On select weeks we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.
Burial Location: Brookside Cemetery, Englewood, New Jersey
Welcome back, Boothies!
Valentine’s Day is over. Let’s get back to the craziness.
If you were around on Valentine’s Day, you’ll remember that I discussed the harmonious union of Edwina Booth and Ignatius Grossman. For this Grave Thursday we will examine the life of Edwina’s first fiancé, the harmonious deterrent, Downing Vaux.
Downing Vaux was born in 1856 to Mary McEntee and Calvert Vaux. The elder Vaux was an English immigrant landscape architect who, among many other achievements, helped design and build Central Park. His first partner was Andrew Jackson Downing, a very prominent figure in the field of landscape architecture. Just a few years before the birth of Downing Vaux, Andrew Jackson Downing was killed in a steamboat fire. Calvert decided to name his son Downing in memory of his late friend and colleague.
Downing Vaux often worked for his father’s office, practicing both as an architect and landscape architect. Vaux and his contemporaries filled the need for pleasing outdoor spaces, such as parks and park like cemeteries, in the face of urbanization.
In addition to his professional work, Vaux was a childhood friend of Edwina Booth. They became engaged in 1881. Though Edwina’s father, Edwin Booth, was critical of her later husband, Ignatius Grossman, he seemed accepting of Edwina’s first relationship with Vaux. One letter, written by painter Jervis McEntee, Vaux’s uncle and frequent pen pal to Edwin Booth, read, “Booth talked frankly with me yesterday concerning Downing and Edwina. They seem fond of each other and…Booth told me he was more than satisfied with Downing and thinks only of Edwina’s happiness.”
The planned wedding between Vaux and Edwina was postponed when Edwina decided to travel abroad with her father in 1882 and 1883. While in England, Edwina received word that Downing, still working in the United States, had almost died. “Calvert Vaux found his son…unconscious in a gas filled room. He had left his gas burning and it had…blown out and the door been closed.” It took Vaux over a day to revive.
Edwin received the news first, from Jervis McEntee, and did not tell Edwina for a few days. He felt that “her health is not strong enough to stand the shock.” Although Vaux physically survived his brush with death, his mental health deteriorated and he began exhibiting strange behaviors. Vaux joined Edwin and Edwina in England, where it was hoped that his increasing sickness would be cured. This did not occur. In fact, Vaux’s instability only progressed. His memory failed, his behavior became erratic and he sometimes disappeared for days without warning.
Edwin Booth biographer Arthur Bloom gave a description of an incident that occurred after Vaux returned to New York:
“Downing left his home…and went to breakfast with his family. During breakfast, a letter from Edwina arrived. After reading it…he left, presumably for his father’s business. He never arrived at the office. Around noon, Calvert Vaux sent a messenger to find out why his son was detained and later went back to Downing’s room to find him, but he was not there. Alarmed, the Vaux family began to check with the local hospitals.”
A servant reported seeing Downing “around 7 PM washing himself in his room.” However, he was gone by the time his father got there, having left behind “an empty unfired revolver as well as his gold watch and chain and other articles of jewelry.” On May 8th, after waiting outside Vaux’s home all night, the family combed the city for him and his father went to the police fearing, in the words of Jervis McEntee, “that his son’s mind had become unsettled and that he was either wandering aimlessly about the city or had committed suicide.” Vaux returned on the 9th. He had been wandering through the country.
Edwin, once supportive of Vaux, began seeing him as mentally incompetent and wholly unsuited for his precious daughter. When Edwina stated that she wanted to end her engagement, Edwin heartily agreed. He wrote to Jervis McEntee, “how terrible would be their fate were they married! But I must beg of you Jervy to reason with poor Downing, and make him realize how incapable he is, and may be for years, to assume the responsibility of marriage.” Edwin’s belief that Vaux would never recover, and his subsequent expressions to McEntee, Vaux’s uncle, placed an irremovable strain on their relationship.
Problems between Vaux and the Booth family worsened when Vaux, likely not in the right mind, wrote to Edwin what the latter described as a “disrespectful and threatening” letter. Edwin went into full protective father mode. He wrote to McEntee, “He declares he will see her [Edwina] and that she must have her share of pain. She is kept in constant dread lest he should accost her on the street or call, as he did, when he thinks I am out of the house. He says he knows he’s cracked but that a brass rivet has been put in, that he is a better companion…and is altogether more of a man than ever. His letter and his questioning if Edwina still cares for him, if she liked anybody else…would convince any disinterested person of his demented condition, did not his unmanly conduct in thus destroying the peace of one whose happiness he should strive to enhance…say I must deal with him personally I will be compelled to do so if he persists in his present course…spare me the painful duty of taking measures to restrain him.”
What I like to imagine Edwin looked like watching for Vaux
While Vaux’s newfound condition lost him a life with Edwina Booth, it did not halt all his future prospects. His mental condition (somewhat) improved with time. He began his own architecture firm in New York City, Vaux & Co.
He gave lectures at New York University’s School of Engineering. Vaux was also a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects and a vocal supporter of the preservation of New York’s parks. Coming full circle, Vaux helped create the Andrew Jackson Downing Memorial Park.
In 1893, Downing Vaux wed a widow named Lillian Baker Andrews. Two years later, the couple had a daughter, Priscilla, but she lived just four hours.
Vaux and Lillian lived together until at least 1911. After that, the couple lived apart for unknown reasons. A census taken in 1920 shows Lillian living in Los Angeles but does not list her as separated or divorced.
Despite Vaux’s attempts to outrun his unstable past, his personal demons never seemed to disappear. While the Vaux family wrote off the aforementioned gas filled room incident as mere misfortune, some historians theorize that it was Downing’s first attempt at suicide. Should that be the case, it is likely that Vaux’s mental instabilities were present even before the accident took place. Vaux’s life would eventually end by his own hand, or rather his own feet, when he walked off a roof in 1926. The New York Times reported, “Downing Vaux, widely known landscape architect, was instantly killed in a fall from the roof of the YMCA building early this morning. His body, clad only in his night clothes, was found on the sidewalk by the police.” Other news outlets soon got hold of the story as well.
Lillian returned to New York by 1930 and was listed as widowed in the census. She died in 1935.
Today, Downing Vaux rests beside his wife and infant daughter in Brookside Cemetery in Englewood, New Jersey in a plot belonging to Lillian’s first husband, Frank Andrews.
In hindsight, perhaps Edwin Booth’s overbearing tendencies paid off for once – seeing as how Edwina could have ended up with a man who ultimately committed suicide over the husband who wrote her beautiful poetry. And Lord knows the Booth family didn’t need to experience any further tragedy.
Until next time.