By Vicky House
OXFORD – Why would a beautiful young woman, who, it seems, had everything and more in her life, leave her mansion-like home never to return? Was it the terrible accident she suffered, the loneliness of her lost loves or was she just plain crazy? As historian, I, too, have heard the strange tale of Ellen Douglas MacDonald and often wondered what precipitated her hasty exit from her home on Washington Square in Oxford. After doing some extensive research, I found some very interesting and little known facts about Ellen.
Ellen Douglas was born in Oxford on Jan. 14, 1864 to Dr. George and Ada C. Frink Douglas. Ellen’s mother, Ada, died when Ellen was just a few months old and she was raised by her father until June 1866 when Dr. Douglas married Jane Mygatt of Oxford. Very little is known of Jane Mygatt after her marriage to Dr. Douglas, but little Ellen stayed with her father and during her early girlhood, she traveled extensively with him, both here and abroad. Ellen was a happy child and grew into a beautiful young lady. She was full of laughter, gaiety, admired and much sought after by many suitors. Ellen was married – not once, but twice. No one, now, remembers much of her first husband, a man named Webb. Following their marriage, they came back to Oxford to Ellen’s home on Washington Square which she shared with her father. However, after a few days, Webb left Ellen. No reason was ever given for the sudden departure, but one might think that living arrangements may have had something to do with it.
The true love of Ellen’s life, other than her father, was a Scotsman by the name of John Angus MacDonald. Angus, as he was often called, was tall, handsome and deeply in love with Ellen. Angus and Ellen were married on February 20, 1894 at the Albany Hotel in Denver, CO. Angus was a former advertising manager for Jordan, Marsh & Co., in Boston and left the area because of his health. Now living in Denver, Angus was connected to the Denver Dry Goods Co. and where the newlyweds planned to live in their new home on Pearl Street in the city. Whether Ellen missed her father, her friends back home in Oxford or the life she was accustomed to there, it is hard to tell, however, Ellen and Angus moved back to the Oxford homestead. It wasn’t long before Angus left Ellen and went to New York City. A few notes in the Douglas file indicate that there may have been a quarrel which ultimately caused the separation. Both Ellen and John were of Scottish descent and their pride and stubbornness blocked the reunion their hearts ached for.
In 1899, when Ellen was 35 years of age, while in Patterson, NJ, she was involved in a railroad accident that left her crippled for life. She lived as a patient at the Gleason Health Resort at Elmira and then returned to her residence in Oxford. On October 9, 1906, Dr. Douglas died leaving her with his entire estate. Angus heard of her father’s death, and at last, still loving her, sought reconciliation. Ellen refused to see him; perhaps she did not want him to see her as she was, bent and crippled from the accident, but preferred to live on in his mind as he had known her – young, slender and beautiful. For years, Ellen limped around the fifteen room house alone and broken hearted.
In 1912, Ellen received more heartbreaking news which arrived in the form of a telegram from New York City. Her Angus was dead. For months Ellen lived on in the vast mansion where each object that met her eyes reminded her of the past she could no longer recapture. One morning she was eating her breakfast when she suddenly arose from the table, stumbled to her bedroom and removed a Valentine’s Day card from a drawer – a card Angus had sent her years before. Overcome with the memories and losses, Ellen fled from the house locking the door for the last time. Ellen moved to the Hotchkiss Inn and was often seen being driven around town, by her chauffeur, in her Pierce Arrow. On daily visits to her home to check on the property and to oversee the upkeep was all Ellen could do now. She never stepped foot inside the home and the caretakers were only allowed into the basement to start the fires to heat the home in the winter. The home remained locked for the next 35 years and no one entered the house until after Ellen’s death.
Later, Ellen moved to Greene and resided in the Sherwood Inn for years before returning to Oxford where she died on March 14, 1948. After Ellen died, the house had to be open for inspection and the contents sold. A newspaper reporter was allowed to go into the house with the ‘group’ and he documented the findings. In addition to finding the remains of the breakfast on the table that Ellen was eating before she left the house, they found a Valentine’s Day card on the floor of Ellen’s bedroom. The card was covered in dust and the lace edge around the faded red heart was deteriorating, but the card read: “May This Little Gift Bind Thy Life With Mine” and was signed “A” - short for Angus.
Today, we remember the strange story of Ellen leaving her home never to return, but there was always more to her than that story. Ellen was always interested in the betterment of Oxford. When part of the Navy Island block burned and an attempt was being made to finance the rebuilding, she donated $2,000 toward the expenses. When the village paved the road on the East Side of Fort Hill Park, Mrs. MacDonald contributed $500 of the $1500 cost of the work. It was Ellen’s contributions which made the community Christmas tree and candy for the children possible at Lafayette Park for years where a program was regularly held on Christmas Eve. She was a consistent and generous giver to the fund for band concerts on the park during the summer months and could always be depended on for financial support in the drives for various charitable organizations. We may never really know what went on in Ellen’s mind that caused her to leave her home, but now, we can remember her for more than just a strange tale. Thank you Ellen.