Elizabeth Blake McDowell was born in 1842 in the first frame house built in Medina, in the days when the village was making its transition from log cabins and the hardships of the frontier to clapboard homes and an easier, more civilized way of life.

She died in 1932, a few months shy of her 90th birthday in the grand Victorian home that she and her husband built during the Gilded Age, and where her descendants still live.  As a young woman, she experienced firsthand some of the great events of the mid-nineteenth century –  the Underground Railroad and the Civil War.

Her father was Harrison Gray Blake — lawyer, Congressman, founder of the Old Phoenix Bank, and Medina’s most celebrated citizen. An abolitionist, he was active in the very risky enterprise of giving shelter to runaway slaves and smuggling them to other stations on the Underground Railroad

One of Elizabeth’s most vivid childhood memories was of  seeing slaves in the family home. It has become, of course, the stuff of family legend.  Her great-granddaughter, the late Betsy Whitmore, described the event  in her 1988 reminiscences:

Mrs. Whitmore wrote, “Her [Elizabeth's] father said, ‘Come with me. I want to show you something that will make you hate slavery forever.’

“He took her up into the attic where there were two terror-stricken runaway slaves.  One was almost white, the other black.  Her father showed the back of the black slave.  It was covered with great raw ridges where he had been whipped and where salt had been rubbed as a disinfectant.  It seemed that he had run away once before, been caught, returned to his owner and given a whipping.”

That picture of horror, shown to Elizabeth Blake McDowell on that eerie night, never faded from her memory.

In 1861, Elizabeth and her mother had a brief, but memorable encounter with Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln at the Weddell House — an elegant,  long-gone hotel in downtown Cleveland.  She described the event in a 1932 Plain Dealer interview given three months before her death. Lincoln was on his way to Washington to be inaugurated, and, despite threats of assassination, he stopped in many cities on his journey east.

“Mother and I were on the portico,” Elizabeth recalled. “Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln came down the hotel steps.  He looked around, saw us and lifted his hat and smiled — oh, the sweetest smile.  I’m sure it was to mother and me that he bowed. There was no one else there.

“Then he handed Mrs. Lincoln into the barouche, and Mrs. Lincoln had on the black stockings everyone said she wore.  Ladies were expected to wear white.  And you didn’t see as much of stockings then as you do now.

“His guards got in with them. Then the president turned to us again, lifted up that old stove-pipe hat and waved to us and smiled again.”

Elizabeth’s father, H.G. Blake was serving in Congress when Lincoln was elected and his daughter joined him in Washington. “We had entree to about every affair. I didn’t miss many opportunities,”  she recalled in the Plain Dealer interview. As a result, she was a witness to the resignation of Lincoln’s Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis,  from the U.S. Senate.  (Governor Dennison of Ohio had given her his seat in the gallery of the Capitol.)

She recalled 71 years later that, “Jefferson Davis was a remarkable figure, handsome with a West Point carriage and the manners of a southern aristocrat.”

After Davis gave his speech outlining his reasons for secession, she recalled that he lingered at his desk.

“He rearranged his papers, then put his hands  around the edge of his desk regretfully.  He got up and slowly walked to the door.  Then he came back, patted the desk … as he would an old dog, Then…he walked to the portals.  He paused, then, erect, turned and looked all around at the Senate chambers, at the flag, at the now empty desks, at the gallery, with a look of inexpressible sadness.  His head dropped, he turned on his heel and went out.”

She recalls the atmosphere in wartime Washington as fraught with danger. “My father always went armed,” she recalled in the interview. “All the legislators carried pistols and came close to using them. It was also common for members of Congress to practice pistol shooting. Father considered it necessary. Hardly a man in Congress but practiced at least once a week.”

Elizabeth married Lieutenant R.M. McDowell in 1863. Two years later, when Lincoln was assassinated, Lt. McDowell was stationed near Baltimore, at the railroad aqueduct over which all northern troops and supplies passed. Elizabeth, pregnant with their first child, was living nearby at the old Relay House south of Baltimore.The search for the conspirators in the assassination plot took place in this area, and one of them, George Atzerodt, was captured there.

Lieutenant McDowell was given charge of the prisoner. He ordered the regimental blacksmith to weld Atzerodt in irons and then asked his wife if she wanted to see him.

She declined.

3 Responses to “A Long, Long Life”

  1. Jess Brown Says:

    This was really interesting. I loved reading about the encounter with Mary and Abraham Lincoln in Cleveland.

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