The Prolific Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth and her Georgetown Cottage

Georgetown has had its share of unique residents over its 260 years of existence, and perhaps none was more distinctive than Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth (1819-1899), a prolific novelist who lived in a picturesque cottage perched up on Prospect Street overlooking the Potomac. Her cottage, a well-known landmark in its day, has been gone since 1940. It would have been as out-of-place in modern Georgetown as the potboiler novels that once made her wildly popular among 19th-century women readers across the nation.

Prospect Cottage (Source: D.C. Public Library via Flickr).

Southworth was a consummate Washingtonian, having been born in the one of the twin townhouses that George Washington built as a speculative development on North Capitol Street. (The site is now part of the vast open space known as Union Square between the Capitol and Union Station.) Her father, Captain Charles LeCompte Nevitte, had been a successful Alexandria merchant until his ships were lost during the cold war with France in the early years of the 19th century. The dashing Captain Nevitte led a company of troops during the War of 1812 and was wounded in the chest for his troubles, an ailment that led to his death in 1824, when little Emma was only five years old. Supposedly it was on his deathbed that Captain Nevitte persuaded a local priest to rechristen little Emma with two additional names so that here initials would spell out E.D.E.N., a melodramatic gesture particularly well-suited to the novelist-to-be.

Emma would later recall that after her father's death, her early life was filled with suffering and privation. "At the age of six, I was a little, thin, dark, wild-eyed elf," she wrote, "shy, awkward and unattractive, and in consequence was very much—let alone. I spent much time in solitude, reverie, or mischief..." Her widowed mother remarried, and Emma's new stepfather, a schoolmaster, was apparently harsh and unsympathetic. Upon graduating from his school at age 16, Emma became a teacher in the nascent D.C. public school system. Five years later she married Frederick Southworth, an inventor from New York, and moved with him to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, then a western frontier town. The delicate city girl endured numerous privations, living part of the time in a log cabin. She gave birth to a son, Richmond, who like his mother proved delicate and sickly, as well as a daughter, Charlotte. Then in 1844 Emma returned to Washington, D.C., sans Mr. Southworth, who had absconded for reasons unknown. "I found myself broken in spirit, health, and purse—a widow in fate but not in fact—with my babes looking up to me for a support I could not give them. It was in these darkest days of my woman's life, that my author's life commenced," she explained.

Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth (Source: Woman's Record, 1855).

Southworth's formative experiences gave her sensibilities that would resonate for vast numbers of her female contemporaries who yearned for the freedom to lead independent lives. In All The Happy Endings, a study of 19th-century women novelists, Helen Waite Papashvily noted that "the authors of the domestic novel shared curiously similar backgrounds. Almost all were women of upper-middle-class origin who began very early in life to write, frequently under pressure of sudden poverty.... Most important for many of these women, somewhere, sometime, someplace in her past some man—a father, brother, a husband, a guardian—had proved unworthy of the trust and confidence she placed in him. This traumatic experience, never resolved, grew into a chronic grievance."

Upon returning to Washington, Southworth had resumed teaching in the DC public schools, specifically at Primary School #10 at 13th and C Streets SW, where she lived at the time. Her annual salary of $250 represented a very meager family income. Galvanized by her distress, Southworth began writing to distract herself from her woes. She turned in a short story at a local book store she frequented, asking that it be submitted somewhere for publication. "The Irish Refugee" was accepted by the Baltimore Saturday Visitor and published in 1846. Although it provided no income to its needy author, Southworth's first story earned attention from other publications, including The National Era, which would then publish her first novel, Retribution, in serial form in 1849. That work appeared in book form later that year. Southworth rapidly became a very popular writer.

She wrote steadily, for a set amount of time each day, five days a week, for years on end. She would write in segments that initially would be serialized in newspapers and magazines but later were often reprinted in books, some authorized and some not, many times with different titles. In fact, Southworth's publishing history is so complex that it's hard to tell how many books she wrote altogether. There were at least sixty, with titles like The Deserted Wife, The Discarded Daughter, The Missing Bride, and The Broken Engagement. As you might imagine, they all had a recurring theme: a poor and innocent woman is wronged, inviting the pity and sympathy of the reader, but she turns out to be plucky enough to prevail in the end. While some of her villains were female, most were men—arrogant and selfish individuals who all eventually got their comeuppance.

