Anna Cora Mowatt and the Wedding of the Year

Anna Cora Mowatt' Wedding

June 7, 2020 marks the 166th anniversary of Anna Cora Mowatt’s marriage to William Foushee Ritchie. In February of this year looking forward to this date, I had made arrangements with a dear high school friend of mine to take a trip to Virginia to visit some of the sites of Mowatt’s life with Ritchie. We even gleefully made plans to brave swamps and “no trespassing” signs to locate Ritchie’s grave at one of the cemeteries on the grounds of Lower Brandon and snap a few pictures for me to post on this blog. Odd and unhappy circumstances at the time of this writing make it unnecessary for me to explain to any reader from anywhere on the globe who may stumble upon these words at this time why this trip fell through. Dear Reader, I hope there will soon be some happier future in which you will have to scratch your head and wonder why everyone in the world would automatically understand why in the spring of 2020 I could not travel a few hours to get eaten up by mosquitoes and risk arrest while I tracked down the final resting place of William F. Ritchie.

The folks at the Mowatt-Ritchie wedding did not realize that they were about to be caught up in one of history’s great fireball events that would consume many of them completely – even though a lot of them were the flamethrowers of their day and were actively bringing their country to the precipice of that great war that would divide and decimate them. For the moment, though, it was a beautiful June day. Even though the groom was forty-one years old and the bride was thirty-five and it was her second marriage, it was obvious this was a very special wedding. Attendees of this event had to have realized that they were witnessing one of those rare occasions that rise above the grimy realities of day-to-day American life like a sparkling, effervescent bubble – fueled with fantasy and a great deal of hot air. The celebration of the Mowatt-Ritchie nuptials on June 7, 1854, Dear Reader, was a celebrity wedding.

As I said, Mowatt’s marriage to Ritchie was her second trip to the altar. Victorian second marriages were generally more reserved affairs not usually celebrated with all the fanfare of first marriages. However, Anna Cora had eloped with James Mowatt at age fifteen. Her wedding dress had been a garment she and one of her sisters had managed to sew in secret at night. The ceremony had been conducted by a French minister who, after being refused by three other men of the cloth, James Mowatt had finally been able to pressure into agreeing because his own marriage had been an elopement. The only witnesses to the ceremony had been less than a dozen of James’ friends. There was a significant pause during the proceedings when the priest tried to back out when he saw how young Anna Cora actually was. All in all, not quite a dream wedding.

I’m telling you all this, but in 1854, Anna Cora Mowatt had a fanbase who knew this information. Her autobiography had come out that year and was being snapped up eagerly by her devotees all over the country. This was in the days before Broadway stars were unknowns outside Lower Manhattan. Leading performers like Edwin Booth, Laura Keene and their companies toured the Eastern seaboard rather than attaching themselves to any single New York theater. Thus Mowatt could number fans not only in New York, but in Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans, Memphis, Louisville, and Cincinnati as well. They had packed her farewell tour performances from pit to dome. Nothing would please these devotees better than seeing the promise of a “happily ever after” ending in the form of a fairytale wedding for their American sweetheart.

The mass media of the day did their best to deliver. Detailed accounts of Mowatt’s wedding appeared in hundreds of newspapers all across the Eastern United States. Some mentions were only the sort of brief notices in the society pages one might expect for a marriage. However, many of the articles were full-blown, two-column spreads relaying the impressions of reporters sent to witness the event. Several of the papers in the Northeast presented their reports under the heading of “Miscellany” or “Talk of the Town” near the back of the paper. A good number of news-hungry publications in the South in Mid-West ran reprints of articles from the New York Times, Post, Herald, Express, and the Boston Evening Transcript on their front pages side-by-side with discussions of the latest developments from the upcoming presidential race.

Although both American media and the Idea of celebrity itself were still in their infancy, the core elements of the coverage of the celebrity wedding already seemed to be in place for the Mowatt-Ritchie wedding. Implicit in the coverage are ideas familiar to all aficionados of modern celebrity weddings — First, that romance is symbolized by a certain type of ritualized conspicuous consumption at these sorts of affairs, and second, that the price of fame is the surrender of a certain amount of privacy. Via the newspaper accounts, we readers are given access to all types of information that normally would be limited only to invitation-holders to this exclusive event. Indeed, one account lets us know what our invitation would have looked like if Mrs. Mowatt had remembered to add us to the guest list.

