These Truths Blog
Peggy Shippen: Treacherous Beauty
PEGGY SHIPPEN may be the most intriguing, most overlooked young woman in American history. Mark Jacob and I loved writing our just-released new book, the first-ever biography of this remarkable lady. He and I hope you will love it too.
Born in 1760, Peggy, youngest child in a slave-owning, prominent Philadelphia family, was 14 when the Revolution began. By the time she was 17, the British occupied Philadelphia. Ever the party girl, she befriended a handsome British officer, JOHN ANDRE.
When she was 18, the British evacuated Philadelphia, restoring it to Patriot control. At 19, she married the Patriot hero, Gen. BENEDICT ARNOLD, 38, a widower with three boys. Crippled from wounds in battle and personally attacked by rivals for political power, he had become seriously discontented.
To initiate the treason, Arnold (and, we conclude, Peggy) covertly contacted her British friend, Andre. Their final plan was to capture (and maybe hang) George Washington on a visit to a fort commanded by Arnold. However, in a last-minute fluke, foiling the scheme, Patriots captured Andre and, a few drama-filled days later, hanged him as a spy. Alerted right away to the Andre capture, with Washington himself minutes from arrival at Arnold’s home, Arnold fled to safety behind British lines, leaving Peggy, 20, (and the baby) alone there to deal with Washington. She feared that he, mortified by discovery of the defection, might think her guilty of treasonous involvement in the plan.
To convince Washington and his staff of her innocence, Peggy, feigning hallucinations and described by an eyewitness, as wearing “. . . too few [clothes] to be seen even by a gentleman of the family, much less by many strangers” put on a “mad scene” deserving an Oscar. Believing her, Washington sent Peggy (and her baby) to his friend, her father, in Philadelphia. On the way, stopping at the home of a trusted lady friend, she confessed guilt. Shortly after she got to Pennsylvania, the legislature banished her, so she left, joining Arnold in British-controlled New York City. Only once thereafter did she ever again see any member of her childhood family.
After the Revolution, Peggy, Arnold, their two toddlers and Arnold’s three first-marriage sons sailed to England, where the couple resided (except for stays in Canada) until they died. After her arrival in London, the adventures and misfortunes continued. For service to him, the King awarded Peggy a large pension. Peggy lost an infant daughter in 1783, but she soldiered on, a lady letter writer the next year describing her as “grown amazingly lusty.” Her spirits stayed high despite her learning that Arnold had fathered a love child in Canada, despite Arnold nearly being killed in a duel and despite his being a prisoner of war on Guadalupe. She bore six infants writing later that she wished for no more “little plagues.” Summing up, she wrote her father, “Matrimony is but a lottery.” In 1801 Arnold, deeply in debt, died at 61. Peggy lived only three years longer, during which she wrote a number of rarely-seen, never-published letters, shown to us by one of her descendants. After Peggy, 44, succumbed to ovarian cancer, the children, going through her possessions, found a very interesting keepsake.
The Revolution changed Peggy’s real life even more than the Civil War altered Scarlett O’Hara’s fictional one. At times seeming too amazing to be true, and at other times offering a fascinating window into the lives of colonial-era women, Peggy’s story is captivating. You will enjoy it very much, I believe. Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen - the Woman behind Benedict Arnold’s Plot to Betray America ($24.95 hardcover; Lyons Press), now in bookstores, is also shipping from internet booksellers. See our website: treacherousbeauty.com.