Oddments: The Mysterious Deaths of John & Hannah Grieve
(2/4/2023: Post updated with source links and additional sources)
Happy October! And happy ohgod so much original research went into this post, I hope people enjoy it!
(TW for suicide and, for lack of a better term, spiritual fuckery.)
Some years back, I don't remember quite how many, my husband and I were in Quincy, Massachusetts for one reason or another, and we decided to do some tourist-y things. He's a photographer and wanted to take some pictures inside the United First Parish Church, so we went in. Luckily found a very empty church and a very bored tour guide, and got a private little tour of the church and the crypt below where John and Abigail Adams, and John Quincy and Louisa Adams, are interred. The photos on this website show the crypt as having a locked gate - we were allowed to go in and touch the tombs.
If you scroll to the bottom of that webpage, you'll see the original Adams tomb in the Hancock Cemetery, across the street from the church, where we went after the church tour. You will also notice how it's bricked over.
Really, that's just done to keep out animals and curious people interested in old burial vaults (no I don't feel called out), but it gave me a bit of a pause, wondering if there was also something they were trying to keep in... but that's another post.
We wandered around, taking pictures, and then I came across this headstone:
(Photo by me)
The inscription reads: "Erected to the Memory of John Grieve, died Nov 12, 1850. AEt. 22 Years. And Hannah Banks his wife, died Nov 12, 1850. Aet. 15 Years. Both of Zanesville (Ohio). Deluded by the writings of A.J. Davis."
And I was deeply intrigued. Who were John and Hannah Banks Grieve, and why were they the only people in the cemetery specifically named as having come from somewhere else? How had they died on the same day? And just who was A.J. Davis?
The Seer of Poughkeepsie
Davis, as it turned out to, was a much easier subject to research than the Grieves. In his life, he was known as the self-styled "Seer of Poughkeepsie", and as I went to school just a short way down the river from Poughkeepsie, NY, my interest was further piqued.
Andrew Jackson Davis was born August 11, 1826 in Blooming Grove, New York, to Samuel Davis and Elizabeth Robinson. As a young boy, Andrew and his family moved across the Hudson River to Poughkeepsie.
Davis broke onto the stage of spiritualism at the age of 19, as something of a young prodigy. He presented himself as an uneducated country boy, whose eyes had been opened by the spirits.
He was very well-known in his day, even influencing Edgar Allan Poe in his writing of the 1845 short story, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar".
In a pattern sadly not unheard of in men who hold positions of power, Davis's personal life was, delicately, not what one might expect from a man filled with the enlightenment of the spirits.
His first wife, Catherine DeWolf Dodge, was a married woman in her 40s when she became both his patron and his lover. In June 1848, she obtained a divorce from her husband Joshua, and a month later, married Davis. Already sickly when she met him, she died five years later. His second wife, Mary Fenn Robinson Love, divorced her husband Samuel Love in order to marry Davis. Thirty years later, Davis turned around and divorced her, not only on the grounds that her separation from her husband was illegal, but also that they were not true "affinities" and he wanted to marry someone else: Delphine Markham, whom he met while studying at the U.S. Medical College in New York, and who had also divorced her husband in order to marry Davis.
During his career in spiritualism, Davis practiced as a 'magnetic healer' and clairvoyant. Unlike other spiritualists, he did relatively poorly on the lecture circuit, but found great success as an author, publishing 30 in all, and disseminating his name across the country.
I've read some bits of his work and it is very lofty nonsense about Universal Consciousness and Higher Spiritual Thought, but I'm not surprised that people of the 1840s and 1850s were taken in by it. That sort of philosophy gets repackaged and resold in every decade in every century. And it gave me a little bit of insight into the kind of people John and Hannah were.
John and Hannah, or, John Green and George Sands
John Russell Grieve was born June 1, 1828 in Peebles, in the Scottish Borders region, the first child of Peter Grieve, a shoemaker, and Isabella Russell. At some point after John's birth, the family immigrated to America, and four years later, their second surviving child, David, was born in Ohio.
On April 4, 1850, John married fifteen-year-old Irish-born Hannah Banks, daughter of John Banks, also a shoemaker, and his wife Maria, apparently with the full approbation and approval of both their families.
[Document reads: "The State of Ohio, Muskingum County, SS, I hereby certify that on the 4th day of April 1850, I jointed together in Marriage, John R. Grieve and Hannah Banks. Asher A. Davis."]
Six months later, in October 1850, the newlyweds took a boat out on the Muskingum river, as they were known to do from time to time. They never came back.
[Article reads: Death by Drowning - The Zanesville Gazette records the death of Mr. and Mrs. John Grieve. They were in the habit of rowing and sailing up the Muskingum, afternoons, taking their evening meal along. They also took books and read as they floated upon the waters, until twilight. Monday night they did not return. Tuesday their boat was found bottom side up, and the shawl and basket of Mrs. Grieve. Their bodies had not been found.]
For reasons that have never been explained, the two then made their way east to Massachusetts, a distance of three hundred miles, and settled in Quincy, outside of Boston... not as husband and wife, but as half-brothers John Green and George Sands.
Hannah was no stranger to dressing in men's clothes; she was apparently known to do this at home in order to attend lectures "where only men were admitted", and for the short time she lived in Quincy, no one had any inkling that she was not what she pretended to be.
The two took rooms in a Quincy boarding house. John found work as a shoemaker, and 'George' assumed the identity of an invalid portrait painter. According to the Boston Courier's later account of the 'Quincy Tragedy', "Sands spent much time in reading, mostly in modern French works, and seemed to be a disciple of the 'Spiritual Knockings' school."
An aside: In all of the articles that I found, there is a thread of plainly-spoken disdain running through all of them for the pastime of novel-reading, which goes hand-in-hand with an unspoken disdain for all so-called 'female' pastimes, and especially for 'romantic' females (romantic here not meaning love, but the emphasis on intense emotion as the source of all authentic experiences).
