Columbus Smith, a Vermont lawyer, found in 1844 he could make a fortune by researching old deeds to locate the rightful heirs of English estates. For the next two decades he pursued other peoples’ inheritances, taking a cut for himself. He married, built an eye-popping mansion in Salisbury and collected antiquities. Part I of this story is here.
Columbus Smith seemed to set his life on a safe and sedate course, returning to live in Salisbury, Vt., after years spent in New York and Europe. If there is a lesson to his story, perhaps it is to never slow down because you don’t know what may be chasing you. In Smith’s case, he was being chased by a series of calamities.
His first serious setback occurred in 1881. Columbus and Harriet’s son William, then 14, died of meningitis. The couple constructed an ornate mausoleum on their property, with glass shelves to hold its residents encased in glass-topped coffins. William was the first to occupy a space in the building.
The death rattled Columbus. His children’s former tutor, Irving Bacheller, by then living in New York, returned to Salisbury for a visit. He found Smith’s grief over the death of his son – “the main hope of his life” – had taken a harsh toll, aging Smith and softening his mind.
After William died, Smith remained active in business and charitable affairs. He continued investing and building. He and Harriet spent one winter in Los Angeles, and he travelled to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the Columbian Exposition.
But daughter Mary was a growing concern. There are hints that during this time Mary, affectionately known as Pinky, was not well. She travelled to the American desert in the Southwest for health reasons. In 1896, however, it was announced that she would be married to Dr. Alexander McDowell of Bowling Green, Va.
McDowell was the son of General Irvin McDowell, who led the union troops in their ill-fated battle of Bull Run in the Civil War. Alexander had first followed in his father’s footsteps, enrolling at the West Point military academy. He completed his education at the Medical School of Columbian College, now George Washington University, and entered the Marine Corps.
The wedding would, of course, be a grand celebration. First scheduled for St. Stephen’s Church in Middlebury, the ceremony was performed at Shard Villa, and it was the talk of the county.
A little more than a year later, Mary died of tuberculosis. Seeing his last child join her brother in the family mausoleum apparently pushed the elderly Smith into depression.
Decline and Delusions
After leading a largely healthy life (one exception being in 1875 when he was struck by a carriage and injured), Columbus Smith was twice hospitalized at sanitariums. He was treated for his depression and Bright’s disease and sent home with medication. Harriet would later say that she believed he would have avoided much misery if he had started taking the medication he received as soon as his daughter had died.
The decade of decline following Mary’s death was marked by paranoid delusions. Smith believed people were trying to steal his fortune, and he even made allegations against his wife. By the end, he had lost the power of speech, only able to make sounds. Smith died in November 1909.
His obituaries noted that he was “at one time” a prominent power in Vermont. Originally thought to be worth millions, his estate was appraised at $340,000 and it included far-flung properties in Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Texas and the Dakotas as well as New England. In his will he expressed the intent that Shard Villa should be converted to a nursing home for “old Christian women not addicted to drink,” and that the residual of his estate should be used to fund its operation. Upon Harriet’s death in 1919, that’s what the mansion became – but not without one more legal entanglement. Would Columbus Smith have wanted it any other way?
The Final Probate Showdown
Anna Perry of Gardiner, Mass., and Fred Page of Ludlow, Vt. – a grandniece and grandnephew—challenged Smith’s will, which was written and amended from 1897 to 1903. They argued he was insane when he largely disinherited his family.
They pointed to curious details, such as a bequest of $1 to his brother-in-law “to buy a feather for his cap when he played soldier or a whistle and rattle to amuse himself in his declining years.”
To his wife, he left $25,000 “or $50,000 if she preferred.” Such statements could be seen as whimsical, or evidence of mental decline. The Addison County Court heard from 112 witnesses, many of them friends and neighbors who were divided on the question of whether he was sane over the last decade of his life. After a hung jury couldn’t decide the matter on the first go-round, the Addison County Court declared the will valid.
Harriet, who had considerable wealth of her own apart from her husband’s, could have easily afforded to settle the case with her relatives. She declined to do so, fighting until the end to defend the will.
In 1914, the Supreme Court also upheld the will, which allowed for the establishment of the rest home at Shard Villa.
What happened next…
Shard Villa today remains an active and functioning nursing home. It entered a period of instability, and its board of trustees envisioned closing it in 2008. It has since undergone a revival, however, and is home to 15-to-18 residents. Some wonderful photos of the restoration of frescoes at the villa can be found at the blog of Rustin Levenson Art Conservation Associates here, here and here.
On the grounds of the mansion, the mausoleum holds four bodies: Columbus, Harriet, William and Mary. A place for Mary’s husband Alexander B. McDowell remains empty.
In another tragic twist to the story, Alexander McDowell slit his own throat in 1908 while living in New York City. He had continued his relationship with the Smiths, travelling to Vermont to see them. And had he outlived Smith, he was to receive $2,000 from the estate, a room in perpetuity at the Shard Villa and the option to be resident physician at the facility if he wished.
Shard Villa is also noted in books that collect stories of haunted houses, claiming that Columbus remains unsettled and still wanders the grounds from time to time.
Photos from this article come from
Photographer Don Shall’s Flickr Album
Middlebury College Special Collections
Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History’s Shard Villa and its People Exhibit