The Disappearance of the Portrait of Mrs. Ellis

Oh, the Stories of Objects Left Behind… and Lost in Time

Upon entering President James Buchanan’s Wheatland, one experiences the mansion quite similarly to what Mr. Buchanan experienced.  The mansion itself had very little interior structural changes over its life, save for changes such as the installation of a bathroom and a dumbwaiter system during Harriet Lane Johnston’s ownership in the 1870s. Many of the objects that furnish the rooms also have Buchanan provenance, and there are even some objects, such as the book cases in the library, that date back to the owners of Wheatland prior to Buchanan.

If we were to put a number to it, roughly one third of all objects in Wheatland have Buchanan provenance. And while all these objects tell the story of Buchanan’s life (and life in the 19th century, for that matter), there are also stories to be told about the objects that are not present.

It Was Mrs. Ellis in The Parlor with a Portrait of Herself!

Contrary to the Clue-esque allusion in the subheading above, there is no murder mystery afoot at Wheatland, but rather an interesting case of a portrait that sprung legs on one fall day in 1866. Despite not having this portrait at Wheatland, we know of its existence through a series of compelling letters that Buchanan wrote to his niece, Harriet Lane Johnston. It involves dear friends, a visit to Wheatland, a trip to Baltimore, and a disappearance of a beloved portrait.

Allow me to introduce those involved in this mystery, as well as the parts they played in this portrait’s disappearance:

Mrs. Catherine Margaret Parish Ellis was William Rufus King’s niece and friend to Harriet Lane Johnston and James Buchanan. Similar to Harriet’s own life story, Catherine was orphaned, raised by her uncle, and eventually became King’s hostess and travelling companion during his political career. Catherine Ellis knew Buchanan through her uncle by 1844, and eventually came to know Harriet Lane. A friendship surfaced at the time, but it rekindled years later in 1866 when Catherine reconnected with Harriet upon her marriage to Henry Elliott Johnston. Catherine reconnected with Buchanan, as well, and a visit to Wheatland was thus arranged.

Mr. James Buchanan was the owner, and eventual lamenter, of Mrs. Ellis’ portrait. He hosted Catherine Ellis at Wheatland for a week in October of 1866, and traveled with her to Baltimore to visit with Harriet and her husband, Henry Elliott Johnston.

Mrs. Harriet Lane Johnston received a recount of the events of the portrait via a series of letters from Buchanan while she lived in Baltimore with her husband. At this time, Harriet was expecting her first child, whom would be named James Buchanan Johnston.

A portrait of the First Royal Visit to Mount Vernon with Harriet Lane and Catherine Ellis standing together
Catherine Ellis (in blue gown) standing next to Harriet Lane, who is holding a parasol. James Buchanan is standing by tomb. Portrait: Thomas P. Rossiter, “Visit of the Prince of Wales, President Buchanan, and Dignitaries to the Tomb of Washington at Mount Vernon, October 1860,” 1861 (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

A Visit to Wheatland

By the beginning of October 1866, Buchanan is expecting company at Wheatland. He writes to Harriet on October 2, 1866 with news of Catherine Ellis’ intention via another family friend, Laura Pleasanton:

Laura Pleasanton writes that she met Mrs. Ellis in New York looking fat & well & expressing the purpose of visiting me on her way home. (JB to HLJ, 2 October 1866)

By the end of the month, Catherine Ellis will find herself at Wheatland. She arrived on a Monday morning on October 23, 1866 and stayed at Wheatland for one week. A description of Catherine Ellis soon comes in Buchanan’s letter to Harriet:

Mrs. Ellis has been here since Monday morning and is as agreeable as ever. […] She is, indeed, charming.  She is sensible concerning the ward & has suffered much; she will give you a great deal of information in a most agreeable manner.  (JB to HLJ, 27 October 1866)

…And a Visit to Baltimore

But Catherine’s visit does not end with a week’s stay at Wheatland. In the same letter, Buchanan divulges plans for both Catherine and himself to travel to Baltimore to visit with Harriet:

