The latest issue of the online journal Common-place includes Amanda Bowie Moniz’s article about Mary Wilkes Hayley (c. 1728-1808) and her time in Boston shortly after the Revolution. Hayley was the younger sister of John Wilkes, the English radical politician whom the Boston Whigs admired in the 1760s. She was also the widow of a merchant with substantial business in America, and no qualms about collecting the debts that her trading partners owed her.
In May 1784, Mrs. Hayley arrived in Boston. Before she set sail, she had already made a savvy decision to shape Americans’ perceptions of her. According to a newspaper report, she had bought the American frigate, the Delaware, which had been captured by Britain during the Revolutionary War, and had renamed it the United States. (It sailed under Captain James Scott, who was often employed by John Hancock [and would eventually be the second husband of Dolly Hancock].)Samuel Breck, born in Boston in 1771, provides a more eccentric portrait of Hayley, perhaps exaggerated by the passage of years:
The stunt paid off. Hayley’s arrival in Boston was reported in newspapers from New England to South Carolina. Here, Americans were seeing somebody very different from the woman they met through business correspondence or the London press. This visitor was neither an aggressive merchant nor an object of ridicule but an enlightened friend of the new republic.
As Abigail Adams wrote, “nothing but the ardent desire she had to visit a Country so distinguished for its noble and ardent defence of the rights of Mankind could have tempted her at her advanced age to have undertaken a sea voyage.” . . .
Ever alert to burnish her image, in October 1784, on the third anniversary of Lord Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, Mrs. Hayley commemorated the American victory with “a very brilliant firework” display in her garden. She again signaled her political sympathies when, with much pomp, she presented John Hancock with a new chariot. The gesture, one newspaper explained, “was a mark of her respect for the good conduct of this great patriot during the war.” In addition, she helped fund a variety of public and charitable projects—a very uncommon role for a woman. She contributed to a meeting house in Charlestown [the old one had burned during the Battle of Bunker Hill]; gave three pounds to a fund for improvements to the Boston Common; was a founding member of the Massachusetts Humane Society, an organization devoted to the rescue and resuscitation of drowning victims; donated blankets to Boston prisoners and wood to Boston's poor.
She had certainly passed her grand climacteric, and in her mouth was a single tooth of an ebon color. Her favorite dress was a red cloth riding-habit and black beaver hat. In these she looked very like an old man. . . .In 1786 Hayley married a British-born merchant in Boston named Patrick Jeffrey. The marriage didn’t last, and people gossiped that he “treated her with great brutality.” Six years later the former Madam Hayley returned to England without her young husband or much of her old property. Jeffrey bought Thomas Hutchinson’s former estate in Milton from James Warren, husband of Mercy Warren, and in the late 1800s Edmund J. Baker wrote a history of that estate which said:
This most excellent woman had surrounded herself with a menagerie, so that the court-yard was filled with cockatoos, poll-parrots, and monkeys. . . . She gave frequent dinners, at which I was often invited. We were sometimes annoyed by her monkeys and other pets, which, like spoilt children, were brought into the parlour at the fruit-dessert to gather nuts and gorge with raisins and apples. It was the custom at her table to place a well-filled punch-bowl in the centre as soon as the last cloth was removed. Surrounded by the choicest wines, there stood the huge vessel, always brought in with a little parade. On one occasion, when this ample bowl occupied its accustomed place, a mischievous monkey who was skipping about the table seized the wig of an Amsterdam merchant, old Mr. de Neuville, and, running to the bowl, soused it in.
He had the furniture, library, paintings, plate, relics, and ornaments that had graced the mansion of his wife’s first husband while an alderman and a mayor of London. With his two housekeepers and a retinue of servants he kept up a magnificent style of living. Dr. [Charles] Jarvis, the leading politician, Robert Hollowell [Gardiner], and the late Governor [William] Eustis were members of the club that dined with him weekly.Jarvis and Eustis were leading Democratic politicians, which might give a hint to Jeffrey’s own politics.
The thumbnail above shows the portrait of Mary Wilkes Hayley Jeffrey painted late in life by John Sanders, which is in the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath, England.