The Questionable Romance of Robert Mayo

Ann McCarty Lee

By Caitlin Connelly

Scandal arrived at Stratford Hall in 1820. The owner of the plantation was Henry Lee IV, eldest son of “Light Horse Harry” Lee and half-brother of Robert E. Lee. In 1817 Henry married his wealthy neighbor Anne Robinson McCarty, and the next year she gave birth to a daughter, Margaret. Sadly, Margaret died at two years old after falling down the grand exterior staircase that led from the driveway to the entrance of the house, a disturbing echo of what had happened to four-year-old Philip Ludwell Lee around 1780. Anne withdrew into a period of mourning, during which time she became addicted to laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol).

As Anne isolated herself in grief, Henry began a short but scandalous affair with Anne’s younger sister, Betsy, who was living with the couple at Stratford and was Henry’s ward. The affair, and charges that Henry had mishandled Betsy’s estate, would eventually cause the Lee family to lose Stratford Hall. You can read more about Henry, Anne, and Betsy on Stratford’s Henry Lee IV and Storke Family pages.

The Great House at Stratford Hall, 1920s, with a view of the exterior staircase.

I’m currently working on digitalizing a box of letters dated from the fall and winter of 1821/22. Most of the letters are correspondence between Henry Lee and his friend Robert Mayo, a doctor who in 1821 set his mind on courting Betsy McCarty despite her reputation and the fact that she had recently gone to live with her grandmother at Mont Rose, cutting herself off from society. At the time, Henry was accused of actively and enthusiastically supporting the relationship, perhaps as a way of easing his own guilt, but the letters reveal a milder attitude. They also show that Robert needed little in the way of encouragement and was certainly enthusiastic enough on his own.

In a letter from November 9, 1821, Robert writes for the first time to Betsy to introduce himself and propose his intentions. It reveals a fixation on her that becomes (at least for me) creepier as the letter goes on, and it’s not surprising that, in a different letter, her grandmother advises her to reject him. So here, straight from 1821, is a short list of what not to do when you want to convince someone to marry you:

  1. Describe your motives as “noble and generous.” Because there’s nothing more romantic than being dated for charity.
  2. Essentially propose marriage to a “total stranger.” Yes, arranged marriages did happen between people who didn’t know each other very well or at all. In fact, Betsy would ultimately end up in a marriage arranged by her stepfather. And yes, this is a letter of introduction, so of course they don’t know each other. But there’s a line between introducing yourself and pledging your undying love to a stranger, and you’ve crossed it.
  3. Talk about your old girlfriend and her “coquetry.” No one wants to hear about that.
  4. Mention your acquaintance with her sister. You know, the one married to the man she had an affair with during the past year. Their relationship was still a bit tense, so this is not your strongest point.
  5. Admit that you think about her all the time, how perfect she is, and that you’re already in love with her. You’ve never met her!
  6. Bonus: Quote Shakespeare to her. Unless she’s a Shakespeare fan, this is pretentious. Even if she is a Shakespeare fan, this is pretentious.


by James Herring after John Vanderlyn
ca. 1817-1825 — A portrait of James Monroe (1758-1831), the fifth president of the United States, made during his presidency. He served as President from 1817-1825. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Lee Letter of the Week: This 1825 letter from Richard Henry Lee to James Monroe, concerning the presidency of a local chapter of the American Colonization Society. I vaguely remember learning about the idea of sending freed slaves back to Africa (which, of course, is how Liberia came to be) but it’s actually a pretty interesting subject, and it’s neat to have a letter that was sent to a president.


Author: leefamilydigitalarchive

The Lee Family Digital Archive is an online repository documenting the Lee family of Virginia. The editor of the LFDA is Dr. Colin Woodward, a historian of the South and published scholar. The site, which is free and open to the public, is located at The LFDA contains 4,000 letters, documents, books, legal papers, and references sources, covering more than 300 hundred years of Virginia and American history. The site is updated Monday-Friday and contains many items never before published. Please check us out on the web. Comments and suggestions are appreciated, and reference questions are promptly answered.

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