The invitations are given, of course, by the mother of the bride, Mrs. Samuel G. Ogden, enclosing the cards of the bride and groom, and the following card of instructions passim:
“Carriage route for Ravenswood by the Peck slip and Houston street ferries by way of Williamsburgh, distance five miles. The steamer Ravenswood leaves the pier below Peck slip at one o’clock, and returns at 5:12 pm. Extra trips on the 7th June, will return to New York at 8 and 10 pm. The ceremony will take place at 3 o’clock.”
The notes bear the arms of the Ogden family, a lion rampant, quarterings of oak branch and acorns, with the following motto: “Et si ostendo non jacto.” – Though I shine I do not boast. 1

Virtual invitation in hand, the descriptions from these newspaper accounts, like modern celebrity wedding coverage, continue to do all they can to make the reader feel that they, too, are part of this exclusive event by giving as many details little details as possible of the appearance of the setting of the ceremony at Mowatt’s father’s home in Ravenswood, New York. Of course, the crown jewel of coverage of any wedding – celebrity or no — is a meticulous account of the wedding gown. As is usual for celebrity weddings, reports of Anna Cora’s gown emphasized not only how beautiful, but how expensive it was:

It was the good fortune of the favored few to mark, with peculiar interest – an interest that we are sure will be appreciated by our lady readers – the appearance of the bride in a dress of superb white silk, inlaid with lace, and deep flounced, and a long bridal veil of costly thread lace, secured by a myrtle wreath; the toilette altogether exquisite, without sacrificing simplicity to extravagance.2

The description from the Express is loaded with terms so specific to Victorian times that it is almost unintelligible today, except, again that it was a lovely dress made of highly attractive and costly materials;

The dress was of white silk, beautifully embroidered, lace applique being also let in; the veil of Honiton, fastened by a wreath of white rose-buds and myrtle leaves and would have swept the floor had it not been looped up at the side; a pearl necklace, presented by the groom, graced her neck, and the berthe of Brussels point was confined at the bosom by a broach belonging to the same set.3

Most of the accounts proceed to a description of the six bridesmaids and six groomsmen at this point. She was attended by friends, sisters, nieces and relatives of her dear friend Epes Sargent.
Although this was not a part of the ceremony, mentioning bridesmaids reminds me that a source of minor controversy was that many newspapers also carried this list of gifts received by Anna Cora Mowatt complete with the names of the givers:

Among the pretty presents to Mrs. Mowatt upon the occasion of her recent marriage to Mr. Ritchie was a group of statuary from Spencer’s Fairy Queen (the subject being Britomartis unchaining Amoret) from her publishers in Boston, Messers. Ticknor, Reed & Field, – a beautiful copy of Miranda gazing at the shipwreck, from Miss Appleton, — an elegant inkstand, surrounded by cupids, from Mr. Peterson of Philadelphia – a parain vase from a friend, — a magnificent wrought silver vase from her brother Charles Ogden, — a set of pearls from the groom, — a beautifully embroidered chain from her sister Mrs. Mecke, and worked by her own hands, beside silver, embroideries and fancy work without limit.4

A few editorial writers debated whether or not it violated the rules of decorum for someone to have revealed that Mowatt received these expensive gifts and exactly who gave them. Apparently such concerns didn’t stop the twenty or so papers who ran this anonymously sourced item, though.

To give their readers the feeling that they were actually present at the festivities, the New York Post not only covered the ceremony, but gave a word-for-word transcript of the somewhat out of the ordinary wording of the Swedenborgian ceremony (which is not unusual enough to merit my reproducing here, although I will post on my website page on the wedding). The account from the New York Evening Post heightened the feeling of verisimilitude by enlivening their account of the vows with touches of narrative flair such as;

Mr. Wilkes, then addressing Mr. Ritchie, said, “William Foushee, wilt thou have this woman for thy wife?”
“I will,” was the prompt, though almost in audible reply.
Then addressing the bride, he said, “Anna Cora, wilt thou have this man for thy husband?”
“I will,” was the response, in a clear but slightly tremulous tone.5

The New York Express could not resist adding the following elaboration in the same sort of spirit:

Our readers who so well know the loveliness and grace of the bride need not be told that on an occasion so full of holiest and deepest emotion her beauty shone out resplendent.6

When I say that the wedding was an exclusive event, I do not mean to imply that only a very limited number of people were invited. There has been a good amount of debate between Mowatt biographers as to how many of these invitations were sent. At the high end, there were press reports that as many as four thousand guests were invited and two thousand turned up on the day. More conservative (and probably realistic) estimates had the headcount down as far as five hundred with as few as two hundred actually witnessing the ceremony itself. This range of inflation for the guest list should give you some idea of the amount of hype surrounding this wedding in the press. As the Boston Courier rather snarkily put it,

Queen Victoria was not present, and the name of the Empress Eugenia is not mentioned among the five or six hundred guests…7

There were, however, a great many names among the guest list that will be recognizable to Civil War buffs as power players.

