The Suicide of Clover Adams

Cora Wandel

Washington, D.C., United States

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Artist's Description

This heavily cloaked person is moments from death. She just drank potassium cyanide and her eyes have closed and soon her arm will drop and she will slump over and be dead. This famous sculpture is at the grave of Clover Adams, a prominent member of high society in Washington, D.C. who committed suicide in 1885.

Clover was married to American writer Henry Adams. Their home was across the street from the White House on Lafayette Square and their door was open to everyone, whether they were politicians such as senators and congressmen, or artists and intellectuals of meager means. Clover was an artist in her own right; she was a photographer in the early days of the profession, and is generally regarded as the first successful female photographer.

Clover was known for her hospitable and gregarious nature. She was nice to everyone, and her wit and clever mind provided great entertainment at social gatherings. She was also a fierce intellectual who had studied in Cambridge at the prestigious Elizabeth Agassiz Girl’s School. But there was something terribly wrong with Clover, which was evident with her wild mood swings that would leave her void of energy for days or weeks, at which times she would take to her bed and be inconsolable by anyone. It was well known that Clover came from a suicidal family in which both of her siblings killed themselves, and as a child she was present when her aunt committed suicide by taking arsenic. When Henry Adams told his brother that he intended to marry Clover, the brother reportedly said to him, “Heavens! No! They’re all crazy as coots! She’ll kill herself just like her aunt!”

The person that Clover was closest to was her father and she confided in him about everything. He was there for Clover when her mother died when she was a child, and when her aunt and siblings died. Clover adored her father and when he died unexpectedly she sank into overwhelming depression and was confined to her bed for several weeks. On a Sunday morning a month after his death, Clover seemed reasonably well and had breakfast downstairs in the dining room with her husband. After the meal she excused herself, went to her lab for photography fluid, then went to her bedroom and drank the lethal liquid which contained potassium cyanide and died lying before her fireplace.

Henry Adams never wrote of his wife’s death, or talked about it publicly. He went through their home and tore up every picture of her, and destroyed all of the photographs she had taken, which is why only a few of her esteemed photographs exists today. This behavior after her death puzzled people, but Adams never explained himself to anyone. He did, however, make a very bold statement with his commission of the premier American sculptor of the time, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to create a memorial for his wife that would be placed at her grave site. The sculpture, known simply as “The Adams Memorial”, has become one of the most famous grave sculptures in America, and is regarded by many as Saint-Gaudens’ finest work. The image he created of a person somewhere between life and death is haunting to behold. (Saint-Gaudens had his own convoluted name for the sculpture, which his followers have shortened to “Grief”, but I prefer “The Adams Memorial”, the name Henry Adams wanted the work to be known as.)

Today beneath this sculpture rests not only the body of Clover Adams, but that of her husband, Henry Adams, as well. In a display of his wicked sense of humor, shortly before his death Henry Adams chose to have the grave site surrounded by hemlock trees. Hemlock, poison, his wife’s suicide by poison, to me it is one of the most interesting facts about this famous grave site. If you wish to pay Clover and Henry a visit, they are buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Artwork Comments

  • Otto Danby II
  • Cora Wandel
  • Dave Godden
  • Cora Wandel
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