This article originally appeared on Lapham’s Quarterly‘s Roundtable blog on November 29, 2017. Click here to read the full story.
Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett moved to the United States to lay low. Although some have suggested they left England to avoid scandal—Margaret was both Harman’s wife and his niece—their flight had more to do with Harman’s political allegiances. Just a short time after receiving his inheritance from his wealthy aristocratic parents, Harman became a financial backer and secretary for the Society of United Irishmen, a group seeking to free Ireland from British rule. When British authorities began locking up its leaders and trying them for sedition, Harman sold the family estate and, in the spring of 1796, sailed from Europe with hopes of starting over.
The Blennerhassetts had the means to make nearly any kind of life they wanted. Harman sold his estate for £28,000, about $4.5 million today. But the couple wanted a secluded home, away from the East Coast’s major cities. They found one: a 169-acre plot on an island in the Ohio River, just south of modern-day Parkersburg, West Virginia. It would have made a perfect hideaway if not for the Blennerhassetts’ conspicuous tastes.
At a time when most nearby structures would have been built from logs, the couple set about constructing a mansion with a two-and-a-half-story main house and curving Palladian breezeways, all painted in brilliant white. They seated the home on the island’s highest point and had workers cut down trees along the water’s edge to create an unobstructed view. Passing boats couldn’t help but notice their miniature Mount Vernon.
Socialites from nearby Marietta, Ohio, and as far away as Pittsburgh flocked to what came to be known as Blennerhassett Island for dances, dinners, concerts, and readings. Everyone in the valley soon knew about Harman, the accomplished musician, amateur physician and scientist, lawyer, bibliophile, and businessman. He became known for his loyalty, kindness, and near-blindness. He was so myopic that he read with his hooked nose nearly touching the page and, when he went bird hunting, required assistance aiming his gun.
Margaret drew even more attention. She was tall and thin with fair skin, blue eyes, and a quick mind. She recited Shakespeare, read some French, was a talented cook and seamstress, and enjoyed dancing and card games. She wore high-waisted empire dresses around the house but, when riding her favorite horse, Robin, donned a scarlet habit with gold buttons, gloves, leather boots, and a white beaver fur hat with ostrich feathers.
The couple’s outsize personalities won them a prominent place among the frontier bourgeois in Marietta, Ohio, and nearby Wood County, Virginia. But that notoriety also brought trouble to their door.
One day in the spring of 1805, Aaron Burr’s boat docked at Blennerhassett Island.