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My Research Adventures

Serendipity in Leesburg

Episcopal Cemetery, Leesburg, VA.  Image taken by Alison Herring

A headstone peeking out in a photo solved a gossipy mystery from 1848. A "Mr. Benedict" was a regular visitor to Leesburg, and it was known that he was courting a local woman. However, it was not clear which one! Was it Mrs. Henderson or Mrs. Michie? Both were widows, which has made them difficult to identify since I had neither their first names nor their maiden names. The mystery played out while Rebecca and Minna Powell were visiting family in Gloucester County for several months. The rest of the family wrote to them regularly to fill them in on Leesburg news.

Mr. Benedict makes a grand entrance into the Powell letters with this account from Hattie Powell dated October 1848:

"Sunday morning as I came from church I saw a gentleman coming up the street with a short cloak all faced up with velvet and as he approached to my surprise I found it was Mr. Benedict."

A month later Mrs. Powell has identified the mystery romance:

"Mr. Benedict has been up since I wrote & there is some doubt now whether it is Mrs. Michie or Mrs. Henderson that he is in love with."

By December, the Powells have taken different sides as described by Hattie:

"...Mr. Benedict was here for a little while for the first time since he came; only think he came up on Saturday and this is Wednesday; his excuse is that he has not had time, but he has found time to go to Mrs. Michie’s twice that I have heard of and I don’t know how much oftener. Mother has been looking over me and says she thinks it is Mrs. Henderson not Mrs. Michie he goes to see."

Why was this hard? Wouldn't it be obvious who he visits most? In January of 1849, Mrs. Powell confirmed her suspicions that Mrs. Henderson was his object, but she was unsure of how Mrs. Henderson felt. Rebecca responded wondering why Mr. Benedict would choose Mrs. Henderson over Mrs. Michie, which was when Mr. Powell entered the drama with this response:

"Mr. Benedict was up. You ask what he did – He made decided demonstrations [and] let it be known pretty distinctly what he came for & for whom & left the lady to ponder on it. Why was it not Mrs. Michie because Mr. Benedict thought Mrs. Henderson would be more in keeping with the proposed arrangement, & they would best promote each other’s happiness."

The letters in March of 1849 continued to lack certainty. Then in April Hattie threw this curve ball:

"... Mrs. Michie and Mrs. Henderson have been out at Mr. Douglas's so I have had no one to walk with me. There is a report in town that Mr. Benedict is going to Chile for four years, I do not know how true it is but I do not think it can be so myself, and Uncle William says he does not think it is true. He went away looking very smiling when he was here last, and I do not know what could have happened since to break it off."

That was the last entry related to Mr. Benedict because Rebecca and Minna returned to Leesburg. At this point I was unable to identify Mr. Benedict, Mrs. Henderson, or Mrs. Michie to solve the mystery.

In May of 2017, I went to Leesburg for research and visited the old Episcopal cemetery. I photographed many headstones where I recognized the names and was struck by the headstone of Miss Rebecca Gray (shown here and above). She appears in the Powell letters often and impressed me by being the head of a large household of sisters, brothers, and a group of young nephews as a single woman. And despite being the head of a chaotic household, she was an active member of the Leesburg community. Her headstone is equally striking in the old cemetery where it stands tall and clear in contrast to most of the headstones that are fading with time.

Episcopal Cemetery, Leesburg, VA.  Image taken by Alison Herring

When I returned home, I organized my research and studied the photographs. That's when the headstone in the background caught my eye - BENEDICT. The headstone belongs to a William B. Benedict and his wife Henrietta Gray. Could Henrietta be Mrs. Michie or Mrs. Henderson? Could one of these ladies have had the maiden name Gray? Yes! When I researched the names, I learned that Mr. Benedict married Henrietta Gray Henderson in July of 1849. So, it was Mrs. Henderson for the win! Henrietta was Rebecca Gray's sister and was living with her as a widow. The two women also had a third widowed sister living with them: a Mrs. Lalla Gray Michie. Since both Mrs. Michie and Mrs. Henderson lived in the same household, it would have been difficult for the residents to know which one Mr. Benedict courted. Mystery solved!


Photographs taken by Alison Herring in May of 2017.

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