“A Story (true one) for Mrs Adams”: The Adams Family, William Vans Murray, and Halloween

147768819149414The Adams Family Papers, 1639–1889, at the Massachusetts Historical Society is a large collection. Its microfilm edition is made up of 608 reels which are available for research at the Society and various other libraries and archives in the United States and Europe. The Adams Papers Editorial Project has published over fifty volumes to date. (To read more about the process, see Sara Georgini’s 2014 post.) As I continue to work on volume 13 Adams Family Correspondence I am reminded of the breadth of the collection, so when I went looking for a Halloween-related letter, I wasn’t disappointed.

John Quincy Adams, John and Abigail Adams’s eldest son, served as minister plenipotentiary to Prussia in the late 1790s and early 1800s. Based in Berlin, his correspondence offers an interesting insight into what life was like in war-torn Europe. Adams commented on everything he saw or heard, often noting it down in his diary or writing about it to colleagues, friends, or family. Historians are appreciating the breadth of John Quincy’s private musings and his correspondence. As Amy S. Greenberg recently noted, “We are currently in the midst of a John Quincy Adams revival.”[1]

147768819149414-1On October 1, 1799, William Vans Murray wrote to John Quincy, offering updates on European affairs and his various social engagements. Vans Murray’s correspondence with John Quincy is engaging, lively, and regular but his letter of October 1, 1799, is unique: he included what we might consider a horror story, penned for John Quincy’s wife, Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, herself the subject of recent scholarship.[2]

Below is an unverified transcription of Vans Murray’s story, one which he thought should be “in the archives of Stockholm.” Enjoy—and happy Halloween!

A Story (True one) for Mrs. Adams.

“dedicated in consideration of the pleasure I have enjoy’d from her time in Bohemia — Sketches of which Mrs Adams has been Kind enough to give me — & drawn with a taste & tenderness which I am almost sure he had not before he was marry’d — & which I am also almost sure the mutual enjoyments of the scenes inspired — & which, without her, had been dry statistical collections — & political opinions —

About the year the Queen of Sweden died. She had so lived as to make all the pious a little uneasy at her death & no one rejoiced at it but those who cared not how soon she shd enter into a state of eternal punishment. Her corpse, as is usual was carry’d to the ancient castle of E about 30 miles from Stockholm — This was a fortress formerly of great strength to which the count had often retired in times of danger. Its hall & a few other apartments had however survived so as to be habitable — & the Chapel in which rested the remains of the Kings & Queens of Sweden had been preserved in excellent order. The left wing of the castle was on this occasion appropriated to the funeral honours of the Queen — Two apartments were particularly fitted up — one which looking over a deep Ditch was darkened by the threes that covered the common grave yard, was that in which the body was placed — The room was hung as is usual with black — & it was lighted by a few glimmering candles — The room adjoining, & which was the only one which opened to it — except the door to the corridor that led to the chapel & which was strongly bolted, was that in which her attendants & the officers of the guards, attended by teams night & day for three days & nights — this room looked into the court of the castle. The corps had remained two nights — The ladies in waiting & Count & Count were chatting on the third night, when the sound of a carriage was heard rattling over the draw bridge & then round the court to the left — they were surprised as it was near one —and the weather extremely cold.

In my next to be concluded — the post will not wait”

for Mrs. Adams Dresden continued

“The old domestic opened the door and announced the Countess de Bare — She was of the court of the late queen, aged near eighty — The countess made her compliments & informed them that as she had been among the late Queen’s oldest friends & had been deprived by illness from waiting upon her death bed, she had come to pay the last duties & begged to be permitted to see the corps — The old countess was detested for her vices & character;— however, the officer who superintended consulted his friends the ladies, & it was agreed to permit the countess to see her old friend —They were however surprised at the hour in which she came — it was Known that she was ill in bed — but as this was the last night before interment & as she appeared ill pale & much wasted & mournful they lit up some more candles in the state room, & sufferd the countess to enter alone, shutting the door after her on account of the cold. All was still — except that now & then a sobbing seemed to be heard — which they attributed to the affliction of the Countess — every moment they expected her return — at length on hour & more elapsed — but the door yet remained shut & the countess made not her appearance — Among the attending courtiers was a young Count P a gay young man; & an old officer Baron B.— an old officer who had seen much service, & was a man of great worth & steadiness — All the company expressed their surprise at the length of the Countess’s stay in the other apartment on a night so uncommonly cold — Count P  began to merry from what he called the interview between the old Countess & the dead Queen, & joked gayly upon the wicked secrets Which they might tell were they both alive — The Ladies also became a little curious, & indeed alarmed at the delay of the old lady — Count P. said he would have a peep at the old wicked ones — He stepped lightly on his tip toe to the door — the eyes of the company following to gain from his looks some intelligence — he quietly turned the latch, opened the door an inch — and trembled back with a frightful scream upon the floor — The old officer sprang from his seat & rushed to the door which had opened by the fling which the count gave it as he fell — Baron B. gave a scream of horror & reeled back & at the same instant the lights in the State Room were extinguished by some invisible power, & the room was perfectly dark for a moment — until the moon flashing through a window, show’d that the corps of the queen was as it had been — The ladies & another officer ran towards the Baron & the Count — All was terror and confusion — The countess was called loudly but none would venture into the dark apartment — Baron B. at length gradually recovered from the damp chill state into which he was thrown by the full view of the Spectacle he had seen;— but Count P though breathing recovered but to fall immediately into convulsions, that finished his life in half an hour. The countess was implored to come out of that horrible chamber — but she appeared not — Baron B.      then told the company, that, on rushing to the open door, he saw the countess setting by the head of the coffin — & the corps reclining as in the art of speaking in whispers on the elbows — & half raised;— the head of the countess being leaning forward as of one listening:— that in the instant the corps the corps sunk into its position, & the countess vanished, & the lights went out!—

147768819149414The Baron & his brother officers secured the doors of the appartment in wh. they were, & entered the room with lights — Every thing was quiet — The corps as it had been but no countess was to be seen — At that moment sound of a horn at the draw bridge announced a messenger — He was admitted — he brought orders to expect the King next morning for the funeral & informed that the Countess de Bear, the old favourite of her late majesty, died that night in the royal palace, at one oClock. These things were so strange, & were deemed so authentic, as to merit a place in the archives of Stockholm.”


[1] Amy S. Greenberg, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Louisa?: Gender, Politics, and an Adams Family Revival,” Reviews in American History 44, no. 3 (Sept. 2016): 400–10 at p. 401.

[2] See Margery M. Heffron, Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams, ed. David L. Michelmore (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); Louisa Thomas, Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams (New York: Penguin, 2016). See also Phyllis Lee Levin, The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams (New York: Palgrave, 2015). The recent upturn in scholarship on LCA, as she is known at the Adams Papers, was aided by the publication of Diary and Autobiographical Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams, ed. Judith Graham, Beth Luey, Margaret A. Hogan, and C. James Taylor, 2 vols. (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013). See here to find a copy near you.


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