing out to him among other things the necessity of securing Fortress Monroe and cautioning him against bringing the troops through Baltimore, prophesying that bloodshed that did occur. But before the conflict had assumed those proportions which it did later in the same year, on the 3d of June, 1861, Douglas’s life closed.

His last hours were spent in Chicago among the people he had so ably represented. There, with his wife beside him, and her mother and brother, James Madison Cutts, who was his private secretary, nearby, and with his keen, dark eyes upon her face, as if he would forever fix upon his spirit its beautiful lineaments, and his hand in hers, his mind retaining all its strength and clearness till the end, he uttered his last memorable words. She had asked him if he had any message to send to his sons, and he replied, “Tell them to obey the laws of the land and to support the Constitution of the United States.”

Generous even to the point of recklessness, he died poor. Subscriptions were immediately begun among his friends towards a fund for his widow. She declined, however, to receive it, and begged that the sum thus raised be devoted to the erection of a monument to Douglas’s memory.

She returned to Washington and lived quietly for some years in the first home of her married life, taking no part in the social world whose magnet she had been for so many seasons. But she was not forgotten; and when she again, after four years of seclusion, resumed her place in its midst, her reappearance brought up innumerable memories of her earlier days, of her conquest of the “Little Giant,” and of her queenly part in his political campaigns.

She was the guest of honor at a dinner given in the early winter of 1865, just as the war drew to its close, by Miss Harris, whose name lives in history in a very different connection: she was sitting beside Lincoln in his box at the theater on the night he was shot. Among the guests bidden to meet Mrs. Douglas was Captain, afterwards General, Robert Williams, one of the handsomest and most gallant officers of the army, and a member of a well-established family of Culpeper County, Virginia. Mrs. Douglas was already known to him by fame, and suspecting her to be possessed of all the caprices of a spoiled beauty, he had no desire whatever to meet her, though he accepted Miss Harris’s invitation for the sake of the pleasure he would otherwise derive from her hospitality. After he had been presented to Mrs. Douglas, however, whatever enjoyment he had anticipated from meeting others there passed from his mind. Combined with a gentle dignity, there was about her all the sweet simplicity of a young girl, and nothing that ever so remotely suggested any consciousness of a fame that was as wide as her country. He followed her with all the earnestness with which he had meant to avoid her, and in January, 1866, she again became a bride.

The chronicle of the most magnificent ball ever given, not only in Washington, but probably in the country, and which occurred shortly after her marriage to General Williams, hands her name and that of Kate Chase Sprague down to fame as the two most beautiful women who participated in the brilliant event. It was given by the French minister. Count de Moutholon, by order of his Emperor, in honor of the officers of the French fleet then anchored at Annapolis.

She gradually, however, abdicated her social queen ship for a crown she wore with no less grace, that of a most noble motherhood.

Wedded to an army man, her life led her from post to post, and the greater part of her days from that time was spent in the West.

The little life of the only child of her first marriage covered but a few months. The six children of her second marriage, however, are all living and grown to manhood and womanhood, two of her sons being in the military service of their country.

The last few years of her life were passed in Washington, where her husband held the office of Adjutant-General until his retirement from the service. There her eldest daughter was married, in January, 1899, to Lieutenant John Bryson Patton, and there also, on the 26th of the same month, her own life terminated. Time had touched her lightly, as if he would not rob her of a loveliness that had been as much a charm to women as to men. Asked once the secret of her youthful appearance, she blushed like a girl and confessed that she was happy, and that therein must lie the solution.

It is difficult to analyze the qualities of that power of fascination which some women have exercised over the world. They are as varied as the individuality of the women to whom they have been entrusted. In Adele Cutts, however, they seem to have emanated from a singular beauty of soul, a species of primal innocence that proclaimed itself at once to the sense of every beholder and preserved her alike from any touch of vanity or worldliness.

To those who knew her she seemed little changed as the years rolled on, because to her classic beauty of form was added an indestructible quality which was a beauty of the spirit.

Cutts, Douglas, Williams,


Peacock, Virginia Tatnal. Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century. K. B. Lippincott Company. 1901.

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