Word of the conspiracy, however, soon leaked out and on this evening in December Blennerhassett was forced to flee as a regiment of militia descended upon his estate.
Harman Blennerhassett was born in 1764 into an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family. He attended Trinity College in Dublin, followed by several years of studying law. What caused him to immigrate to America in 1796 is not clear. Some accounts say he joined the United Irishmen and fled one step ahead of British authorities as they attempted to crush the rebel organization. Others, however, attribute the decision to a family feud occasioned by Blennerhassett’s marriage to his niece Margaret Agnew. What is known is that he departed with a considerable amount of money and an ambition to establish himself as a landed aristocrat in the rapidly opening American West.
The Blennerhassetts arrived in New York and made their way to Pittsburgh, a city then on the western frontier, to find the ideal place to establish their estate. In August 1797, Blennerhassett purchased 180 acres of a 500-acre island in the Ohio River, 100 miles south of Pittsburgh in what was then the state of Virginia (and present-day West Virginia). Immediately he hired workers to begin building him a lavish mansion surrounded by extensive landscaping. Simultaneously, he established a 100-acre farm and invested in a partnership to establish dry goods stores in several pivotal locations in the Ohio River Valley. These enterprises, he hoped, would provide him with an income to sustain his grand ambitions to live as a landed gentleman.
Unwilling to wait for this income to materialize, Blennerhassett spent much of his remaining fortune on outfitting his mansion with fine furniture, rugs, paneling, and artwork — all of it imported at top-dollar prices. The couple lived a lifestyle befitting these aristocratic pretensions, though one utterly at odds with their rough frontier surroundings. They ordered enormous quantities of expensive food, including on one occasion a half chest of premium tea, a barrel of sugar, 10 gallons of brandy, 15 gallons of port wine, six flasks of oil, and 500 Spanish cigars. Like a good Irishman, Blennerhassett also spent a small fortune on one of the great luxuries of the day: books.
Despite their remote location, their position on the commercially active Ohio River provided them with a steady procession of visitors to entertain, from politicians to merchants, to entertainers. Among the latter was the English actor John Bernard, who found the curious island estate enchanting.
“Until I go to my grave,” he wrote, I must bear remembrance to the beautiful Blennerhassett [estate] — this paradise.”
But Blennerhassett’s penchant for entertaining and poor judgment of character (he’d already been victimized by con men several times) caused him to welcome the slippery Aaron Burr into his home in 1805. At the time, the former vice president under Thomas Jefferson was wanted for murder in New York for his killing of Alexander Hamilton in their famous duel a year earlier. But Burr assured Blennerhassett that his troubles back east were inconsequential, for he now had a grand scheme that would make them both very rich. Blennerhassett, by now running low on money, was immediately interested and it was not long before Burr’s gift for flattery and manipulation won him over to the conspiracy.
Historians still disagree over what Burr ultimately planned to do. One scenario had him leading an army to seize a big chunk of northern Mexico (then under Spanish rule). A more sinister scenario — and the one for which Burr was eventually tried — had him invading the lower half of the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase to separate it from the U.S. Few dispute the contention that in either case, Burr intended to install himself as ruler of whatever territory he captured.
Attracted by the promise of massive land grants, Blennerhassett agreed to build a fleet (at his own expense) of river boats needed to move’s Burr’s troops south. Before long, the Blennerhassett mansion was the center of Burr’s operations. Despite his clear participation in the scheme, it is quite possible that Blennerhassett only half understood what Burr was up to.
The reality of it soon became apparent when, as a result of betrayal and rumors, Burr’s scheme became known to officials in Virginia and Washington, D.C. The state government immediately dispatched a regiment of state militia to seize the Blennerhassett estate. Its owner, tipped off at the last minute, escaped just ahead of his would be captors. The latter soon discovered Blennerhassett’s ample liquor supply and considering him a traitor, looted and vandalized the mansion.
Blennerhassett and Burr were eventually arrested. Burr was tried for treason in a celebrated trial in 1807 but found not guilty for lack of concrete evidence establishing a conspiracy. With Burr acquitted, charges against Blennerhassett were dropped and he was released from jail. But by then he’d lost everything, his estate having been sold at auction to his creditors. He tried unsuccessfully to reestablish himself as a planter in Mississippi and later as a lawyer in Montreal. Penniless and worn down, he eventually sailed for England to live with his older sister. He died there in 1831.
Today the Blennerhassett story lives on at Blennerhassett Island, where the state of West Virginia operates a state park and museum and offers guided tours of a replica mansion built in the 1990s.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Dec. 12, 1917: Father Edward Flanagan establishes Boys Town outside Omaha.
Dec. 13, 1862: The Irish Brigade suffers horrendous casualties in its fearless assaults against Confederate lines in the Battle of Fredricksburg.
Dec. 14, 1955: Ireland becomes member of the UN.
Dec. 13, 1890: Playwright Marc Connelly is born in McKeesport, Pa.
Dec 15, 1932: Novelist Edna O’Brien is born in Tuamgraney, Co Clare.
Dec. 16, 1951: Baseball pitcher and 1979 Cy Young winner Mike Flanagan is born in Manchester, N.H.