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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: A Locket and a Strand of Hair--Symbols of Love and Family

Throughout nearly 49 years of marriage to John Marshall, Mary Willis Ambler (Polly) wore around her neck a locket with a strand of her hair inside. This locket is displayed today at the John Marshall House in Richmond, Virginia. It is an enduring symbol of the romantic love and family commitment shared by Polly and John.

It began on the day John Marshall asked Polly to marry him, when he was 27 years old and she was 16. Polly had admired him, even dreamed of marrying him, ever since she met Marshall two years before. But at this decisive moment, she said "No!" John was distressed and quickly left her house.

Polly was distraught and wept hysterically. She had really wanted to say "Yes!" But now it was too late, or so she thought. But her cousin, John Ambler, had witnessed the scene and acted suddenly to correct Polly’s mistake. He cut off a lock of her hair and went after John Marshall.

When Ambler caught up with Marshall, he gave him the strand of Polly’s hair, which Marshall thought she had sent to him. So he immediately went back to her house and proposed marriage once again. This time, Polly said "Yes!"

Polly and John were married on January 3, 1783, in the home of her cousin, John Ambler. Polly put into a locket around her neck the strand of hair that had brought John Marshall back to her. She may also have placed a strand of John Marshall’s hair in this locket, which stayed around her neck during every day of her marriage.

Polly and John had 10 children. Only six survived to adulthood. Three died in infancy and one died during early childhood. The tragedies of her children’s deaths weakened Polly, who became sickly and reclusive. During the last 25 years of her life, she usually stayed at home, often in the master bedroom. Her frailty and illness, however, did not diminish the deep love she and John had for each other.

On the morning of her death, December 25, 1831, Polly tried to remove the locket from around her neck. She was so weak that John had to help her. She wanted to see him put the keepsake around his neck, which John did. The locket, with her hair inside it, stayed around John’s neck until he died four years later in Philadelphia at the age of 79. His body was returned to Richmond and buried next to Polly in the Shockoe Hill Cemetery near his house. The locket was kept by one of Marshall’s children and eventually returned to the John Marshall House, where it is today.

John Marshall’s feelings about his life and marriage, his priorities and values, are clearly indicated by his epitaph. It was engraved on his tombstone exactly as he had wished. So how did this great man--this famous public figure and hero--wish to be remembered? This is what is written at the grave site:

John Marshall
Son of Thomas and Mary Marshall
was born the 24th of September 1755
Intermarried with Mary Willis Ambler
the 3rd of January 1783
Departed this life
the 6th day of July 1835

This marker stands today at the Shockoe Hill Cemetery, an enduring testimonial about what ultimately was most important to the man others called "The Great Chief Justice."

Questions for Reading 3

1. Why did Polly Marshall always wear a locket containing a strand of her hair? Why did John Marshall wear this locket from December 25, 1831, until July 6, 1835?

2. What personal values of the Marshall family are symbolized by Polly’s locket and the use of it by Polly and John?

3. What does the epitaph on John Marshall’s gravestone reveal about his personal values? What does the epitaph suggest about his priorities? Do you think the public side of his life was more or less important to him than the private side?

Reading 3 was compiled from Leonard Baker, John Marshall: A Life in Law (New York: Macmillan, 1974), 72-73 and 769-770; and "Mister Chief Justice," a video program produced by the John Marshall Foundation of Richmond, Virginia, 1992.

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