Mysterious Artist of Old Laramie

Got an old painting that has been in a Laramie attic for a long time with “Mulholland” as the signature, or no signature at all?

It might be the work of Mary Mulholland (1824-1910) a mysterious woman who arrived in Laramie in 1881, encouraged to come by her friends Mr. and Mrs. William Reid Brown, who had moved here from California, according to her lengthy obituary in the Laramie Boomerang. Most of this information is from that June 13, 1910 obituary.

Her story ran on the paper’s front page, titled: “Life full of sadness ended – little old lady who had many sorrows in her life, conquered them by hard thinking, Born wealthy—died poor.”

Some of that “hard thinking” might have been the invention of a backstory to explain her situation as a nearly starving artist in Laramie. Her story is so full of tragedy that it would give material for a gripping novel.  With her many Laramie friends to vouch for her, however, there is little recourse but to consider it truth, not fiction.

To cite the highlights: mother died in childbirth in New York City, father never came back from a voyage 3 years later, raised by a aunt and an “old nurse” who filled her with scary stories of the spirit world based on visiting a nearby cemetery.  Before she was 20 she married an army officer, gave birth to a beautiful girl she named Ada, the officer disappeared, Ada died at the age of 12.  With no living relatives, she was completely alone.

Apparently she did take passage on a ship bound for San Francisco from New York City in 1859.  That meant going around Cape Horn.  She had friends in San Francisco, perhaps the Browns who later encouraged her to join them in Laramie.  William Brown was engaged in the Laramie “market business” according to his 1909 obituary, He was the brother of Laramie’s first mayor, Melville C. Brown. After they moved here in 1879, the W.R. Browns bought a cemetery block before they moved on, eventually living in Chico, California, where he died. 

But to back up, when Mary arrived on the west coast in 1859, she invested all her inherited money and lost it all—or so her story would have it.

So she fell back on her talents as an artist.  Much of the time she was in California, she said that she taught painting at the Nappa [sic] Seminary, a school operated by the Misses McDonald.

Supposedly at the urging of the Browns, she arrived in Laramie in 1881 after a short stay in Salt Lake City. Immediately she opened a kindergarten.  Children in the Marsh, M.C. Brown, Downey, Haley, and Gramm families attended, to mention just a few.  As the children got older, she taught them painting.  She also held painting classes for the schoolteachers at the time, including Annie Brockway and Nellie (Quackenbush) Corthell.  One of the Corthell children, Evelyn (Corthell) Hill was interested in art, so Mrs. Mulholland taught and encouraged her also, though Mary died when her star pupil, Evelyn, was just 13. (Evelyn went on to become a prominent regional landscape artist.)

Mary Mulholland lived in a series of boarding houses in Laramie.  She had an active social life with her women friends.  She was a charter member of the Laramie Woman’s Club, and also one of the founders of the Sixties Club.  The latter venerable group was composed of women over the age of 60, meeting for lunch whenever one of the club members had a birthday. If a member had died since the last meeting, poems would be read and the deceased remembered fondly.  The women of the Sixties Club live half here and half in the heavenly world, said the Boomerang.   At the time of her death, Mary Mulholland and “Mrs. Godat” (mother of Wyoming’s first woman legislator Mary Godat Bellamy) were the oldest members.

She was apparently a person of few material possessions.  The one thing she did carry with her whenever she moved, however, was a portrait of her daughter Ada.  Although there are no photographs of Mary herself, the portrait of Ada was given to the Laramie Plains Museum recently by Roger Hill, grandson of Evelyn Corthell Hill.  It was probably on her deathbed in the Albany County Hospital on east Grand Avenue that Mary gave the portrait to young Evelyn Corthell.  After Evelyn’s marriage to John A. Hill, the portrait had a prized place next to the fireplace in their living room.

She died without revealing her maiden name, or anything about the husband she claimed to be widowed from. Verifying all the facts of her life would be very difficult. If there are existing paintings by her, none are known so far.

Her Laramie benefactor, William Brown, died about nine months before she did, but he arranged for a burial lot that he owned to be reserved for Mary.  It was said that she used to walk to Greenhill Cemetery to Block 35, contemplating the spot where she would be laid to rest. And indeed, that is where they are today—though hers is an unmarked grave.

Editor’s Note:  This article is one in a series written for the Albany County Museum Coalition that encourages interest in regional natural and cultural history.  Judy Knight is Collection Manager at the Laramie Plains Museum.

By Judy Knight

Caption:  Ada Mulholland, painted around 1854 when she would have been about 10.  The painting is unsigned, but her mother claimed that it was by one of the most prominent portrait painters of New York City at the time, though she herself might have been the artist.  Ada died at the age of 12.  Photo courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum