Death Visits the Carlyle House

Death Visits the Carlyle House

Museum house mourns 1780 passing of Scottish merchant John Carlyle.

Death has arrived at Carlyle House. The shades have been closed and the curtains have been drawn. Black crepe covers the mirrors, and a sense of loss is palpable in the 18th century home. John Carlyle has been dead for 225 years, but visitors to the house will experience a fresh sense of mourning at the museum's newest exhibit.

Jim Bartlinski, curator at the Carlyle House, spent several months researching the exhibit and documenting its interpretation. He's excited about giving visitors a sense of what it must have been like to experience John Carlyle's death in 1780.

"Death was ever present in the Carlyle household," he said, adding that Carlyle outlived two wives and nine children. "I think this exhibit is something different than you would normally see in a museum house."

Visitors to the house will see a coffin on display in the dining room, a death scene in the bedchamber and mourning jewelry in the upper passage. The most noticeable addition to the house is the large "hatchment" hung over the front door — a representation of the merged family crests of Carlyle and his two wives.

Carlyle was one of the original trustees of Alexandria. He built the stone mansion on Fairfax Street in the early 1750s. During the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, he was the commissary for the Virginia militia. In peacetime, he was a prominent merchant, land speculator and justice of the peace for Fairfax County.

THE EXHIBIT STARTS in the basement, where a cat has been entombed into the wall to ward off evil spirits. Archeologists came across the cat while renovating the house in the 1970s. It was fully documented, and then returned into the wall — where it remains to ward off ghosts.

"We can see that Carlyle had his feet in two worlds," Bartlinksi said. "His natural history collection tells us that he was a man of the Enlightenment, but it seems pretty clear that he was also someone who wanted to keep practicing the traditions of the old world."

In the next room, where visitors can sit for a spell while a docent makes a brief introduction, a mannequin representing one of Carlyle's slaves stares into the distance. She is making candles that will be used during the period of mourning.

"We take great pride in interpreting the enslaved staff," Bartlinski said. "He referred to them as 'his family,' so it's really important for us to include them in our interpretation of 18th-century life."

Next, visitors will step back in time to visit Carlyle's deathbed. Under the covers of the bed, the master of the house has succumbed to illness. His doctor's instruments are still laid out on the side table, ready for the brutal world of 18th-century medicine.

At Carlyle's bedside, visitors can inspect lancets used to make incisions into the skin, bleeding out the "bad blood." They can also see a "bleeding cup" — a small glass bulb that was heated and placed over a bleeding wound to draw more blood.

"He most likely died in this bed," Bartlinski said, adding that Carlyle purchased it at a 1774 auction. Then, noticing the mannequin under the covers had changed positions since the last time he was in the room, the curator became curious. "I don't know if he's moving around or what."

IN THE CENTRAL PASSAGE, a table has been set up to accommodate visitors. It has been furnished with some of the finest liquors available, a fitting accoutrement for the wake of such a prominent man. At the door, guests will be asked for written invitations — a measure to prevent wake crashers who arrive for the free food and liquor. The museum has issued several intimations based on an example from an early 18th-century model by an engraver named Gravelot.

The mirror in the central passage has been covered with black crepe, a common practice in Carlyle's time.

"It's a reminder that you're not supposed to be focused on your own vanity — and it's supposed to point out your own mortality, Bartlinski said. "Also, many old traditions say that mirrors are portals to the other world, and covering them prevents demonic spirits from entering the home while the soul of the departed is still hanging around the body."

The small parlor in the front of the house has been set up for visiting guests to greet family members. The shades have been drawn to create the right mood, and the spindle has been shut because no one will want to hear music at a wake. Grieving family members would probably stay here while visitors entered the grand dining room to visit with Carlyle's body.

The coffin in the dining room is enormous, and candles have been strategically placed around it to shine a light into the darkness of death. The mahogany casket was made by cabinetmaker Walt Henderson, who made the reproduction of George Washington's coffin for the 1999 reenactment of his death.

In Carlyle's dining room, where the famous 1755 meeting of governors had taken place 25 years before, the coffin's proportions and detail invite a prolonged meditation on life and death in the 1780s — a time when Virginia was in the midst of a war with the greatest superpower the world has ever known. The British empire would soon abandon its North American colonies, but not before claiming the life of Carlyle's 15-year-old son in 1781.

On top of the coffin, in the center of its lid, rests a Masonic apron.

"He probably would have had Masonic rites at his funeral," Bartlinski said, adding that a piece of evergreen has also been placed on top of the casket. "That's a religious symbol to represent everlasting life."