Mary Hellen had her pick of John Quincy Adams’ three sons. She chose the wrong one.
She was Louisa Adams’ niece, the daughter of her oldest sister and a wealthy tobacco speculator. Born Sept. 10, 1806, Mary Catherine Hellen was orphaned when her father died in 1815. John Quincy and Louisa Adams took her into their household.
Mary was a beautiful, rebellious girl and an outrageous flirt. She tormented the Adams’ three sons in turn: George Washington, John and Charles Francis. Louisa watched with worry as she had little faith in her niece’s chastity.
She was probably right. Charles Francis claimed she introduced him to the delights of the flesh. Born Aug. 18, 1807, he was the youngest and steadiest of the three.
Capricious Mary Hellen
Then Mary Hellen dumped Charles for the sensitive and poetic George. Charles called her ‘one of the most capricious women that were ever formed in a capricious race.’
George Washington Adams, the eldest, was trouble almost from his birth on April 12, 1801. Grandfather John Adams was angry he was named after the first president instead of himself, the second. George grew up to be an alcoholic womanizer.
He had already developed those tendencies when Mary Hellen agreed to marry him. They decided to postpone their wedding until he finished his education.
In the meantime, John Quincy Adams was elected president of the United States in 1825. His middle son, John, had been thrown out of Harvard, so he came to Washington with his father to serve as his secretary. Mary Hellen came with them. Absence from George did not make her heart grow fonder.
John was the haughty, sarcastic middle brother, born July 4, 1803. He liked to drink but seemed to keep it under control. In Washington, he resolved to steal Mary Hellen away from George. He succeeded.
Louisa Adams didn’t approve of the match, but thought the passionate young lovers needed the benefit of marriage. She quickly arranged a small White House wedding. George and Charles Francis refused to attend. Louisa wrote to Charles about the wedding: “Madame is cool easy and indifferent as ever.” She feared the worst for her middle son.
John and Mary Hellen Adams moved into the White House. They had two daughters, Mary Louisa and Georgeanna Frances. Grandpa Adams, whose only daughter died in infancy, was delighted with them.
But pregnancy and motherhood didn’t suit Mary Hellen, and she grew ill and dispirited.
George felt his failure in love as keenly as he felt his failure to win his parents’ approval. Though he managed to graduate from Harvard and start a mediocre law practice, he drank heavily, ran up debts and fathered an illegitimate child with a chambermaid.
As John Quincy Adams prepared to leave the presidency, he summoned George to Washington to help him and his mother move to Boston. Charles thought George ‘quivered with fear’ at the prospect of his parents’ reproach.
Distraught, George boarded a steamship in Providence, and during the journey he claimed the birds were talking and passengers laughing at him. On June 9, 1829, he fell or jumped overboard and drowned, an apparent suicide. His mother insisted he died by accident.
Charles Francis, by then happily married to the wealthy Abigail Brooks, cleaned up the messes his brother left behind.
John Heads Downhill
Things had seemed to go awry with John. Louisa Adams believed her middle son reached a turning point at a White House reception when a newspaper reporter accused the president of insulting his wife. The president was immune from challenges to a duel, but his son wasn’t. The reporter tried to provoke John Adams, pulling his nose in the Capital, but John Adams refused to be drawn into the fight. Anti-Adams newspapers accused him of cowardice.
His father’s defeat for re-election discouraged him. He tried to run family-owned flour mills, but failed. Charles Francis accused him of mismanaging the business. Another relative was given charge of the mills and John fell into debt and despair. He began to spend most of his time at his home near the White House without bothering to dress.
At home in Massachusetts, John Quincy Adams got word in October 1834 that his son was near death in Washington. He rushed to be with him. The former president reached his bedside on October 23 a few hours before he died, delirious, in the early morning. He left Mary Hellen Adams a widow at 31.
Charles Francis Adams blamed his brothers’ deaths on alcohol. “Our family has been so severely scourged by this vice that every member of it is continually on trial,” he wrote. He remained the responsible son who assumed the leadership of the family as his father flung himself into new political controversies.
By the time of John’s death, Mary Hellen Adams was a brooding, reclusive, prematurely old woman. She and her daughters lived in Quincy and Boston with her parents-in-law. Four years after John died, their youngest daughter Frances got sick and died at the age of nine.
Charles Francis made the funeral arrangements – and coaxed his inconsolable father to attend.
Fifteen years later, Mary Hellen’s surviving daughter Mary married William Clarkson Johnson, a great-grandson of John Adams. They were the first descendants of a president to marry each other. Mary Hellen moved with her daughter and son-in-law to Utica, N.Y., where every three months Charles Francis sent her a distribution from her inheritance and tried to cheer her up.
Mary Hellen’s daughter Mary Johnson died of brain fever on May 16, 1853 and her son-in-law eventually ordered her out of the house. Charles Francis invited her to come live in Quincy, which she refused. She moved into her former home in Washington, where Charles Francis visited her and made sure she had financial support.
“I feel for her much, though my recollections of her are mostly painful,” he said.
Mary Hellen Adams lived for another 11 years, dying in Bethlehem, N.H., on August 31, 1870. Charles Francis Adams became a renowned historian, politician and diplomat. He died on Nov. 21, 1886.
With thanks to Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family by Paul C. Nagel.
This story was updated in 2019.