The word most used in describing Hannah Banks Grieve was 'romantic'.
[Article excerpt reads: "Mrs. Grieve was young and very intelligent; wrote both prose and poetry with considerable merit, but was of a marked romantic disposition--so much so, that when generally supposed to be drowned, those who knew them best believed that it was but another romantic freak, and that they would again be heard from."]
In mid-November, the 'half-brothers' disappeared, after stopping at a shop to buy gunpowder and percussion caps.
It was not until February of 1851, four months later, that their bodies were found in the Braintree woods by two local hunters. Their corpses were lying side by side, and were frozen solid and preserved by the frigid New England winter.
[Article excerpt reads "The coroner, upon reaching the spot, soon ascertained that their deaths was the result of wounds by a pistol. The bodies were, one of them, that of a rather tall person, the other being much shorter. The short person laid to the right of the taller one. By the side of the latter, and close to, if not grasped in his right hand, was a discharged pistol, of a single barrel, such as might be called one of the old-fashioned "horse-pistols." There was also upon the ground a powder flask, a quantity of percussion caps, and some shot in a paper."]
The coroner later determined that 'George' had been shot in the temple, and John's face is disfigured as though he had shot himself in the mouth.
At first, no one in Quincy knew anything more about the young man and woman. There's some assumption, at first, that they are a pair of star-crossed lovers, unable to be with one another save in death. The story gets picked up by more and more newspapers, until it reaches the ears of two families in Zanesville, Ohio: the Grieves and the Bankses.
A week after the bodies were found, the Quincy coroner Lewis Bass received a letter from Ohio. It was from John's father, Peter.
In it, he provided knowledge of physical marks, clothes and belongings to identify his son, making special note is made of two tattoos: a wreath with the figure of a woman in the center, and half the name 'Grieve'.
It was Peter who asserted that his son and daughter-in-law were deluded by the writings of A.J. Davis, in a letter to the Quincy coroner that ends up published in newspapers nationwide; this letter sets out Peter's directions for the creation of the headstone with its strangely pointed epitaph, as well as requesting the return of John's effects, such as his box of drawing instruments and his silver pocket watch
The couple's deep interest in spiritualism and table-rapping was well-known at among their friends at home, and indeed, not long before her death, Hannah had visited (as herself) and written (as George Sands) to another respected spiritualist to ask if suicide would lessen her chances for happiness in the spiritual world. His answer came too late.
[Article reads: "Boston, Nov. 12, 1850. 'My Brother Dear:--No one who has a mind to read the Spirits' paper will be at a lost [sic] what answer to give to your question. Would you cut down a flower to hasten its progression to maturity? 'Yours truly, Le Roy Sunderland.'"]
I have found no indication as to why Peter Grieve singled out Andrew Jackson Davis, out of all the prominent spiritualists of the day, to be the one named on his son's headstone, but in John and Hannah's lodgings, after their death, was found Davis's first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind. So it's possible that Davis was the name that Peter was most aware of, that John and Hannah had spoken of most often and most highly in his hearing.
Regardless of why, it was Davis who Peter blamed by name. Davis never responded, as far as I have been able to find, but his wife (his first wife Catherine) did, at length, defending her husband and her religion and cruelly pinning the blame for the young people's deaths on bad parenting.
[Article reads: "I would advise you for the good of others to change this inscription on your son's grave and let this truth be there recorded: 'The victim of a diseased imagination; the inheritor of an unhealthy intellect; one not guided and directed from childhood unto good; the unhappy destroyer of his own earthly life, and the life here of one who loved him.'"]
Like so many, the story quickly ceased to excite interest. In July of 1851, the same newspapers who had reported on John and Hannah’s mysterious end carried one final note on the case, when John’s younger brother David, described by the papers as 'a cripple', arrived in Quincy to learn more about the circumstances of his brother death.
This item is covered in the papers as a point of interest, not because David is able to shed any light on the tragedy, but because of his method of travel.
[Article reads: "Travelling by Dog Power. David Grieve brother of John Grieve, who died in so singular a manner in Quincy last season, arrived in Boston on Saturday evening, from Zanesville, O., having travelled the entire distance, 900 miles, in a vehicle drawn by two large dogs. It has taken about two months to accomplish the journey. Mr. G. has gone to Quincy to investigate the circumstances attending the death of his brother."]
It is not recorded whether or not David found any answers for his family in Quincy.
And that's the end, as far as I can find. Nothing more concrete is ever discovered about John and Hannah's motivations. I can also find no record of Davis ever commenting on the tragedy.
This was at the beginning of his career, but Davis's star eventually waned in spiritual circles. His reputation was very much tarnished by his divorce from his second wife, who died shortly after (so it is said, from a broken heart). Sexual scandals in religious circles are certainly not a modern invention. He took up holistic medicine and died in Watertown, Massachusetts in 1910. His third wife Delphine outlived him.
Peter Grieve died in 1854. David Grieve married in 1861, had four children, and died in 1894 of kidney trouble. And... that's it. The tragedy of John and Hannah simply... stops, and fades away.
The only other mention of them that I found, outside of census records and old newspapers, was a brief mention in an 1863 novel called "Ravelette" by Paschal Beverly Randolph - who, incidentally, is a fascinating guy and I might have to do a future post on him: an African-American doctor, spiritualist, and practitioner of sex magic (no, really) (no, really) - and even he (or at least his narrator) refused to fully entertain the notion that Davis's teachings could in any way have contributed to the deaths of two young romantics from Ohio.
I think that's what touches me so much about this story - even with such an odd headstone to memorialize them, they really aren't remembered, even by lovers of strange and unusual New England.