She will leave for Baltimore on Monday morning & will arrive at the Depot at the same hour I arrive.  Mr. Johnston will of course meet her.  Owing to a change in time on the Rail Road which I need not explain I may have to take her in my carriage to Columbia so as to render it certain she will reach there at 1 o’clock P.M.  In that event I will send her trunk by Express directed to Mr. Johnston’s care.  (JB to HLJ, 27 October 1866)

An Unlikely Travelling Companion

As Catherine Ellis and Buchanan made their arrangements to visit Baltimore, one additional travelling companion came along (unbeknownst to Buchanan). As Catherine Ellis’ trunk traveled by Express, a portrait of herself traveled in tow. This portrait of Catherine had originally hung in what Buchanan refers to as his “big dining room,” or what we call the parlor. Somehow, Catherine had packed her portrait away without Buchanan’s knowledge. While family and friends reunited in Baltimore, an empty space on the walls in Wheatland’s parlor waited to be discovered.

It wasn’t until Buchanan returned from Baltimore that he discovered the missing portrait. He wrote to  Harriet about his findings:

Mrs. Ellis, without my knowledge carried away her picture that hung in the big dining room.  Had I known of her felonious intent, I should have laid violent hands upon it. (JB to HLJ, 29 October 1866)

Buchanan’s words are extremely strong here, showing perhaps a desperation in wanting the portrait back and revealing what potentially could have been a tug-of-war of sorts between Buchanan, Mrs. Ellis, and the portrait.

And yet, in the same letter to Harriet, Buchanan shows his anger at having the portrait stolen from under his nose, while also revealing a sense of continued friendship. In this particular letter to Harriet, Buchanan says very little because he is confident that someone else will update her on the latest events:

I need not tell you any domestic news, as Mrs. Ellis will give you all such information. (JB to HLJ, 29 October 1866)

He concludes, in typical fashion, to send his love and affection to his friends and family:

With my kind love to Mrs. Ellis & Miss Harriet and my best regards to Mr. Johnston, I remain your affectionately      James Buchanan (JB to HLJ, 29 October 1866)

What we see here is a duality in this dynamic— of being clearly upset about a stolen portrait and carrying on with a sense of normalcy in a friendship that began several decades prior.

Indeed, just twelve days later, Buchanan writes to Harriet again, expressing what may be perceived as a new understanding upon reflection:

I should like to have Mrs. Ellis’ pictures returned; but not until a convenient private opportunity shall offer. I know very well that she would not have teken [sic] it away against my wish had she known it. Hers is one of the very few likenesses which I should care to have. (JB to HLJ, 10 November 1866)

Whatever transpired during in the twelve days between Buchanan’s letters to Harriet may not be known, or perhaps will be dug up in future. But one thing is strikingly clear: Mrs. Ellis remains someone rather dear to Buchanan. Of all the people he had known in his life, Buchanan divulges that it is Mrs. Ellis’ visage that remains as one of the few he wishes to have at Wheatland.

The Fate of the Portrait

Though Buchanan expresses a possible return of the portrait at a future date, that opportunity never comes. By all accounts, Catherine Ellis’ likeness, which hung in Buchanan’s parlor, has been lost to history.

Perhaps one day in some delightful discovery, Catherine Ellis’ portrait will be pulled out from some unsuspecting nook. But until then, her face remains an elusive mystery. What these series of letters have revealed is that while Wheatland is furnished with many an object relating to Buchanan, there is one object that, according to Old Buck himself, is sorely missing: Catherine Ellis’ portrait.

If you get a chance to come visit Buchanan’s beloved Wheatland, I hope you are as moved by the stories and the furnishings as I am. As you make your way into the parlor, though, I hope you stop and take a good look at the walls. Perhaps in your observations, you, too, might perceive an empty space where the portrait of Mrs. Ellis would have hung proudly. And while the other objects in the room might intrigue you, perhaps the most intriguing part of that room is the object that is missing.

Gaining perspective from the history left behind at Wheatland, Museum Associate Stephanie Celiberti explores the world that James Buchanan inhabited, digging up the intricacies of daily life in the 19th century to better understand the ins-and-outs of those who came before us. By walking in the shoes—quite literally—of the Victorians, she challenges a new understanding of history—one that is tactile and present with our world today.

From History From The House