It's that time of the year when people think about the dark, the scary, and the macabre. As we approach Halloween this year, we're sharing some of the dark stories related to Monticello's history. WARNING: This episode contains stories of violence, death, and suicide.
Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.
Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.
Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.
Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.
Olivia Brown: Every October, people think about the dark, the scary, and the macabre. This year, as we wrap up the month, we're going to share some of the dark stories related to Monticello's history. So today on Mountaintop History, we present, Monticello Macabre.
A warning to all listeners: the content of this episode focuses on some dark and troubling history. Please be aware there will be discussion of death, murder, and suicide. If you do not care to listen, please stop playing this podcast now.
Olivia Brown: The year was 1807 and Thomas Jefferson was amidst his second term as president of the United States of America. On June 25, 1807, James D. Barry sent a four-horned Shetland ram to the White House. It was an unusual animal, seeing as it had two more horns than its counterparts, and in his letter, Barry said, "It has been [my] wish ever since [I] got the ram to give him to some gentlemen who would attend to propagtg. the breed." Just a few days later, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his granddaughter, Ellen Randolph, telling her of his new sheep. He said he now had four different breeds and that he had just received a "round & beautiful animal," speaking of the four-horned ram from Barry. It was at this point that Jefferson, president of the country, sought to breed sheep in Washington, DC. He asked his broker in Washington, Joseph Dougherty, to purchase ewes, and Dougherty said, "I am doubtful of the ewes having lambs by the four-horned ram." Nevertheless by spring of the next year, there were almost 40 sheep grazing in the square in front of the President's House.
The "President's Square," as it was referred to in letters, was a common place for pedestrians to cross in Washington, DC, at this time. People often cut through the area where the sheep were grazing - something the four-horned ram clearly did not care for. On February 15, 1809, William Keough wrote a letter to the President detailing what had happened to him a year prior. He said, "Passing through the President's Square [I] was attacked and severely wounded and bruised by your excellency's ram of which [I] lay ill for five or six weeks under the hands of Doctor Elzey." This was not the ram's only victim, but Keough was the lucky one, as he survived the attack.
Anna Maria Thornton, a friend of Thomas Jefferson, kept a detailed diary throughout her life. She wrote about the ram as well. She said there was "A fine little boy killed by the ram that the president has." The aggressive ram's behavior continued even after Jefferson's overseer Edmund bacon and enslaved wagoner David Hern took the whole flock back to Monticello. At the Virginia plantation, the ram was kept separate from the other sheep, in its own enclosure, but broke out and killed two more of Jefferson's sheep and even one of the lambs that had been bred from the ram in the first place. At this point, Thomas Jefferson took action, and in a letter to John Milledge in 1811, Jefferson wrote that the "abominable animal [...] was so dangerous generally that I was obliged to have him destroyed." The Shetland ram's murderous rampage had finally ended.
Thomas Jefferson's deadly ram was not the only terrifying animal at the President's House in the later years of his second term. In 1807, Captain Zebulon Pike, on his way back East from exploring the Continental Divide and the Arkansas River, sent a pair of grizzly bear cubs to Thomas Jefferson. He wrote that they were "considered by the natives of that country as the most ferocious animals of the continent." This was likely not the first time Jefferson had heard of grizzly bears, as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had encountered them with the Corps of Discovery prior to Pike's expedition. The bears from Pike arrived via New Orleans and Baltimore to Washington, DC, and Jefferson wrote a letter to his granddaughter, Anne Cary Randolph, in November of 1807 saying, "I have received from Capt. Pike a pair of Grisly bears brought from the head of the Arkansa. these are too dangerous & troublesome for me to keep. I shall therefore send them to Peale's Museum."
The Peale he was referring to was naturalist and artist Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia. A few years prior, in 1804, Peale had a live grizzly bear at his museum that he had received from a French trader. He advertised the bear for people to come visit, but it proved too dangerous as it broke out of its chain and cage. It appears Jefferson tried to use different language to convince Peale to take these grizzly bear cubs. While he called them "dangerous & troublesome" to his granddaughter, in his letter to Peale, Jefferson said they were "perfectly gentle" and "appear quite good humored." Despite his first experience with the grizzly bear, Peale agreed and told Jefferson, "This charge I will chearfully undertake." The process of getting them to Peale took a few months, however, and the two grizzly bear cubs, who had outgrown their cages, were said to spend time in enclosures on the lawn of the President's House. They did eventually make it to Philadelphia, and Peale wrote to Jefferson expressing excitement of seeing them grow to full size and perhaps breeding as one of the cubs was male and the other female. The hope was that they would adapt well to captivity as they had been with humans almost since birth, but unfortunately that hope was not reality.
So what did happen to the grizzly bears that had once been on the lawn of the President's House? At Peale's Museum, one of them broke out of its cage, terrorized the Peale family, and made its way to the basement kitchen, where it was eventually shot. The other bear was put down as well, perhaps as a precautionary measure, and both were mounted and put on display in Peale's Museum. Perhaps they were proof that these animals were indeed the most "ferocious animals of the continent," but it assuredly proved that they should never have been expected to live in captivity.
Monticello's dark history does not start and end with the stories of wild animals. Our stories of people starts with a short story with a bit of a dark turn.
