Mary Catherine <I>Hellen</I> Adams

Mary Catherine Hellen Adams

Washington, District of Columbia, District Of Columbia, USA
Death 31 Aug 1870 (aged 63)
Bethlehem, Grafton County, New Hampshire, USA
Burial Quincy, Norfolk County, Massachusetts, USA
Memorial ID 120987389 · View Source
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Mary Catherine Hellen was the fourth child and only surviving daughter of Walter Hellen Jr. and his first wife Ann “Nancy” Johnson. She was born in the Georgetown home of her parents where she continued to live with her stepmother, and aunt, Adelaide Johnson Hellen, after her father’s death in 1815. In Nov of 1817 at age eleven, the year her oldest aunt, Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, and her husband John Quincy Adams returned from Europe, she was taken in by them. She would continue to live with the Adams family in either Washington or Quincy, MA, also traveling frequently with Louisa, through her marriage and afterwards until both Adams' respective deaths.

Louisa Adams expressed her frustration with her niece, and for that matter, at times with all the Hellen siblings, in her diaries, and her attempts to mold them as she thought fit. In Mary’s case, noted as spoiled, unruly, and “a little wild”, as one example, Louisa had to remove her from school almost as soon as she had been enrolled, unsatisfied with her progress, thereafter tutoring her at home. Her frustration with Mary would continue into her marriage with her second son, John.

Mary married her first cousin, John Adams II in in a small ceremony in the “President’s House” in the evening of February 28, 1828, not the first marriage in the White House, but the first (and only) marriage performed there of a son of a seating president. The much later newspaper account, attached, notes the date incorrectly. Her two brothers, Johnson and Thomas, served as groomsmen for John, his brothers refusing to attend. Mary had had previous “flirtations” with John’s brothers, older George and younger Charles, and had actually been engaged to George at one time, but, per detailed biographies of the Adams family, John set about to “steal” Mary away in Washington while George was attending Harvard, perhaps without too much resistance on Mary’s part. Louisa Adams was not supportive of the marriage, but felt the two young lovers “needed the benefit of marriage”. Their first daughter, Mary Louisa, was born just over nine months later.

An interesting aside to the marriage is that on that just three days earlier, on the 25th, Mary freed her “negro girl”, Rachel Clark, perhaps in part as a token towards her now to be father-in-law, President John Quincy Adams, reflecting his antislavery stance. The document of manumission was witnessed by her older brother, Johnson Hellen, who continued to own slaves himself, and actually “leased” one servant to his uncle, President Adams, in another, odd, footnote.

Using a portion of the inheritance from her father, Mary had a home built in Washington for her family just north of the White House at 1601 Eye Street, John at that time continuing to work for his father there, later running (unsuccessfully) a flour mill on Rock Creek also owned by his father as an investment, purchased from a Johnson in-law, Louisa's uncle, Roger. She would continue to own that home, and reside there, or with the Adamses at their nearby F Street home, for most of the rest of her life up until her death. It no longer survives today.

She and John’s second daughter, Georgianna Frances “Fanny” Adams, was born in 1830, she then in Quincy with her in-laws, while John had remained in Washington.

John died of alcoholism related health issues in Washington in 1834, noted as acerbated by the apparent alcoholism related suicide of his older brother George in 1829, having drowned after jumping (falling?) from the steamer Benjamin Franklin in Long Island Sound. Her younger brother, Thomas Johnson Hellen, had died at only age twenty-four, the year before, and her daughter, Georgianna, died in Quincy at only age nine, in 1839.

In his diary entry, Charles Francis Adams, noted her in her youth as with "bright brown hair, hazel eyes, and radiant complexion", enchanting both him and his brothers. By 1839, with an unhappy marriage, childbirth, now a widow, and other family loss, she was noted as no longer vivacious and aged far beyond her years (thirty-three).

The attached portrait, an approximate thirty-five year old b/w copy of the original, is noted both courtesy of and as from the personal collection of Mary Catherine’s 2nd great granddaughter, the late Elinor Doolittle Johnston (Mrs. Waldo C M Johnston), as reproduced in the book “Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family”, by Paul C. Nagel, Harvard University Press, 1983. It has been posted here, as credited, under terms of the Fair Use Doctrine. No medium information was provided, the artist unknown, but the original dated to about the time of her marriage in 1828. The quality of the likeness cannot now be judged, but it, perhaps curiously, does not appear similar to the confirmed attached silhouette, dated not long after. The original appears to have remained in the family and this the only known photographic copy, no other versions now on the MA Historical Society website or elsewhere to my knowledge.

Much to her credit, historians note her remaining close to John and Louisa Adams, and caring for them until their respective deaths in 1848 and 1852. After many years, with time, shared tragedy, and Mary’s maturity, per several scholars, she finally became the much-loved surrogate daughter that John and Louisa never had. When John Quincy returned to the senate following his presidency, Mary first took them into her Washington home and lived with them all of their remaining years. The records are unclear, but it appears she also remained close to her step-mother and aunt, Adelaide Hellen, who also remained in Washington throughout her life, and interestingly, also maintained a relationship with Charles Adams who appears to have managed her inheritance for her.

In 1859, she was living with her daughter’s family in Utica City, NY, when Mary Louisa died at Rockaway Point, NY. Afterwards, sadly, asked to leave at some point by her son-in-law, she moved back to her home in Washington, leaving her two grandchildren to be raised by him. The extent of her relationship with them afterwards cannot be confirmed by this author.

In her last years, Mary Catherine’s surviving brother-in-law, cousin, and purported onetime lover, Charles Adams, the longest lived of the Adams siblings and the most stable, then long "well" married and successful, sent her a distribution from her inheritance every three months, and provided what consolation he could.

Her will has been found, written in Washington on March 27, 1869, signed "Mary C Adams". The microfilm copy of the original is so badly faded, however, as to be largely illegible, so cannot provide any additional information.

She died in Bethlehem, NH in 1870 having survived all her siblings, her husband, both daughters, and most near family, survived by primarily her two grandchildren. The reason for her being in New Hampshire was most likely simply choosing to spend a summer in the "healthful air" of the White Mountains of New England and escape the heat and humidity of Washington, Bethlehem already a noted resort with several hotels and with trains from both New York and Boston. Having spent many summers at the Adams home in Quincy from her childhood onward, this may not have been her first visit to that area.

Mary Catherine, John, and Georgianna are buried in Hancock Cemetery, although it is unclear at this time if Mary and Georgianna are interred within the Adams vault as is John.

There is a thread of sadness and loss, disappointment, and some intrigue running through the lives of the Hellen, Johnson, and Adams families, all interconnected for generations, some additional details of which may be found in the links to her parents, siblings, husband, and in-laws.

Allan Garner - Rev: Aug 21, 2019

A note on sources: There are numerous detailed biographies of primarily the Adams family members and Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, including Nagel's book, as noted, based on historic records, professional research, and the surviving correspondence and diaries of various family members, including those of Charles Francis Adams (available online from the Massachusetts Historical Society). As the Hellens and Johnsons were tied so closely to that family, much information is included on them in those accounts and this biography based in part on those sources.

Family Members

Siblings Half Siblings
Gravesite Details Sharing a plot with her husband, John, and daughter, Georgianna.


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  • Maintained by: Allan Garner
  • Originally Created by: B. Loor
  • Added: 30 Nov 2013
  • Find A Grave Memorial 120987389
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Mary Catherine Hellen Adams (10 Sep 1806–31 Aug 1870), Find A Grave Memorial no. 120987389, citing Hancock Cemetery, Quincy, Norfolk County, Massachusetts, USA ; Maintained by Allan Garner (contributor 49071644) .