Graveyards can be haunting enough, but Rock Creek Cemetery owns a grave that tops them all.
It’s a 6-foot bronze statue shrouded in mystery. The subject wears a robe that so covers its human form that not only is the visitor unsure of whether it’s a man or a woman, but what the statue’s expression means.
On top of that, no marker reveals the human forms buried beneath this sculpture.
Historian and author Henry Adams, the grandson of President John Quincy Adams, erected this monument for his wife, Marian Hooper “Clover” Adams, who died on Dec. 6, 1885 at the age of 42. He died at age 80 in 1918, and their remains are interred there.
Originally named “Peace of God” by Adams, it was also called “The Mystery of the Hereafter” by the bronze’s sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who reportedly used both male and female models for the sculpture.
The meditative figure reflects Henry Adams’ interest in Eastern mysticism, based on an 1886 tour of Japan after his wife’s death.
Adams friend and architect Stanford White landscaped the granite, pebble and holly tree setting. The bench facing the statue was often occupied by Eleanor Roosevelt, who took comfort in the serene-looking statue. The public came to know it as the Adams Memorial or as it is better known, much to Henry Adams’ reported chagrin, “Grief.”
“It’s a terribly heavy thing, and I think he put it on her grave because he didn’t want her ghost to get out,” says Sarah Booth Conroy, who wrote “Refinements of Love: A Novel About Henry and Clover Adams” (Pantheon, 1993).
Yet, apparently, the ghost is out. Housekeepers at the Hay-Adams Hotel at 16th and H streets, the site of the Adamses’ former home, claim to hear strange noises on the fourth floor.
“Guests have reported that they hear soft crying, not wailing and outrageous sobbing, in the hallways,” says Graciela M. Lewis, the hotel’s director of human resources.
“Our security department at the front desk has had phone calls from guests, and that activity always intensifies around the time of her death, which is the beginning of December.”
Henry and Marian Adams didn’t just throw lavish parties on this site. Here, also, Clover reportedly took her own life by drinking potassium cyanide in a fourth-floor bedroom.
Her suicide was attributed to depression, her father’s death earlier that year, and the possibility that her oft-traveled husband was having an affair.
Mrs. Conroy doesn’t buy the suicide argument.
“She was a woman of considerable talents,” says Mrs. Conroy, “and I think she was always reasonably sure of herself except that she was fool enough to marry him.”
Mrs. Conroy believes that despite his presidential pedigree, Henry Adams married Clover in 1872 for her money.
Indeed, she was the youngest daughter of Dr. Robert William Hooper, a widowed physician and Boston Brahmin.
The witty Mrs. Adams reigned over Washington society with the exclusive salon, “The Five of Hearts,” which included her husband, his friend Clarence King of the U.S. Geological Survey, future secretary of state and former Lincoln secretary John Hay and his wife Clara.
After his wife’s death, Mr. Adams remained quiet about her and even omitted her from his autobiography.
“He didn’t have any money and he really wasn’t interested in women,” claims Mrs. Conroy. John Hay and Henry Adams, Ms. Lewis says with a smile, “were very good friends.”
Mrs. Conroy questions the existence of ghosts at the hotel. The original Adams home on 16th and H streets was torn down in 1927 and became the Hay-Adams a year later.
In his book, “Ghosts: Washington’s Most Famous Ghost Stories” (The Washington Book Trading Co. 1988) John Alexander writes that ghosts were reported at the Adams house within 10 years after Clover’s death.
Visitors to the house reported chills by the fourth-floor bedroom fireplace, where Adams claimed to have found his dead wife.
Mr. Alexander also writes that a Rock Creek Cemetery caretaker said some visitors have seen the “Grief” statue’s eyes “come to life.” The same goes for some Hay-Adams staffers, who claim to have felt hugged by a spirit or hear slammed doors or the rustles of a skirt.
“When I first started here, I didn’t believe it,” says Priscilla Johnson, who has been a hotel housekeeper for two years. “I was in a room, and I thought somebody had called me and I looked everywhere. There was nobody.”
A year ago, she says, Ms. Lewis toured the fourth floor with a skeptical assistant.
“Each time there was something that happened with the radio,” she says, either suddenly turning on or the volume increasing when they entered the room.
“It’s fun to think that there is something larger than just the work day,” Ms. Lewis says. “And also because the stories are so nice. That she’s sort of a sad character looking for a little comfort.
“It’s a very gentle spirit.”