Robert Gould Shaw II

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Robert Gould Shaw II
Robert Gould Shaw II.jpg
Born (1872-06-16)June 16, 1872
Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died March 29, 1930(1930-03-29) (aged 57)[1]
New York City, New York, U.S.
Resting place Forest Hills Cemetery, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, U.S.
Other names RGS II
Occupation landowner, socialite
Spouse(s) Nancy Witcher Langhorne
Mary Hannington
Children Robert Gould Shaw III
Louis Agassiz Shaw II
Parent(s) Quincy Adams Shaw
Pauline Agassiz

Robert Gould Shaw II (sometimes referred to as RGS II) (June 16, 1872 — March 29, 1930) was a wealthy landowner and socialite of the leisure class in the greater Boston area of Massachusetts. He was one of the prominent figures of the boom years at the turn of the century, sometimes called the Gilded Age.

Born in 1872 into one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Boston, he was a first cousin of Robert Gould Shaw (called RGS). As an adult, RGS II gained a reputation for alcohol abuse and promiscuity. His first wife was Nancy Witcher Langhorne, and they had a son, Robert Gould Shaw III (called RGS III or "Bobby"). RGS II and Langhorne divorced after four years of marriage. She moved to England after some time, where she met and married Waldorf Astor, who later succeeded his father as Viscount.

RGS II married again and had another son, Louis Agassiz Shaw II. Both of his sons suffered from depression, alcoholism, and legal difficulties. Bobby was arrested in England for homosexuality; he eventually committed suicide in 1970. Louis Agassiz Shaw II murdered his 60-year-old maid in 1964, for which he never stood trial. He was determined to be unfit for trial and was remanded instead to a psychiatric hospital, where he resided for nearly the rest of his life.[2]

Family and early life[edit]

Quincy Adams Shaw, father of RGS II

RGS II was the youngest child of Quincy Adams Shaw and Pauline Agassiz. Quincy was one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts as a result of his investment in the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. RGS II's four older siblings were Louis, Pauline, Marian, and Quincy Jr.[3] His father's side of the family had Anglo-American roots extending back to passengers on the Mayflower. His paternal grandparents were Robert Gould Shaw (1776—1853) and Elizabeth Willard Parkman (1785—1853). His maternal grandfather was Louis Agassiz (1807—1873), a prominent paleontologist, glaciologist, geologist, and scholar of the Earth's natural history who immigrated from Switzerland in 1846.

A granduncle was George Parkman (1790—1849), a murder victim in a highly publicized case that shook the city of Boston to its core in 1849—1850, due to the gruesome nature of the crime and the high social station of both the victim and the murderer. His first cousin (once removed) was Francis Parkman, Jr. (1823—1893), a noted American historian and author of The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life.[3][4] A paternal uncle was Francis George Shaw (October 23, 1809—November 7, 1882), an outspoken advocate of the abolition of slavery.[5][6] A maternal uncle was Alexander Emanuel Agassiz (1835—1910), who served as president of Calumet and Hecla Mining Company from 1871–1910, as well as president of the National Academy of Sciences (1901—1907). His cousin Rodolphe Louis Agassiz (1871—1933) was a ten goal polo champion who later became chairman of the board of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company.[7] His cousin Josephine Shaw (1843—1905) was married to Brigadier General Charles Russell Lowell III, who was killed at the Battle of Cedar Creek. His nephew Louis Agassiz Shaw, Jr. (1886—1940) was a professor of physiology at Harvard Medical School and co-inventor of the first widely used iron lung.[8][9][10][11]

First marriage[edit]

Nancy Witcher Langhorne, first wife of RGS II

On October 27, 1897, RGS II married Nancy Witcher Langhorne (1879—1964) in New York City. She was the 18-year-old daughter of railroad millionaire Chiswell Dabney Langhorne and Nancy Witcher Keene. They had one son, Robert Gould Shaw III (August 18, 1898 — July 10, 1970).[12]

The marriage was unhappy for both RGS II and Nancy. RGS II's friends accused Nancy of being puritanical and rigid, while Nancy's friends contended that RGS II was an alcoholic[13] and a womanizer.[14] Nancy left RGS II numerous times during their brief marriage, the first time during their honeymoon. In 1903, Nancy's mother died and she divorced RGS II,[1][15] returning to Mirador, her childhood home.[16]

