Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpDo the lesser-known annals of Arlington history offer evidence of an early 19th-century sex scandal? A family secret involving marquee names like Lee, Custis and Febrey?

I’ve done my darndest to bring the tale alive.

The rumor passed down for generations of a child’s suppressed illegitimacy revolves around the Febreys. The patriarch Nicholas Febrey (1800 – 1868) became one of Arlington’s wealthiest landowners when in 1837 he bought perhaps 600 acres at a bargain among the 1,200 acres known as Washington Forest. They were owned by his pal George Washington Parke Custis, builder of Arlington House. (For the location, think today’s Swanson Middle School, Dominion Hills, Glencarlyn, Upton Hill, BJ’s Wholesale Club.)

Nicholas married into the famous Ball family (twice, due to widowerhood) and produced three sons, two of whose stately homes remain today at Wilson Blvd. and North McKinley and on Powhatan Street. (A fascinating lawsuit brought in 1887 by John Febrey against the federal government sought reimbursement for livestock Union soldiers confiscated during the Civil War, a conflict that split the Febrey brothers.)

The racy rumor came to me from Sara Collins, a serious Arlington Historical Society researcher drawn to the Febreys. In 2003, she interviewed Febrey descendent John Gott (since deceased), a longtime librarian at Langley High School, as oral history.

Gott recalled his elderly great aunt recounting the tale of a minister in Arlington whose daughter got pregnant, possibly by a member of the Lee family, and took the newborn to Custis saying (illogically), “Here’s your bastard, you raise it.” Allegedly, the boy was born on Christmas Day so they named him Nicholas, and he arrived at Arlington House in February, so they abbreviated that as Febrey.

The claim was repeated in conversation with the late Falls Church City historian Melvin Lee Steadman Jr., and I found another Febrey descendent, Jim Miller, posting it on ancestry.com.

Working in the story’s favor is the fact that Nicholas Febrey’s parentage is a blank page (indeed, an Internet search of French historical surnames shows the name is extremely uncommon). Plus his friendship with the well-connected Custis may explain him getting a good land deal. The dramatic reluctance of Gott’s great aunt to discuss what at the time would be a shameful family secret adds authenticity, and there’s even talk of a resemblance in photographs between Nicholas’s son Henry Febrey and Robert E. Lee.

But the dates don’t quite work. Febrey’s birth is recorded as Oct. 3, 1800. A peek at Arlington House histories shows that Custis didn’t move from Mount Vernon onto the property he inherited from George Washington until Martha Washington’s death in 1802. Work on what would become the Custis-Lee Mansion didn’t start until 1802 (and took 16 years). Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh in 1804 and had four daughters, only one of whom survived: Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the future wife of Robert E. Lee.

Though Custis was famed for his warm hospitality (see his daughter’s memoir), and his wife was a fervent Episcopalian, what are the odds he would take in a foundling before embarking on those major undertakings that shaped his life for the next half-century?

If there were sexual shenanigans by Lee boys (who were as visible as dogwoods in post-colonial Virginia), what are the chances of their being discoverable in 2013?

Perhaps a DNA test for Lees and Febreys?