Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mrs. Margaret Milburn and Miss Margaret Milburn at home

If you go to Washington DC, and you make your way to the corner of 7th and D Streets in the small southwestern quadrant of the city, and you look toward the northwest, there in your view will be a large, sandy-colored office building of a vague, shapeless shape. Ignore this office building, and instead pay attention to the city block it rests on, the triangular block bounded by 7th, D, and Virginia Avenue. This block is called “Square 464” in the city property books, despite its triangular boundary. All the lots in this “Square 464” were once owned by Thomas William Milburn’s grandfather, Mr. George Milburn, who “established the Milburn home” at the eastern end of the block.

George died some years before TW was born. But George’s widow Margaret was still living here into the 1870s, in a house on the western corner of the block at Virginia and 7th.

Mrs. Margaret Milburn was George’s second wife. George’s first wife and the mother of his children was Alice, who died in 1833. Margaret was actually Alice’s younger sister, and thus she was aunt as well as stepmother to the children. George married Margaret three years after Alice died, probably in order to provide for her, and certainly so that she could look after his children when George was gone, portioning out to each one some of the remaining property.

George’s daughters Mary Ann and Violet and his son Thomas—TW’s father—got married in the 1840s. (I don’t know what parts of the property they may have received. Thomas and his family had an address some blocks west of here for many years. Violet and her husband did build here along Virginia Avenue, and their daughters lived there still in the ’80s.) That left George’s unmarried middle daughter Margaret Agnes at home with her aunt. A serious and pious schoolteacher, Miss Milburn remained single for nearly two decades. Meanwhile old Mrs. Milburn took in boarders.

We actually know a little something about Mrs. Margaret Milburn beyond what the census tells. Judge Job Barnard in 1920 offered to the Columbia Historical Society a short account of the formation of the Swedenborgian church in DC. He tells how Mrs. Margaret Milburn’s aunt Mary Arnott, was shunned by her church due to her early interest in Swedenborg’s doctrines, and how Margaret went on to be one of the founding members of the Swedenborgian society. Barnard’s paper continues with how the society grew from the meetings of those in the District who were interested in Swedenborg, rather like a little club, to a regular denomination with an official charter, a church building to meet in, and hired clergy. (Judge Barnard was himself one of the members of the church.)

It’s also clear from Barnard’s paper that some of Mrs. Milburn’s boarders were themselves adherents to the Swedenborgian Church. I’d like to know whether Margaret Milburn pressed information about the church into the hands of her boarders, or whether persons with a prior interest in Swedenborg’s New Jerusalem found Mrs. Milburn and found her home convenient. At any rate there was one particular boarder in the Milburn household we must take note of: an older fellow called Hollis Amidon, a widower from New York. For more than a decade Mrs. Milburn kept house with her niece Miss Margaret A. Milburn and Mr. Hollis Amidon.

Miss Milburn was teaching school. She began her career at about the age of sixteen when she opened her own private school. The Washington public schools were just then starting to come into their own as an institution acceptable to a broad public. Margaret was soon hired by the Trustees to teach in the public schools in the Fourth District, which is to say in that same neighborhood where she lived. She became an extremely well-regarded teacher, commended for her keen skill in interesting her pupils individually in the schoolwork, prompting their genuine engagement rather than merely teaching by rote. Evidently she was highly dedicated to her efforts with her students, and a kind of warm enthusiasm for her shows up in the Trustee reports and in the newspaper accounts of the annual examinations.

Then in December 1862 Miss Margaret A. Milburn wed Mr. Hollis Amidon. She, who had not up until then seemed to be interested in getting married, wed the man twenty years her senior—Amidon was actually old Mrs. Milburn’s age—with whom she had been living for years. Very little really changed. Mrs. Amidon kept working as a schoolteacher in the Fourth District, and she and Amidon continued to live with old Mrs. Milburn in the same house where they had been so long.

The lot, or partial lot, where the house stood was the last piece of George Milburn’s “Square 464”  property left to bestow on one of his children. Mrs. Milburn was getting on in years and thinking of her old age, and so she arranged for its transfer to the Amidons. But all was not secure. Margaret Amidon was ill with tuberculosis. (Maybe she knew this, or suspected it, at the time she married.) She died in 1869, remaining with her beloved pupils until close to the end. Mrs. Milburn didn’t outlive her by many years: she died in 1874. Hollis Amidon, Milburn-less, undertook to put his wife’s property (“lot number 11”) directly in his own name. This was the situation to which some others in the family objected in the courts.

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