In 1905, while a passenger on a trans-Atlantic ship to England, the recently divorced Nancy met Waldorf Astor, eldest son of William Waldorf Astor and Mary Dahlgren Paul of the Astor family. The couple were married in May 1906, settling in Cliveden, a present from his father and the Astor family estate in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, England.[17] In 1919, Nancy ran for Parliament and won, becoming the first woman to sit as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons.[18]

After his ex-wife and son moved to England, RGS II had a limited role in his son Bobby's life. Bobby was educated at the Shrewsbury School in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England. Bobby Shaw briefly served in the Life Guards (the senior regiment of the British Army and part of the Household Cavalry), but he had increasing difficulty in his personal and professional life as a result of his homosexuality, alcoholism, and depression.[14] In 1931, he was imprisoned for six months for homosexual offences.[12]

Robert Gould Shaw III, elder son of RGS II

Along with his worsening alcoholism, the 1963 Profumo Affair, his mother's death in 1964, and the sudden death of his half-brother Viscount William Waldorf Astor II in March 1966 may have increased his depression. After years of struggling with depression and suicidal ideation, Bobby Shaw committed suicide on July 10, 1970.[12] He is buried in the chapel at Cliveden. John Singer Sargent painted an oil portrait of Nancy Viscountess Astor in 1909, and also did a 1923 charcoal portrait of RGS III in his military uniform. Nancy gave the portrait to Alfred Edward Goodey, art collector and RGS III's partner. It was sold in England in 2011 for £23,000.[12]

Second marriage[edit]

RGS II later married Mary Hannington (1874—1937)[19] and they had one son, Louis Agassiz Shaw II (c. 1906—c. 1987). RGS II purchased a tract of land in Oak Hill, Newton, shortly after the death of its owner, William Sumner Appleton (1840—1903), father of William Sumner Appleton, Jr.). He commissioned Boston architect James Lovell Little, Jr. to design and construct several buildings on the property, including outbuildings of a carriage house and horse stable in 1910,[20] a cow barn in 1912,[21] and a primary residence (the Appleton/Shaw House) in 1912.[22] The family lived briefly in a brownstone building located at 35 Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay in 1915, presumably awaiting the completion of their new home in Newton.[23]

Death and legacy[edit]

As the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era and eventually the Great Depression, the Shaw fortune collapsed. RGS II died in 1930. The vacant and decaying Shaw estate in Newton was sold in 1939 to Dr. William Fitts Carlson. Carlson used the property as the new campus for Mount Ida Junior College. Adjoining tracts of land were converted into the Wells Avenue office park in the 1970s, and the Charles River Footpath (since renamed the Helen Heyn Riverway) in the 1990s.[24]

In popular culture[edit]

Robert Gould Shaw II as "Little Billee" from the novel Trilby

Artist R.G. Harper Pennington (1854—1920) in one of his paintings depicted a nude RGS II as the character "Little Billee" from the bohemian novel Trilby (1894) by George du Maurier. This painting hung in the bedroom of Henry Symes Lehr, the homosexual husband of Elizabeth Wharton Drexel.[25]

In a 1982 episode of Masterpiece Theatre that chronicled the life of Nancy Astor, Pierce Brosnan portrayed RGS II as a profligate and promiscuous gambler. In this version, Nancy Langhorne Astor continued to love RGS II after her marriage to Waldorf Astor, but this has not been documented. For this performance, Brosnan was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor in 1985.[26]


