Sleazy Seducer or Slave Savior?
Pittsburgh likes to tell a romantic, shocking tale about one of its wealthy young heiresses. It’s been telling the story for 174 years. The story is mostly wrong.
Lurid speculation in newspaper accounts of 1842 get passed off as accurate history.
I refer to the elopement of Mary Croghan and Edward W.H. Schenley.
You know the name from Schenley Park, the former Schenley High School, etc.
In the story, Mary is only 14 years old at a Staten Island boarding school. Sometimes she is 13 or perhaps 15. What happens?
Schenley, a dashing English captain, a hero of the Napoleonic Wars, a relative of the school owners, lurks about because he is AWOL.
Despite being called dashing, he is 43 years old. So that makes him creepy. He preys on innocent rich girls.
Mary agrees to secretly marry him and run off to England.
Wealthy dad in Pittsburgh gets upset and local reporters cover it.
In reality, Mary was nearly 16. She was known throughout her adult life as a clear-minded woman of good judgment. It seems, even at 16 she knew what she was doing.
Schenley was not a cad. Anything but.
In fact, British documents now online reveal a different Schenley. He was a tireless hero to thousands of kidnapped Africans enslaved in the Caribbean. His voice comes through in hundreds of dispatches:
” With reference to the barbarous state of the criminal law in Surinam, alluded to in my Despatch of June 13, 1843, I beg leave to state, that at this moment there is passing my windows a most frightful spectacle, confirmatory of its severity. Seven negroes, who were detected in some paltry theft of sugar from on board a punt (boat), have been taken, by sentence of the Court, to the public gallows, and there “Spanish bucked,” or flogged on their naked posteriors and thighs, with freshly cut tamarind rods, until not a vestige of whole flesh can be discovered; one mass of clotted blood presenting itself to view, as they lie chained in a mule cart upon their faces, and proceeding to the prison in the fort, for the purpose of being heavily ironed, as soon as they revive from the inanition (exhaustion) caused by the severity of the flogging.”
Schenley wrote that to the Earl of Aberdeen, who sent him to Suriname to obtain the release of British subjects kidnapped in African colonies and then enslaved by Dutch planters despite a treaty with the Netherlands.
Suriname was long notorious for barbaric treatment of slaves. He was familiar with a privileged life in places like Downton Abbey. Schenley went anyway.
Here in Pittsburgh, he was referred to as Capt. Schenley. Still is. That title better fits a seducer.
In England, he is known as a government attorney and judge. In fact, he sold his captain’s commission before Pittsburghers ever heard of him.
Schenley’s passionate dispatches from Suriname in 1842, the same year he eloped, indicate he likely wowed Mary with his concern for the brutal plight of African slaves.
Pittsburgh newspapers of the time and historic reports now assume he impressed the girls with his battlefield exploits.
Wikipedia glibly states Schenley eloped twice before, as if he were a serial seducer of young girls.
He was indeed married twice before. Both wives died.
In an apologetic letter to Mary’s father, William Croghan, Schenley suggests he talk to the parents of his dead wives to vouch for his good character. This letter and the ones that follow were donated to Pitt’s Darlington Library and published in 1964.
Dear Sir, Previous to your receiving this letter from the hands of my friend Mr. Henry Delafield, he will have disclosed, verbally, to you the event which has called it forth; I shall therefore briefly but solemnly assure you that I have used no undue means or arguments to induce your very dear daughter to become my wife; that I have placed every circumstance of my life before her; and that her resolution to unite herself to me has been of upwards of a year standing ;
Not having experienced the honor of an intimate acquaintance with you, I must beg to refer you for a further knowledge of my general character and conduct as a son and husband, 1st to Mrs. Inglis whose daughter was my first wife, and who has known me thru good and evil fortune for nearly 20 years. —2ndIy to Sir William and Lady Pole of Shute House Devonshire, under whose care my only child, their grandaughter resides,and to whose paternal care it is my intention at once to place my Wife.
. . . I am by no means vain enough to suppose that any opinion, however favorable, can at once reconcile you to the disposal of your daughter’s affections and hand without your knowledge and sanction, but it is a duty I owe to myself as well as to you to prove that I am worthy of her and to offer it as the best place in my power for the wounded feelings and temporary bereavement I have occasioned you.
I refer you to herself for the feelings that have dictated this step on her part; and on that subject will merely remark that they can have been of no ordinary or sudden nature. Whom induced her to unite with me in deceiving a Parent to whom She is most filially attached; and the family from whose care and kindness she has experienced so much benefit and happiness.
In conclusion, my dear Sir, permit me to assure you that my life —shall be devoted to cherish, and render her happy. Should circumstances admit of it, nothing could give us so much pleasure as your immediately joining us in England where I can safely promise you a hearty welcome from the Pole family and every connection I possess.
Delafield also wrote a letter reporting on his investigation into the matter, and vouching for his friend.
