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by Chris Feeney
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was featured in a recent American History Moment by the Jauflione Chapter of the NSDAR, published in the Memphis Democrat. The historical piece on the famous labor organizer from the late 1800s reminded a local resident of her family’s connection to a similarly named Mary Harris made infamous during the same times by a murder trial in Washington D.C.
“In last week’s issue, American History Moment, the story of Mary Harris was told. I found the article interesting because of an old letter I have, written to my great-grandmother, Lavinnia Noble Grimes,” said Scotland County resident Joyce Harvey. “She was adopted by Senator and Mrs. James W. Grimes, U.S Senator from IA and former governor of IA. The Grimes’ adopted my great-grandmother after her parents died of cholera, all happening in the Mary Harris era.”
In the letter to Harvey’s ancestor, Mrs. Grimes writes from Washington D.C. to her adopted daughter Vinnie about the Mary Harris case.
“The old letter was saved by the generations before me,” said Harvey. “I thought your readers might find the enclosed interesting, as I find the American History Moment interesting when reading your paper.”
Washington Feb. 6th, 1865
My Dear Vinnie
I do not hear from you very often do I? I send you a paper tonight containing an account of the dreadful event which took place here last week, namely, the murder of Mr. Burroughs by Mary Harris, a girl whom you have seen many times in Burlington. She is now in jail here but a little distance from the place where we board, we see the building from our windows.
Mr. Grimes has been to see her a few times and in one of his visits I accompanied him. She is very glad to see Mr. Grimes and he and I feel great pity for her.
Her trial will commence the first Monday in March. It is distressing to think of this young woman having committed such a crime – for though her happiness may have been destroyed by the conduct of Mr. Burroughs, she could have borne with such a loss infinity better than with this consciousness of having committed a great crime. This account must embitter her whole life, however kind people may be to her. I do not think I have ever felt so sorry for anyone before. How much we need the prayer “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”.
Almost everybody expresses sympathy and pity for this poor girl. There are a few ladies here who are permitted to visit her and who see that she has what is needed for her comfort, or that she does not suffer for anything. The jailor has given her the most comfortable room in the jail though there is little of comfort about it, bare walls, cold, bare floor, a table, two or three chairs and a cot-bed. The last was furnished by some kind lady and is, I suppose, better than could be furnished in the jail.
Mary Harris was always very healthy looking when I saw her in Burlington, had a good deal of color, but she is pale now and slender, looks like one who has suffered.
Write me soon. I hope you are very happy in N.H. It will be but a few weeks now before we shall see you.
Heard from John Walker a few days since. He is with the fleet in Cape Fear River, and likes his vessel.
With love to Sarah, and I hope soon to hear from you.
Your mother E.S. Grimes
The letter references the story of Mary Harris, a poor hat maker from Burlington, IA who fell in love with Adoniram J. Burroughs. Her suitor wrote her many love letters after moving to Chicago in pursuit of work. Eventually, when she turned 18, she followed him to Chicago, IL Work then took Burroughs to Washington D.C. where he became an officer in the United States Treasury Department. The love letters continued for a time before Harris ultimately learned that Burroughs had wed another woman. She traveled to Washington D.C. and on January 31, 1865, shot and killed Burroughs outside his workplace.
The case went to trial in July of 1965, and made the front page of the New York Times and other national media outlets, before Harris was eventually found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity brought on by her heartbreak.
Her story is featured in a book by A. Cheree Carlson entitled The Crimes of Womanhood.
The John Walker referenced in the letter was John Grimes Walker, who was an admiral in the United States Navy, serving during the Civil War. He also served as the assistant superintendent of the Naval Academy and after his retirement served as president of the Nicaragua Canal Commission that began the work to identify possible canal routes across Central America.