A copy of Southworth's The Hidden Hand in the collection of the Peabody Room, Georgetown Public Library. Photo by Jerry A. McCoy

Southworth's best-known novel today is The Hidden Hand, first published in 1859. It's the story of the winsome and high-spirited (but awkwardly named) Capitola Le Noir, who was kidnapped as a child and grew up in a New York City slum. She's found and brought back to her ancestral Virginia home by a grumpy old uncle who intends to civilize her, but the buoyant imp will not be suppressed. Early in the novel she is overwhelmed by her plush new surroundings and questions whether it's all really happening:
Can this be I, Capitola, the little outcast of the city, changed into Miss Black, the young lady, perhaps the heiress to a fine old country seat! calling a fine old military officer, uncle! having a handsome income of pocket-money settled upon me! having carriages, and horses, and servants to attend me! No! it can't be! it's just impossible! No, I see how it is! I'm crazy! that's what I am! crazy!...
      I wonder how long they'll keep me here? For ever I hope! Until I get cured I'm sure! I hope they won't cure me! I vow I won't be cured! It's a great deal too pleasant to be mad, and I'll stay so! I'll keep calling myself Miss Black, and this mad-house my country seat, and the head doctor my uncle, and the keepers servants until the end of time—so I will! Catch me coming to my senses when it's so delightful to be mad! I'm too sharp for that! I didn't grow up in Rag Alley, New York, for nothing!
Plucky Cap Black proceeds to have many adventures, at every turn flouting Victorian mores concerning the role of women and enjoying every minute of it. In one particularly outrageous incident, she fights a duel with a man who has slandered her and shoots the unfortunate gentleman full of dried peas. She gleefully foils the evil Black Donald, who is on a mission to kidnap her, all the while managing to consume a prodigious quantity of tarts. She secretly takes the place of an unwilling bride at a wedding ceremony and at the critical Do-you-take-this-man-to-be-your-lawful-wedded-husband moment gleefully raises her veil and cries out "No—not if he were the last man and I the last woman on earth and the human race were to become extinct—and not if the Angel Gabriel came down and asked me to do this—most certainly—No!" Readers ate it up.

Southworth wasn't shy about inserting her views on politics as well. At one point, the arch-villain, Black Donald, explains his motives for wanting to be paid a large sum to do away with Capitola:
...[T]he truth is...that I am tired of this sort of life, and wish to retire from active business. Besides, every man has his ambition, and I have mine. I wish to emigrate to the glorious West, settle, marry, turn my attention to politics, be elected to Congress, then to the Senate, then to the Cabinet, then to the White House; for success in which career, I flatter myself nature and education have especially fitted me. Ten thousand dollars will give me a fair start! Many a successful politician, your honour knows, has started on less character and less capital!
All of Southworth's novels were widely read, but The Hidden Hand was a particular blockbuster, both in the U.S. and abroad. It was reprinted numerous times, both in periodicals and in book form. Everyone loved Cap Black. When Southworth arrived in London at the invitation of her British publisher, she found "Capitola as popular there as in America. There were Capitola boats, Capitola race horses, Capitol hats for ladies and other Capitola fads," she later recounted. The book was turned into a play that ran in several productions simultaneously on the London stage, including one version starring John Wilkes Booth. The novel remains in print to this day.

Prospect Cottage in 1909. The building to its rear, with the Coca Cola sign, still stands today and now houses the 1789 Restaurant. (Photo by Willard R. Ross from a postcard in the collection of the Peabody Room, Georgetown Public Library).

It's not entirely clear when Prospect Cottage was built or even exactly when Mrs. Southworth moved into it. John Clagget Proctor, a well-known commentator on D.C. history for The Evening Star, wrote in 1942 that the cottage was "said to have been built for and occupied by a former French Minister" and that Southworth moved in "as early as 1860." Other sources (Sarah M. Huddleson) put her there even earlier, in 1853. It seems likely that she was able to afford to make the move after entering into a long-term contract with Robert Bonner (1824-1899) of The New York Ledger in 1856 that paid her a generous annual salary in exchange for exclusive rights to her works.

The cottage, like its long owner, was a paradigm of its age, designed in the Carpenter Gothic style that was highly fashionable before the Civil War. Characteristically, its gabled, deeply-overhanging roof was lined with decorative barge-boards sporting icicle-like ornaments. In its later years, it was covered with roses and honeysuckle, adding to its romantic allure. Its long veranda, wrapping around the southern end of the house, offered many vantage points for appreciating the country-like surroundings or for gazing across at Virginia, where many of Southworth's novels were set.

Carpenter Gothic houses look to the Gothic Revival for inspiration but often include their own vernacular eccentricities. They were built in an era of romantic sensibilities and were carefully set into picturesque landscapes. An exceptional example that survives to this day is the famous Lincoln Cottage on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home. That house, built in 1842 by banker George W. Riggs, was exquisitely situated on a picturesque hilltop with a view of Washington City in the distance. Prospect Cottage was equally impressive on its hilltop perch. Charles Warren Stoddard, writing in The National Magazine in 1905, offered this appropriately romantic description:
...[T]he cottage was half hidden among the branches of the trees that embowered it and looked as cosy as a dove-cote in its airy grove. It hung upon the very brink of the hill; its lower story is below the street in the rear of it, but jutting out into a terraced garden, from whose ultimate hedges one might have cast oneself headlong into the canal that borders the edge of the northern shore of the Potomac. Its western windows were bathed in the sunset glow and the river, far below it, was a river of life and light; its eastern windows opened on breezy heights where the goats skipped nimbly in a tree-filled, vacant lot; the south verandah, up among the treetops, hung like a fairy gallery before the Virginia slopes, and in the deep valley between them flowed the noble Potomac, famed in song and story....
In those days 36th Street, running alongside the cottage, continued down the hill from Prospect Street to M Street in a very steep drop. At the bottom was the foot of the Aqueduct Bridge, leading across the river to Virginia. (Later the street was closed off and a great stone wall erected to allow flat land to be reclaimed along M Street below. The former route of 36th Street in this block is now traversed by the famous "Exorcist" stairs.) If nothing else, the cottage must have offered an unsurpassed lookout point for guarding the Aqueduct Bridge during the Civil War, though I have not found anything to show that it was actually used as such. [See Update below for more information about Southworth during the war years.]

Postcard view of Prospect Cottage in the 1910s, after it had been converted to commercial use.

Southworth stayed in England from 1859 to 1862 but returned to Georgetown feeling "so homesick I think my heart will break" (as quoted in Papashvily). Aside from an extended visit with her daughter in the Hudson Valley, she spent the rest of her life living and writing in Prospect Cottage, where she died in 1899. Her son inherited the house but died the following year, leaving it to his sister. Charlotte, who lived in New York, seems to have not had much interest in the house. Within years, it became something of a tourist trap. A Washington Post article from 1905 observed that "Now the sitting-room that Mrs. Southworth planned is an ice cream parlor, and the handsome, old drawing-room serves as a cafe. On the verandas visitors sit and chat as they wait for the [street]cars. Their talk is of Mrs. Southworth, and it is claimed that they cut great splinters out of the porch and side of the house, and even capture the bugs and grasshoppers in the yard for souvenirs...." There is talk of people seeing the ghost of Mrs. Southworth walking up and down on the veranda, wringing her hands.

Site of Prospect Cottage today (Photo by the author).

In 1928, the National League of American Pen Women purchased the house, raising hopes that it would be restored in part as a memorial to Southworth. Mrs. Clarence Busch, president of the League, was quoted in the Post as saying, "we are likely to make some changes, but these will come slowly. Whatever we do we shall always keep intact the room that was the library of the old Southworth home, in which she did most of her writing for many years." It was not to be, however. The league did not stay in the house very long; it was sold and torn down in 1942. Brick townhouses were built on the property in 1950. Today there is virtually no trace of either the house or its once-picturesque setting, and one suspects there are also very few sightings of the ghost of Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth.

UPDATE: Carlton Fletcher has kindly provided additional information about Mrs. Southworth during the Civil War. As mentioned in Margaret Leech's Reveille in Washington, Southworth attended Lincoln’s second inaugural ball at the Patent Office in 1865. According to Mr. Fletcher, she was also a manager at the National Colored Home in 1863 and a volunteer at Seminary Hospital in Georgetown. Officers of the Signal Camp of Instruction later recounted that they had been entertained by the famous author at Prospect Cottage. Further, Southworth was said to have offered her cottage as a reserve hospital for convalescing soldiers, perhaps as many as 27 at one point.

* * * * *

Jerry McCoy, Special Collections Librarian of the D.C. Public Library provided invaluable assistance in researching Mrs. Southworth and her home in Georgetown. Jerry is in charge of the Peabody Room at the Georgetown Public Library, which has copies of 26 of Mrs. Southworth's novels in its collection and would like to acquire more. (For a complete list of current holdings, consult the catalog of the D.C. Public Library.) If anyone has a copy of an E.D.E.N. Southworth novel that they would like to donate to the Peabody Room, Jerry would be very happy to receive it.

Additional sources included James M. Goode, Capital Losses (2nd ed., 2003); Sarah J. Hale, Woman's Record or Sketches of All Distinguished Women, (1855); John S. Hart, The Female Prose Writers of America (1857); Sarah M. Huddleson, "Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth and Her Cottage" in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 23 (1920); Frances Carpenter Huntington, "Ladies of 'The Literary'" in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 66/68 (1968); Josephine Davis Leary, Backward Glances at Georgetown (1947); Helen Waite Papashvily, All The Happy Endings (1956); E.D.E.N. Southworth, The Hidden Hand (1859); Charles Warren Stoddard, "Mrs. Emma D.E.N. Southworth at Prospect Cottage" in National Magazine (May 1905); and numerous newspaper articles.


  1. Thank you for writing such lively prose about "our" Mrs. Southworth! Fun fact. Capitola, California was named after the protagonist of "The Hidden Hand." For additional information about this beautiful seaside resort, check out

  2. It's always a delight to learn something absolutely new. I had never heard of E.D.E.N. Southworth and her writing. Thank you once again for a great post!

  3. The location of this home now houses a brick home which was used as the home where Father Damien and The Exorcist came to rid the child of the demon in the film "The Exorcist."

  4. Very interesting. I wonder if Louisa May Alcott was referring to Mrs. Southworth's style with Jo March's early writing in "Little Women"?

  5. As an avid book collector, I am always 'looking into the lives' of the authors I collect and I LOVE this article on Southworth!! It stated above that she wrote over 60 books so I went and counted all my titles and I counted 93 ~ although a few were printed under different names in Great Britain, there are more than 80 titles that I own and I've read almost all of them. She is one of my all-time favorites and thank you so much for sharing all your research and hard work!!
    Gail Davis

    1. Thank you Gail. Glad you enjoyed the article.

    2. Hello, Anyone -- I am a grand-nephew of E.D.E.N. Southworth -- no kidding. Would love to correspond with Gail Davis or John DeFerrari, and anyone else who may be interested in a good conversation about the Author and her family. Charles LeCompte Nevitte, Mrs. Southworth's father, was brother to my own Polly (Mary) Nevitte. Polly married one Captain George Travers, who lived just off of South Capitol Street. I have done research on these families for 50 years. Would enjoy sharing with anyone who is interested. Stephen J. Colvin

    3. Mr. Colvin, Can you contact me at I am planning a Mrs. Southworth 200th anniversary event this year at the DC Public Library's Peabody Room. Thank you.

    4. Ms. Davis, Can you contact me at I am planning a Mrs. Southworth 200th anniversary event this year at the DC Public Library's Peabody Room. Thank you.


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