  1. ^ a b G.E. Cokayne; Vicary Gibbs; H.A. Doubleday; Geoffrey H. White; Duncan Warrand; Lord Howard de Walden, eds. (2000). The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, Extant, Extinct or Dormant. Volume XIII:Peers created 1901 to 1938. Gloucester, United Kingdom: Alan Sutton Publishing. pp. 215–6. 
  2. ^ Beam, Alex (2001). "Chapter 9: Staying on: the elders from planet Upham". Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital. New York: Public Affairs. pp. 169–90. ISBN 978-1-58648-161-2. 
  3. ^ a b Boston Museum of Fine Arts (1918). "Introduction". Quincy Adams Shaw Collection (Italian Renaissance sculpture. Paintings and pastels by Jean François Millet. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts. pp. 1–4. 
  4. ^ Parkman, Francis (1849). "Chapter I:The Frontier". The California and Oregon Trail: Being Sketches of Prairie and Rocky Mountain Life. New York: George P. Putnam. pp. 9–18. 
  5. ^ New York Times (November 9, 1882). "An old abolitionist dead: Francis George Shaw and his services in the cause of freedom". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-07-03. 
  6. ^ Shaw, Colin Gould (December 2005). "Robert Gould Shaw II". Newton, Massachusetts: Newton Conservators Inc. Retrieved 2011-07-03. 
  7. ^ "R. L. Agassiz Dead. Mining Financier. Chairman of Board of Calumet and Hecla and Director of Many Corporations. Famous As Polo Player. More Recently Active, as Hunter and Fisherman Broke With Republican Party in 1928". New York Times. August 1, 1933. Retrieved 2014-12-20. Louis Agassiz, chairman of the board of the Calumet and Hecla Consolidated Copper Company, director in many banks and corporations and a famous polo player ... 
  8. ^ Sherwood, RJ (1973). "Obituaries: Philip Drinker 1894 – 1972". The Annals of Occupational Hygiene. 16 (1): 93–4. doi:10.1093/annhyg/16.1.93. Retrieved 2011-07-02. 
  9. ^ Gorham, J (1979). "A medical triumph: the iron lung". Respiratory Therapy. 9 (1): 71–3. PMID 10297356. 
  10. ^ The Harvard Education and Research Center for Occupational Safety and Health (2010). "2010-2011 Student Handbook" (PDF). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Harvard Education and Research Center for Occupational Safety and Health. Retrieved 2011-07-02. 
  11. ^ P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science (2011). "Philip Drinker '17". Distinguished Alumni: Great Talents & Bright Minds. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Lehigh University. Retrieved 2011-07-02. 
  12. ^ a b c d The Canterbury Auction Galleries (February 22, 2011). "February Sale Report: John Singer Sargent drawing sells for £23,000". News. Canterbury, Kent, England: The Canterbury Auction Galleries. Retrieved 2011-07-03. 
  13. ^ Sykes, Christopher (1972). "Chapter 4: Early sorrow". Nancy: The Life of Lady Astor. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 52–65. 
  14. ^ a b Marlowe, Derek (1982). Nancy Astor: The Lady from Virginia. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson. 
  15. ^ Lundy, Darryl (August 11, 2004). "Robert Gould Shaw II". Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved 2011-07-03. 
  16. ^ Prats, JJ (August 2, 2009). "Mirador". The Historical Marker Database. Retrieved 2011-07-03. 
  17. ^ Sykes, Christopher (1972). "Chapter 5: Love and marriage". Nancy: The Life of Lady Astor. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 66–88. 
  18. ^ Haverty, Anne (1988). Constance Markievicz: an independent life. London: Pandora. p. 187. ISBN 978-0-86358-161-8. 
  19. ^ Snoots, Jen (November 25, 2007). "Mary Hannington Shaw (Memorial# 23098574)". Find a Grave. Salt Lake City, Utah. Retrieved 2011-07-03. 
  20. ^ Council of Independent Colleges (2006). "Holbrook Hall". Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project. Washington, DC: Council of Independent Colleges. Retrieved 2011-07-03. 
  21. ^ Council of Independent Colleges (2006). "Hallden Academic Support Center". Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project. Washington, DC: Council of Independent Colleges. Retrieved 2011-07-03. 
  22. ^ Council of Independent Colleges (2006). "Shaw Hall". Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project. Washington, DC: Council of Independent Colleges. Retrieved 2011-07-03. 
  23. ^ BOSarchitecture (2011). "Boston Architecture: 35 Commonwealth Avenue". Back Bay: Commonwealth Avenue. Boston: BOSarchitecture. Retrieved 2011-07-03. 
  24. ^ Newton Conservators (2011). "Newton Park and Conservation Lands: Helen Heyn Riverway". Newton Park and Conservation Areas. Newton, Massachusetts: Newton Conservators Inc. Retrieved 2011-07-03. 
  25. ^ Decies, Elizabeth Wharton Drexel Beresford (1935). King Lehr and the gilded age (The leisure class in America). Philadelphia, London: J.B. Lippincott Company. ISBN 978-0-405-06918-5. 
  26. ^ (2011). "Awards for Pierce Brosnan". Pierce Brosnan. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2011-07-03. 

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