By half-past two most of the guests had arrived. Among those who lent distinction to the occasion were Robert J. Walker, Senator Douglas, Messers. Orr and Aiken, members of Congress from South Carolina; Dr. Pulte, of Cincinnati; George Wood, James W. Gerard, Judges Roosevelt and Woodward of this city, and Messers White and Ingersoll, ex-members of Congress from Pennsylvannia.8

Most accounts also mention that President Franklin Pierce was an invited guest — although for whatever reason he did not attend. Mowatt’s biographers usually mention that ex-president John Tyler’s wife threw a banquet in honor of the couple while they were on their honeymoon. The Ogdens, Mowatt’s family, were long-time members of New York’s moneyed class, the so-called “Upper Ten.” Anna Cora, herself, was part of the up and coming theater world and in the process of establishing a name for herself as author. Why then, instead of guests from any of these realms do we have all these politicians at her wedding? The answer is – it’s because of the groom.

In the role of Mowatt’s fairytale prince we have the somewhat ill-cast, William Foushee Ritchie. Ritchie was tall, red-headed, near-sighted, and short-tempered. In his youth, he had been an acquaintance of Edgar Allan Poe’s. They had both been members of the same amateur theatrical society in Richmond.9 He apparently had a taste for theatricals and is supposed to have fallen in love with Anna Cora after seeing her play the role of the virtuous maiden “Parthenia” in the Victorian melodrama, “Ingomar, the Barbarian.” That seemed to be the extent of his contact with the literary world, though.

When I talk about Anna Cora Mowatt’s second husband, I tend to use his middle name. This is not only because it’s a funny name, but because that name represents a big part of who he was. He was named after his grandfather, William Foushee, who had been a surgeon in the Revolutionary War and the first mayor of Richmond, Virginia. William F. Ritchie’s brother got his father’s name. Thomas Ritchie, Sr. (often called “Father Ritchie”) was the editor of the Richmond Enquirer, a paper of which Thomas Jefferson said, “I read but a single newspaper, Ritchie’s Enquirer, the best that is published or ever has been published in America.”10

Thomas Ritchie, Sr. was a power player in the group known as the “Richmond Junto” who controlled Virginia state government and was a force to be reckoned with in national politics as well. Richie senior eventually turned his paper over to Ritchie junior and William Foushee after he had gone on to edit a Washington-based paper called “The Union.” Thomas Ritchie, Jr. died rather ignobly after fighting a duel with John Hampden Pleasants, the editor of a rival paper, in 1846. Ritchie emerged the victor of the duel, having not only shot but also stabbed Pleasants, but wound up sinking into a deep depression when it was revealed that the other man had loaded his gun with blanks and had intended to fire only into the air. After lingering for many years, he rather inconveniently died on May 24th, 1854, just weeks before the Mowatt-Ritchie marriage. Contemporary accounts decorously gave his cause of his demise as “hereditary gout.” However, most historians bluntly conclude that Ritchie, Jr. drank himself to death.

Thomas Ritchie, Jr.’s ill-timed passing spawned a series of reports confusing him for his elder brother and erroneously announcing that Anna Cora’s fiancé had expired just shy of the wedding day. After this misunderstanding was cleared up, there was a certain amount of hand-wringing over whether or not the wedding would have to be delayed… and then a bit of eye-brow lifting when it was not (Victorians were very serious about their mourning.)

Ritchie, Jr.’s death was only one of the dramatic supplemental stories leading up to the Mowatt-Ritchie wedding. In the six months preceding her wedding, Mowatt had released her well-promoted, thoroughly publicized and glowingly reviewed autobiography, gone on a multi-city Farewell tour as she officially ended her stage career that was also very well publicized, indulgently lauded by critics, and attended by exceptionally emotional crowds; broken or sprained her arm, gotten engaged, and performed her usual quota of miscellaneous public appearances for charities and other organizations. Even by today’s standards, that’s a lot of media attention for an individual who isn’t elected to a public office to receive in a relatively short amount of time. After the wedding, a bit of Mowatt-fatigue was starting to set in among the press. The bitter aftertaste of media oversaturation is apparent in the Charleston Courier’s tone when they wearily concluded a week after the wedding,

We are never to hear the last of Mrs. Mowatt’s wedding. The newspaper guests could not waive their privilege of criticizing the informalities and peculiarities of the ceremony. The Swedenborgian minister, following the practice of the founder of his creed, pronounced the words “conjugal” and “nuptial” as they write it, as they are naturally derived from the Latin, nuptial and conjugal. The minister and his faith reply and give us another official account of the whole affair. Dodsworth’s band played too when they should not play, and this too affords another opportunity for explanation. There is an old saying about soldiers fighting their battles over again; I should think Mr. and Mrs. Ritchie might celebrate their wedding over and over again, by referring to the newspapers.11

