Olive Risley Seward: The lady was a daughter

Olive Risley Seward

On the edge of Seward Square is a statue of a Victorian woman looking at the grassy area. Turns out it’s a long story and a good one.

William Seward was Secretary of State who not only bought Alaska for two cents an acre, but also badly injured by John Wilkes Booth’s associates while the actor killed President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. The park along Pennsylvania Ave. SE between Fourth and Sixth Sts. and North Carolina Ave. honoring Seward is just a plain green space.

But if you look in the corner lot of Sixth and North Carolina, you’ll see a statue of a woman looking over at Seward Square.

Olive F. Risley was a female companion of Seward’s over his final years. But before your tongue starts wagging over a scandal, Seward beat the gossips by adopting the woman 40 years his junior. Risley was a friend of Seward’s late wife and daughter. Seward needed a woman in his life to attend to his daily affairs and Olive (now Seward) joined him on an 1870-71 trip to Asia, Middle East and Europe.

After Seward’s 1872 death, Risley finished the former’s book “Travels Around the World” that became a best seller. She would later form the Literary Society of Washington while becoming a member of the Washington Society, American Red Cross and Daughters of the American Revolution. Risley also wrote “Around the World Stories” based on her travels with Seward. She died in 1908.

Deciding the park needed a statue, sculptor John Cavanaugh opted to honor Risley instead of Seward. Without a photo of her in 1971, Risley opted for what he envisioned a Victorian lady like Risley would look like. Amazingly, a photo of Risley, found after Cavanaugh’s death in 1985, shows the statue bears a striking resemblance.

The statue is made of lead over burlap. Ironically, Cavanaugh’s death of cancer is attributed to working with lead.

About Rick

Rick Snider is a native Washingtonian, long-time journalist and licensed tour guide since 2010.
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