. . . I feel it right to add that in this, like similar cases there are many rumours in circulation prejudicial to Mr Schenley, which there is a disposition to magnify by the wonder-loving part of the community — I allude to the rumours concerning his age, habits, & appearance. I can assure you that this is chiefly idle gossip, that Mr. S is not so old as to feel the infirmities of age, although his health & constitution may be im- paired by a residence in the West Indies. As to his pecuniary means, I can say nothing further of my own knowledge than that his expenditures have been liberal & in accordance with his position in society and that my merchantile House has for a long time been his Banker in this City and have sold his Bill for his Salary drawn on the Foreign office, London, which have always been duly honored. He has never indulged in extravagancies to my knowledge, nor do I believe in his being embarrassed by debt as it is now said by some here. On the contrary I know of some of his charities and friendly acts that are entirely at variance with these idle stories.
Mary, it seems, did not agree with Schenley’s initial plans to keep her with the Pole family on the large English estate while he attended to freeing slaves in Suriname. She wrote to her father from the tropics:
My dearest Father: I can no longer be patient; Seven months have I been away from home & have but one letter from my dear father; I have prayed to be contented & say “It is all for the best,” No letter; — oh pray tell me, why will you not write to me? You may be ill & I not know, you may be well & enjoying yourself & not thinking of coming near me your only and devoted child — If I have done wrong my dear, dearest Father forgive, I am wretched for what I have done to you & the only manner & my last ray of hope that I have of comforting you and myself, is cut off — By your being persuaded not to come to me . . .
Oh my father it is for you I am now thinking; not for myself No no not for myself. Oh why do you not come; you will at once in this climate; be restored to the enjoyment of your health; & spirits I know; and oh I assure you what a good child I shall be, (with “God’s help”) I will you repay all I have done to you—But oh what a climate this would be for you — Do do come —We ride every evening I read, practise, and do other things to improve my time but oh if you would come only this winter Oh why won’t you to make yourself well Mr Schenley is still what he has always been —a devoted, kind, affectionate & every thing that’s good Husband — Oh dear dear if you only knew him — Please do write to me & say you will come I only write to let you know I am well, as happy as I can be without you & to pray & entreat you to come to me soon Oh do do do write to me & put it in the mail at Pittsburgh to the care of the Dutch Consul at Boston & I will be sure to get it —— Good bye my dearest Father. Believe me ever so much attached and devoted child. . .
Croghan eventually gives in. Who could not?
He reconciles with the couple and visits them, and they visit him in Pittsburgh. The local newspapers followed along.
They decided Capt. Schenley didn’t visit often because he was too snooty. They were sure he must think Pittsburgh was backwoods.
They did not know the regal gentleman spent a great deal of time in undeveloped tropics among slaves.
Croghan would have found he had a lot in common with Schenley. Both were attorneys, both worked for their governments, and, perhaps most importantly, both married women richer than themselves.
The wealth Mary was to inherit came from her mother, the granddaughter of James O’hara, Pittsburgh’s first industrialist.
Much of it was in land that skyrocketed in value as the borough and then the city of Pittsburgh grew.
Land is where her legacy in Pittsburgh remains. She donated 300 acres in Oakland to the city to create the park that bears her name and set the stage for a duo hard to beat: cultural institutions and green space.
Industrial land Mary owned at the Point contained a squalid brick hovel rented out to families. It was in the way of business plans.
Mary resisted overtures of business leaders and city officials. She gave the deed instead to the Daughters of the American Revolution. That’s because the building is the Fort Pitt Blockhouse, the only remnant of the fort still standing.
Most of her husband’s desperate notes to the stoney English foreign office, which are now online, go unanswered, causing him to feel alone in his efforts. But, he is relentless, and has some significant successes. It does not go unnoticed.
The Earl of Aberdeen to Mr. Schenley
Foreign Office, November 2, 1843
Sir, I have received your Despatches up to that of the 21st of August last, in which you report the departure of the survivors of the negroes emancipated by the Mixed Court at Surinam from that place for Demerara. I have the satisfaction of informing you that Her Majesty’s Government highly approve of your zeal, and the humanity you have shown towards those unfortunate negroes; and they learn, with the greatest satisfaction, that you have at length been enabled to carry out the benevolent views of Her Majesty’s Government towards them, by sending them to a British colony. Her Majesty’s Government approve of your having sent them to Demerara. But in signifying to you this approval of your conduct, and in doing full justice to the zeal by which you are animated, I think it right to caution you against overstepping the bounds of your duty in the language and character of your communications with the Dutch Colonial Authorities; a caution which, from some of your recent reports, appears not to be altogether superfluous.
The couple, who had seven children, remained together for 36 years. He died at home one night at the age of 79.
Mary, died there 25 years later. She had gone to the Staten Island boarding school because her asthma was too bad for Pittsburgh’s smoke. Lung congestion finally claimed her in 1903. She was 77.
EDITOR’S NOTES: — Schenley’s foreign service dispatches are here
— Letter’s to Mary’s father are here
Leon J. Pollom, writer/researcher