In the 1780s, Jefferson, while serving as Foreign Minister to France, traveled around Europe. Before leaving the French port of Le Havre in 1789, Jefferson wrote that he had been "roving thro the neighborhood of this place to try to get a pair of shepherds dogs." The weather was blustery and raining, and Jefferson said he walked ten miles "clambering over the cliffs in quest of the shepherds." What he found next was not what he expected. This long journey did not bring him to the dogs he was seeking, but rather the tragic end of a man's life. In his letter telling the story to William Short, Thomas Jefferson detailed what he saw, and, be aware, the description is quite graphic. He wrote, "On our return we came on the body of a man who had that moment shot himself. His pistol had dropped at his feet, and himself fallen backward without ever moving. The shot had completely separated his whole face from the forehead to the chin and so torn it to atoms that it could not be known. The center of the head was entirely laid bare." He concluded the awful story saying, "This is the only kind of news I have for you." We don't know who the man was who ended his own life, but the story of his death lives on and the writings of Thomas Jefferson.
Our next story goes back to the earlier years of Thomas Jefferson's life. As a child, one of Thomas Jefferson's closest friends was a man named Dabney Carr. They met when they both attended the school of Reverend James Maury, but continued their studies together at the College of William and Mary. Eventually on July 20, 1765, Dabney Carr married Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's sister. Like Jefferson, Carr worked as a lawyer and entered politics, winning a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1771, and again in 1772. In May of 1773, however, tragedy struck the Jefferson and Carr families.
While in Charlottesville Dabney Carr fell ill with "bilious fever," and was treated by Dr. George Gilmer. Gilmer, who treated members of the Jefferson family as well, was unable to combat Carr's illness and he died on May 16, 1773, at the young age of 30 years old. Family tradition says Carr was buried at Shadwell, the plantation of his father-in-law Peter Jefferson, and just down the mountain from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Thomas Jefferson, who had been in Williamsburg, did not make it back to Albemarle County in time for Carr's funeral. Within a week, he returned and immediately set two men at the work of creating a graveyard on the Monticello mountaintop. Earlier in their lives, as younger men, Thomas Jefferson and Dabney Carr used to sit under an oak tree on the mountaintop, reading and having long discussions. They both agreed that someday they wanted to be buried there. Jefferson, who wasn't around when Carr was buried at Shadwell, was unable to tell his family of this promise, so when he returned to Monticello, he was not going to let his friend rest eternally in the wrong place.
Thomas Jefferson had Dabney Carr's body exhumed from Shadwell and reinterred under the promised oak tree in the newly created graveyard. Today, many descendants of Thomas Jefferson, his wife Martha, and his other family members are buried in the same graveyard where Jefferson's remains also rest next to those of his sister and the boyhood friend who married her.
In the final part of today's podcast, we'll delve into something a little different. Part history, part fiction, these stories come from an unpublished manuscript by Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge. While the manuscript itself is undated, the stories written by Ellen Coolidge are reminiscent of her childhood in Virginia and she titled one section "Virginia Legends" and the other "Negro Stories." The "legends" she attributes at times to her personal experiences or those of people she knew, and she says the "stories" were told to her by her "Mammy," likely one of two enslaved nursemaids Critta Colbert or Priscilla Hemmings. This set of "legends" and "stories" tend toward stories with supernatural aspects: demons and "Old Satan," as she said enslaved people called him. Ellen Coolidge wrote this manuscript perhaps with the hope of one day publishing it, and the stories she tells are embellished to become tales of morality while also showing her [00:15:00] own views on race and class.
One of her stories in particular tells of how different people had different interactions with some kind of supernatural being. She called it "Legend of the Old Dominion" or "Legend of Chillis Cliff." This story is one of an area near her home, centered on a wood near the Rivanna River that ran through two tall cliffs. She writes, "Chillis Cliff was a haunted spot - the residence of a Spirit or Wood Demon exceedingly jealous of the interference or even the presence of men within the narrow limits of his little domain." This spirit, which she said went by the name "Chillis," giving the cliffs their name as well, was not malicious and didn't necessarily harm people, but "Few persons cared to go near Chillis Cliff after sunset." She said people "heard strange sounds rising and falling and dying away in the distance, or whispers of low voices seemed to issue from the earth, the rocks or the water." While people did not like to venture through the wood Chillis ruled, it was a known shortcut around the common road, so some still tried to make their way through it.
Ellen Coolidge tells two stories within her "Legends of Chillis Cliff," one of a "gentleman, a friend of mine," presumably a white man of high class, and one of an enslaved man attempting to visit his wife on a neighboring plantation. The two men encountered Chillis in very different ways. Coolidge writes that her friend, the gentleman rode through the wood on his horse and heard "a shrill, clear, not unpleasant cry," and though he was "somewhat startled," he continued on his journey. He again heard the sound, again saw nothing, and again continued through the wood. There was no malice from the spirit, no terror on behalf of the gentleman. The unnamed enslaved man instead did experience that fear. One night when trying to visit his wife on a different plantation, an enslaved man took the shortcut through the wood. Coolidge wrote, "He had always taken the common road, but one winter's evening the ground being covered with snow and he desirous to arrive, he determined to venture on the shortcut, across the Spirit's grounds." Soon after he entered the wood, he heard footsteps behind him and looked back to see a large, white hound following him. Unsure whether it was the Chillis spirit in the form of a hound, or one that may have been employed to catch escaped slaves, the enslaved man ran as fast as he could to his wife's door. He fainted upon his arrival, and when she opened the door she thought her husband was dead. She called for an overseer the next morning, and he checked the wood. He saw the footprints of the man, a far distance apart as he had sprinted as fast as he could, but there were no prints of a hound. No sign of the Chillis. The Chillis sent a specter to the enslaved man, a terrifying hound intended to intimidate him, though the white gentleman was able to make it through the wood unscathed.
The stories Ellen Coolidge wrote are perhaps more for entertainment than they are for telling the history of her life. They tell of spirits and demons, but also of folk tales and lore. Either way, we can consider where the Chillis may loom, and how close to Monticello it might be.
This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.
Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org.