A Tragic Ending To Bessie Hillyer’s Love Story (1888)

Some time ago I introduced you to the story of an alleged haunted house in Washington, D.C., a dwelling that currently stands as the Cosmos Club. Mary Townsend, a wealthy and superstitious woman, moved to D.C. with her husband Richard. They planned to build a grand mansion on property once owned by Judge Curtis J. Hillyer but construction was halted after Mary remembered a witch’s prophecy from her childhood.

The main idea of the warning was that if Mary ever lived under a new roof, she would meet her death within a year. Richard suggested that the incorporation of the Hillyer roof and the framework of the existing building into their new mansion, a compromise enough to satisfy his bride.

Their dream home was completed by 1901, but Richard would only enjoy it for a short period of time. In 1902 he fell from a horse and fractured his skull.

Bessie Hillyer, published in The Princeton Union, 24 Feb. 1898

By 1912 servants reported seeing strange things in the home such as a sad female form dressed in gray on a staircase and a ghostly marching band “playing” a washboard, a phone, a jug, and a drum.Originally Mrs. Townsend dismissed the paranormal activity until she saw the parade of spirits for herself. After looking into the Hillyer’s family history she learned of a tragedy associated with the roof and became a believer. The Salt Lake Tribune printed that stories of ghosts in the Hillyer home were nothing new, but that information was withheld from the Townsends when they purchased the property.

I wondered why a 19-year-old socialite would end her own life via rat poison so I combed the old newspapers. I hoped to find additional accounts of spookical sightings following Bessie’s death on April 12, 1888 but so far those have eluded me.

What I did find were reports of Bessie’s suicide, which made papers across the nation due to her social standing and her involvement in the love triangle which likely set her untimely demise into motion.

She was set to marry W.L. Trenholm, whose father was comptroller of the currency, on February 3, 1888 but instead eloped with twenty-year-old DeGrassie (“Grassie”) Bulkley in December 1887. The secret nuptials took place in Baltimore; however when they returned to Washington they separated with Bessie returning to her father’s home. (Why they decided to live separately remains a mystery.)

The New York National Police Gazette reported that Bessie’s father immediately “locked his truant daughter in her room and refused to allow her husband to see her.” The disapproving father sought to dissolve the union through annulment or divorce, asserting that his daughter had been coerced or tricked into marriage and the groom underage. The first allegation was soon dismissed when officials present at the ceremony saw no signs that either party was there against their will.

On December 30 Mr. Hillyer, Bessie, DeGrassie and Senator Stewart (a Hillyer family friend) met at H.C. Cady’s office where the young bride was asked to pick between her husband and Mr. Trenholm. She chose DeGrassie and the pair lived together as a married couple in a hotel and then a private home for less than two weeks.

When she returned home this time she was alone. The Newberry Herald and News printed that it was at that time official divorce proceedings began but the particulars of the separation were unknown.

Doctors were called to the Hillyer home on the morning of Wednesday, April 11 after Bessie had “taken very ill.” Despite pumping her stomach to remove the poison and constant medical attention she died on Thursday around 9:00.

Grassie, totally shocked by the news, blamed Judge Hillyer for his estranged wife’s suicide.

New Ulm Weekly Review 25 April 1888
New Ulm Weekly Review 25 April 1888

Bessie was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

I held off on publishing this entry for over a year, hoping to dig up additional information about the alleged hauntings at the Cosmos Club.

While I didn’t fulfill the original goal I gained a tiny bit of insight into the circumstances surrounding a conflicted young woman’s death.

I noticed that the papers described Bessie and/or her behavior as “rash” or “fickle” but similar adjectives weren’t used for involved males. While blanket negative generalizations of women were common in historic newspapers it doesn’t make them any easier to swallow.

Additional Source Articles:

St. Paul Daily Globe, 22 Dec. 1887
The Evening Bulletin 28 Jan. 1888
Sacramento Daily Record-Union 27 Jan. 1888
The West Tennessee Star 20 April 1888
The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer 16 April 1888
The Anderson Intelligencer 19 April 1888

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