The Runaway Romance of Mary Schenley

Feb 13, 2015

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Though Pittsburgh is just now beginning to appear on lists of “most-romantic cities” and “romantic weekend destinations,” its soil has long fostered fiery and impetuous love.

A prime example is the 1842 elopement of Mary Schenley. A New York Times editorial called it to the greatest romance of the city’s early history: While attending a boarding school on Staten Island Mary Schenley, nee Croghan, secretly married a British army captain three times her age.

News of the scandal rocked the nation. For context, it was the early 19th century. Women didn’t just take their lives into their own hands, and girlish heirs apparent certainly did not. Mary Croghan, as the only surviving child of the late Mary O’Hara and William Croghan, Jr. was the most prominent heir to her maternal grandfather, James O’Hara. An officer in the Revolutionary War, O’Hara was one of the first quartermaster generals and a man of foresight, said Jake Oresick, an attorney who has spent the last three years researching Mary’s story and written a forthcoming article for Western Pennsylvania History Magazine.

“He acquired land in a strategic way that foresaw that whatever way the region developed that someone would have to buy from his heirs,” Oresick said.

All of this meant that Mary Croghan was well-known, even as a child. She had terrible asthma and at 9 years old, her father sent her away from the smoke-clotted air of Pittsburgh to a Staten Island boarding school run by a Scotswoman, Richmond Margaret Macleod.

For the next five years, things were pretty quiet in the Mary Croghan camp. Until, in the winter of 1840, Captain Edward W. H. Schenley arrived at the school. Captain Schenley was Mrs. Macleod’s brother-in-law. A decorated veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, the captain reportedly cut quite a figure.

“He was, by all accounts, very impressive," Oresick said. "He was charismatic. He was the life of a party. He wore his dress blues. He wore his medals. He was tall with dark hair.”

After courting for a year, Mary Croghan and the captain were married in secret by a police magistrate on Jan. 22, 1842. They sailed for the captain’s native England on Feb. 1 under the name Wynham to avoid detection.

“The interesting thing about the magistrate was that he himself had been impeached for bribery the year before,” Oresick said. "Though he had been acquitted, the charge was that he just let people go if they could come up with the money, which sort of cast doubt on his character. He was questioned and said he had no suspicion of anything improper.”

Conversely, Mary’s family saw nothing but impropriety. William Croghan reportedly fainted upon hearing the news. While paralyzed by despair, his brother-in-law raced to Staten Island to question Mrs. Macleod. He accused her of arranging the whole sordid affair and the school closed. Schenley was abused in the press as a fortune hunter. One reporter did so in rhyming verse. Another said he was old enough to “feel the infirmities of age.”

There are lots of rumors surrounding the couple’s elopement. That William sent naval ships after the couple, that they were excluded from Queen Victoria’s court, that Mary didn’t care for Pittsburgh. Oresick said he found no evidence to support any of it. And meanwhile, in letters to her father, Mary radiates the warmth of the happily besotted.

“‘Mr. Schenley is still what he has always been, a devoted, kind, affectionate and everything that’s good husband,’” Oresick read.

Mary’s bliss is all the more impressive for the soil in which it flourished. Schenley was a judge commissioner in the mixed court for the suppression of the slave trade in Surinam, a Dutch plantation colony, which is really a change of pace, said Oresick.

“There were swamps, there were diseases," he said. "Manure was dumped on their doorstep. Mary was frequently afraid she would be infected with leprosy, intentionally. Their lives were threatened. Their horses were poisoned.”

Susan Rademacher, parks curator for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, said it must have been a doozy of a romance.

“You have to admire her pluck,” Rademacher said.

Mary’s early pluck foreshadows her later business acumen. Though the Schenleys amassed a fortune from a stringent rent system, Mary was prevailed upon to be a benefactress to Pittsburgh. She gifted large tracts of land to the fledgling park system and sold land at reasonable prices for the creation of cultural institutions, Rademacher said.

“I think because of her love of Pittsburgh, she recognized that there were certain assets that had a higher purpose than privatization and development,” she said.

Mary Schenley’s legacy is one of higher purpose. She gave up everything for love, and then left some of it to us.

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