New Orleans’ Times- Picayune, who tended to maintain an obstinately contrarian attitude towards all things Mowatt, started a piece titled “The Press Meddling With Private Affairs,” seemingly sympathizing with an article printed in the Mobile Advertiser complaining about the intrusive coverage of the wedding,

What must the emotions of a refined and delicate woman at her marriage festival, asks the Advertiser, were she aware that the sharp eyes of a newspaper reporter were fixe upon her – who while she was breathing the holiest vows that mortal can utter to mortal, was very likely arranging a minute report of the ceremonies, to be thrown off next day from the teeming press, and to be read and talked about by ten thousand persons whom perhaps she never knew, or of whom she never heard, can better be imagined than described.12

The writer then wonders aloud how all those rude reporters happened to be on the scene. They couldn’t be there unless they had gotten invitations too, though, could they? (From the cynical perspective of the 21st century, I dubiously shake my head and reply that I can imagine there were many ways reporters could have gained entrée to a much-anticipated event that even conservative estimates claimed had hundreds of invited guests. (And because those crowd estimates ranged from four thousand to two hundred, I can even imagine that some of those “eyewitnesses” weren’t really there at all.)) Perhaps, the author speculates, the ceremony that was relayed word-for-word was released in advance instead of being taken down in shorthand. Everyone knows that there are folks who crave the spotlight. That’s what made them celebrities. Perhaps this was why this was a celebrity wedding. So why blame the press? Or as the writer put it,

The fact is, we judge, there is very little, probably not any real offending in this way, on the part of the press. We doubt, if personal accounts of private parties are ever given to the press, unless with the permission, at least, the tacit permission, perhaps, of the givers of them. We have known of instances – has not the Advertiser? – where no little anxiety has been displayed on the part of the inviters, lost a mention of their bal masque or bal pare, or fete of whatever kind, should not find its way into the columns of the press. And at the fashionable watering places of the land we fancy there would be a great dearth of such entertainments if it were understood that no publicity was to be given to them.13

Nearly two centuries later, the spiritual great-great-great grandchildren of the Times-Picayune journalist are still using this same rational to cut off discussion or the need for self-reflection or restraint on the part of the press when engaging in hyperbolic and intrusive celebrity coverage. “Yes,” they always wind up admitting in the end, “it’s all a dirty game where everybody’s out to cash in on the publicity generated by the public’s curiosity and fantasies. And yes, sometime people do get hurt, but can’t you see that the celebrities are playing the game too? Don’t blame us.”

Modern journalists may be as open as the writer from the Times-Picayune about shifting blame for the over-hyped nature of their coverage to the subjects of their reporting, but I have seen few be so blunt as this commentator from the Charleston Courier about their plans for avoiding a similar fate,

Mr. and Mrs. Ritchie, if they desire newspaper notoriety, have had it to their hearts content. Not only has the wedding, the marriage ceremony, and almost everything else been most minutely reported, but one of the papers regales us with an account of the bride’s presents, with the names of the givers. It may be all right and proper, but when I get married, I’ll do like our Yacht Club, and not “allow reporters on board.”14

Anna Cora Mowatt' Wedding

1. “The Marriage Fete of Anna Cora Mowatt.” The Evening Post: New York. June 6, 1854, col 2.
2. “Marriage of Anna Cora Mowatt and Mr. Ritchie of Virginia.“ Washington Sentinel. June 10, 1854.
3. “Ravenswood Wedding.” Daily Dispatch. June 10, 1854.
4. Buffalo Morning Express. June 6, 1854. Page 3.
5. “Marriage Fete at Ravenswood.” The Evening Post: New York. June 8, 1854.
6. “The Ravenswood Marriage.” The Daily Dispatch. June 10, 1854.
7. “Things in General: Marriage of Mr. Ritchie.” Boston Courier. June 12, 1854. Page 8.
8. “Marriage Fete at Ravenswood.” The Evening Post: New York. June 8, 1854.
9. Blesis, Marius. Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. University of Virginia, 1938 Page 326
10. “Thomas Jefferson to William Short, September 8, 1823”.
11. “New York Correspondence,” Charleston Courier. June 14, 1854.
12. “The Press Meddling With Private Matters.” Times-Picayune: New Orleans. June 16, 1854. Page 2, col. 2.
13. Ibid.
14. “New York Correspondence,” Charleston Courier. June 16, 1854.