In recent years, it has become popular to trace the genealogy of a house. Many older homes have an impressive lineage. KYGS member, Rogers Bardé, felt a connection to the Botherum House that sits in Lexington, KY. In this post, she shares how her family history intersects with the home.
Botherum House: A Home with a Genealogy
Botherum House is for sale again. The current owners have had a disagreement, and the house is to be sold at auction because they cannot agree on a price. I went to an open house there in the fall of 2015, along with 400 other people and as I stood in the very long line, I read the historic marker which told the story that Madison C. Johnson built it as a memorial to his “late wife, Sally Ann, sister of emancipationist Cassius M. Clay….” (Marker #2477 erected by the Kentucky Historical Society and the Kentucky Department of Highways, 2015).
Sally Ann had two other brothers, not as famous as Cassius, Brutus Junius, and my third great-grandfather Sidney Payne Clay. I feel a connection to Botherum because of Sally Ann, and it seems a good time to tell more of her story.
A Memorial for Sally Ann
Madison C. Johnson was eccentric. Maybe the strangest part of the story is that Mr. Johnson waited twenty-two years before he built Botherum – her memorial. She married Mr. Johnson on 23 December 1828, and died on 13 October 1829. He built the house in 1851; it says so, it is carved in stone right over the basement door. There is agreement that she died in childbirth, along with the child.
Sally Ann was a widow when she married Mr. Johnson. She married her first husband Edmund Irvine in 1822. He lived a year after their marriage and died in 1823. It changes the impression of the story that she was a widow, not a virginal young bride who was immortalized with a Kentucky Taj Mahal, as some people have said.
She left two letters in the family archives and the letters reveal her as a happy, affectionate girl, on her way to becoming a woman of some charm.
Her First Letter to Sidney P Clay
Letter from Sally Ann Clay to Sidney, Dated 4 January 1819 (Transcribed by Author)
Her Second Letter to Sidney P Clay
She was fifteen when she wrote this letter; Sidney was nineteen and still a student at Princeton. Cassius was nine, the baby of the family.
How did Botherum Get Its Name?
Botherum is an unusual house. Its very name is unusual. One possible origin of the name is from a book called The Pleader’s Guide, A Didactic Poem in two Books, containing the conduct of a suit at law, with the arguments of Counsellor Bother’um, and Counsellor Bore’um…, by “the late John Surrebutter, Esq,” published in London in 1796.
Surely the author’s name is a joke aimed at lawyers. Johnson was a lawyer, and the name of his house could be another joke aimed at the practice of law, a sarcastic play on words on the arguments of Counsellor Bother’um.
Botherum had no dining room, although it likely has one now. It is one story with an observatory on the roof where Mr. Johnson observed the heavens, a hobby of his. There are two vaulted rooms, and a third vault in the passage between the hall and the drawing room.
Was Mr. Johnson Just a Little Gruff?
Mr. Johnson was said to be very ugly. Elizabeth Simpson, in her book Bluegrass Houses and Their Traditions, published in 1932, says that Dr. Horace Holley, the president of Transylvania, a very handsome man himself, refused to allow Johnson to appear on the platform to receive his diploma.
Dr. Holley is said to have said, “Johnson is too ugly, too damn ugly.” Mrs. Simpson also says that he prided himself on his brevity and never spoke more than twenty minutes on any subject; that he loved the adulation of friends and surrounded himself with those who thought that he was a great man.
Every afternoon his crowd of friends met at Botherum to play poker and offer homage (pp 182-3). She also says that “Although a beautiful friendship and deep affection existed between the major (Mr. Johnson) and one of the prominent society leaders of the time, he remained until death true to the love of his youth.”
A Love Story that Endures
Sally and Madison Johnson’s story is romantic and touching, with an undercurrent of mystery. Very little is known about Sally and there is not much personal information about Madison Johnson, but their house endures.
You can visit there, at least in pictures, and imagine the builder and the beautiful wife who never lived in it. Botherum is still Sally Ann Clay’s monument, even though Mr. Johnson was very slow to build it.
- Clay, Sally Ann, letters. 4 January 1819; 25 February 2018, from Madison County, Kentucky to Sidney Payne Clay. Held in Filson Historical Society, MSS A/621a, folder 13, 1310 South 3rd St, Louisville, Kentucky 40208, copied February, 2014.
- Estershohn, Pieter, photographer. Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country. The United States: The Monacelli Press, 2014.
- Johnson, Madison Conyers. Photo and biography. Digital library of the University of Louisville. Online . Reference from H. Levin, The Lawyers and Lawmakers of Kentucky. Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1897, page 625. Accessed 26 January 2016.
- Kentucky. Madison County. County Clerk’s Office, Richmond. Marriage registers.
- Lancaster, Clay. Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1991.
- Simpson, Elizabeth M. Bluegrass Houses and their Traditions. Lexington, Kentucky: Transylvania Press, 1932.