The General’s Son: A Scandal on Inwood Hill

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Ulysses Grant family in 1870.  Jesse Root Grant wearing white coat in center.
Ulysses Grant family in 1870. Jesse Root Grant wearing white coat in center.

In the decades before its dedication as a city park northern Manhattan’s Inwood Hill was the private retreat of wealthy merchants, ship captains and publishers. Elisha Brooks, of the famous Brooks Brothers, Puck Magazine’s Joseph Keppler, Macy’s founder Isidor Straus and his wife Ida, all had beautiful homes on land that, in 1926, would become Inwood Hill Park.

Dyckman Street looking north to Inwood Hill in early 1900's, postcard from collection of Cole Thompson.
Dyckman Street looking north to Inwood Hill in early 1900’s, postcard from collection of Cole Thompson.

Living among these newsmakers and players of the gilded age was Jesse Root Grant, the son of Union Commanding General and eighteenth President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant.

In 1918 Grant brought a tinge of scandal to the neighborhood when, just a week after divorcing his wife of thirty-eight years, he married a local widow and moved into her home overlooking the Hudson River.

Jesse Root Grant, Source:  Library of Congress
Jesse Root Grant, Source: Library of Congress

In a small ceremony, attended by only by two of the bride’s brothers, the sixty-year-old married forty-one year old Lillian Burns Wilkins.

New York Times, August 27, 1918.
New York Times, August 27, 1918.

News of their wedding,” reported The New York Herald, “came as a surprise even to relatives and close friends.” (New York Herald, August 28, 1918)

The two honeymooned in the Adirondacks.

Lillian Burns Wilkins from book Captain Otway Burns and his ship Snap Dragon by Jack Robinson.
Lillian Burns Wilkins from book “Captain Otway Burns and his ship Snap Dragon” by Jack Robinson.

The new Mrs. Grant,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “is described as remarkably pretty.”

She also came with an impressive pedigree.

She is a lineal descendant of one of the oldest and most distinguished families of North Carolina,” continued the Brooklyn Eagle, “her great great grandfather, Francis Burns, having surveyed and laid out the western portion of that state and Burnsville, the highest point east of the Rockies being named in his honor. Her great grandfather was Captain Otway Burns, U.S.N., and her father was Captain Owen Burns, U.S.N. On her mother’s side she is a descendent of Colonel John Armstrong of Colonial fame.” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 27, 1918.)

Lillian’s brother, Inwood Hill resident Walter Francis Burns, made the headlines a decade earlier when the death of his son led him to believe in the paranormal. But that’s a whole other story.

For several years the couple summered in their Inwood home, referred to in news accounts as either “Burns Terrace” or “Grant Terrace” and wintered in Sarasota, Florida.

Their marriage would prove short-lived.

New York Times,  July 2, 1924.
New York Times, July 2, 1924.

In 1924 Lillian died after an eight-month battle with cancer.

Not long after Lillian’s death Grant moved to Los Altos, California where he died in 1934.

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