She’s wild. She’s shameful. She’s their cousin.
Soon after young Mary Hellen moved in with her aunt Louisa and her uncle John Quincy Adams, Louisa described her as “a very fine girl, but a little wild.” Louisa took her out of school and taught her at home. Mary was making good progress and Louisa wrote to her youngest son, Charles Francis, that Mary was “a fine natural genius, and though she is not so advanced in her education as you are, you must take care that she does not overtake you—.”
Louisa meant “overtake” academically, but Mary Hellen overtook Charles Francis Adams—and his older brothers, George Washington Adams and John Adams II—in very different ways.
We dig into her real life game of “F*ck Marry Kill” with her cousins in this episode of the podcast titled “Mary Hellen’s Petticoat Magic.”
Biographers have called Mary Hellen “provocative,” a “vixen,” and “a dangerous flirt” who tormented the Adams brothers. We have diary entries and letters from Charles Francis, John Quincy, and Louisa Adams that help us piece together these events, but what we don’t have is Mary Hellen’s side of the story.
What we’re left with is a story that tells us more about the Adams family’s crushing pressure, repression, and vulnerability than it does about the character of Mary Hellen.
Mary Hellen Picks the Wrong Son of John Quincy Adams, New England Historical Society
“The Great Rebellion of 1823: The Year Half The Senior Class Was Expelled,” by Thomas J. Mayer, The Harvard Crimson
“Report of a trial: Miles Farmer, versus Dr. David Humphreys Storer ; commenced in the Court of common pleas, April term, 1830, from which it was appealed to the Supreme judicial court, and by consent of parties, referred to referees, relative to the transactions between Miss Eliza Dolph and George Washington Adams,” Harvard Library
The Enslaved Household of President John Quincy Adams by Lindsay Chervinsky, White House Historical Association
Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas
The Adams Women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters by Paul C. Nagel
Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the Adams Family by Paul C. Nagel
“All in the Family: A Psychobiography of the Adamses” by Peter Shaw, The American Scholar
“Mary Hellen, one of the most capricious women that were ever formed in a capricious race,” The Diary of Charles Francis Adams, Massachusetts Historical Society
“Let it be,” The Diary of John Quincy Adams, Massachusetts Historical Society
“From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to George Washington Adams, 4 September 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives