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Charleston's Calhoun monument: How a little-known 1850s relative stole its funds

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The John C. Calhoun Monument in Marion Square on Thursday, March 26, 2020. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

The John C. Calhoun Monument towers over Marion Square 115 feet high. While it may have taken decades to build, there's one largely forgotten episode of history where the statue was temporarily derailed by a 19-year-old Charleston woman who ran away with its funds.

In the 1850s, just as white Charleston residents began fundraising for the monument, Ada Agnes Jane McElhenney — who was related to Calhoun by marriage — left Charleston with the money, delaying the plans for her relative's memorial.

McElhenney, who would later go by Ada Clare, slipped away from the city with the funds her grandfather, the wealthy planter Hugh Wilson, had raised for the monument. According to a biography of Clare titled "Queen of Bohemia" by Gloria Goldblatt, Clare took at least several hundred dollars, perhaps much more.

To compare, $500 in 1854 would be equivalent to about $16,000 today. The monument erected in 1887 cost $44,000, or slightly over $1 million today.

Clare's theft would have been a substantial blow to early fundraising. It took more than 30 years to eventually complete the project.

Clare took the money to finance her new life in New York City. An 1854 diary entry notes that Clare's grandfather said she had gone to New York in a steamer against her family's will, having "appropriated" the funds of the monument.

She claimed she would pay interest on it, according to the biography.

In New York, Clare became a writer and an actress and was friends with the poet Walt Whitman. Over the next two decades, she advocated women's rights and free love, bore a child out of wedlock and eventually died at age 39 after being bitten by a rabid dog.

Charleston has forgotten Ada Clare because she wasn't the typical Southern belle, historian Harlan Greene said. He serves as the special collections scholar in residence at the College of Charleston, and he encouraged Goldblatt decades ago to work on Clare's biography.

It was white Charleston women who finally erected Calhoun's monument. They called themselves the Ladies' Calhoun Monument Association, and a plaque at the base of the monument honors those women more than it mentions Calhoun.

"This monument was erected by the women of South Carolina," the plaque reads. Many lines are devoted to the treasurer, Mrs. M.A. Snowden.

"No one seemed to know, though the information was there all the time, that it was one woman in Charleston, atypical and who horrified the city, who kept Calhoun off his pedestal, so to speak," Greene said. "Ada Clare refusing to get on a pedestal kept Calhoun off his ... for a while.

"For a city so proud of its past, so few people actually know it," Greene said.

Once Calhoun was on his pedestal, it was the city's African American community that sabotaged the monument. By 1896, the statue was placed on a much higher pedestal to make it fully out of reach of its detractors.

As City Council members prepare to vote Tuesday whether to remove the statue, a largely unprecedented move in the state, many have questioned exactly what history the memorial represents. The controversy over its potential removal has divided the city.

For many in and outside of the Black community, the statue symbolizes a history of white supremacy. Calhoun is a former vice president who advocated for slavery as a "positive good" and fought hard to preserve the country's racial hierarchy.

Others support keeping the statue up, pointing to Calhoun's legacy as one of the most famous South Carolinians and most prominent national politicians of the day.

On Tuesday, 170 years after Calhoun's death, 166 years after Clare stole the monument's funds and 124 years after a statue was placed higher to keep it safe from angry residents, City Council will decide whether that memorial, and what it stands for, will come down for good.

Reach Fleming Smith at 843-937-5591. Follow her on Twitter at @MFlemingSmith.

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