J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Marriage of Thomas and Margaret Gage

As I described yesterday, the largely very good history Paul Revere’s Ride argues that there’s a strong circumstantial case that Margaret Gage betrayed her husband Thomas, British commander in Boston (shown here), by leaking word of the march to Concord to Dr. Joseph Warren.

Among that evidence, the book says, is “her husband’s decision to send her away from him after the battles, and the failure of their marriage.”

But here’s Gen. Gage’s entry at ThePeerage.com, listing his children with Margaret:

  • Maria Theresa Gage d. 21 Apr 1832
  • Charlotte Margaret Gage d. Sep 1814
  • Harriet Gage d. 1835
  • Maj.-Gen. Henry Gage, 3rd Viscount Gage of Castle Island b. 4 Mar 1761, d. 29 Jan 1808
  • Louisa Elizabeth Gage b. c 1766, d. 21 Jan 1832
  • John Gage b. 23 Dec 1767, d. 24 Dec 1846
  • Emily Gage b. 25 Apr 1776, d. 28 Aug 1838
  • Admiral Sir William Hall Gage b. 2 Oct 1777, d. 5 Jan 1864
Since Emily Gage was born in late April 1776, Margaret Gage conceived that child around the end of July 1775—months after when Paul Revere’s Ride says her husband “ordered her away from him.”

The Gages probably didn’t realize that Margaret was pregnant when she left Boston in late August. Nevertheless, sending one’s wife out of a besieged town suffering from food shortages and smallpox might actually be a sign of affection. At the very least, I’d want my husband to consider it.

Paul Revere’s Ride errs in saying that “the General remained in America for another long and painful year” after his wife’s departure. Gage received orders to sail back to London on 26 September, and left on 11 October. Some historians suggest he had already sensed those orders were coming, which would have given him another reason to send his family home well before winter.

What about the Gages’ life in England? They retired to Firle Place. (Occasional Boston 1775 guest blogger Charles Bahne sent me that web address, as well as this page with more information.)

I haven’t seen any statement from the Gages’ contemporaries—who loved to gossip—that their marriage failed. In fact, the couple had another child in October 1777, which strongly suggests that they were still acting as husband and wife in every way. They had no more children after that son, but by then Margaret was aged 43.

Thomas Gage died in 1787, having achieved some vindication from how no other generals had been any more victorious in America than he had. Margaret lived to 1824. Of their two children born after the war began, Emily Gage grew up to marry the Earl of Abingdon, and William Hall Gage became an admiral and knight. They’re both thus well documented; he’s even got a Wikipedia page. And they make the evidence for Margaret Gage’s betrayal of her husband look quite thin.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, JL, very interesting. Yesterday I googled Margaret (that sounds rather fresh, doesn't it?) and discovered that most sites treat her alleged betrayal as a fact, without citing any source other than Paul Revere's Ride. Good work -- I believe you have vindicated her. Kit

J. L. Bell said...

It’s striking how powerful the “Margaret Gage told Dr. Warren” meme is. As you say, it’s really the only thing people today know about Mrs. Gage. Something about the story must speak to what we want to believe today about the Revolution.

John L. Smith said...

JL - the story also speaks strongly to the love of scandal and things of a sensational nature in our society, past or present. Why let the facts get in the way of a delicious story of spousal betrayal, ending in marriage tragedy?! Your conclusions as to both situations are absolutely true, although less juicy.

J. L. Bell said...

I think it’s notable that Margaret Gage’s “sin” of betraying the husband is inextricably linked to the idea that her marriage failed. The failure is presented as evidence for the betrayal, the betrayal as explanation for the failure.

No one’s recounted the story as Margaret betraying her husband and carrying that secret to the grave, suffering no consequences, nor Thomas or others accusing Margaret unjustly. There has to be a sin-and-retribution narrative.

The legend may also have an allegorical resonance: Thomas as the strict husband (Britain), Margaret as the emotionally torn wife who ultimately stands up for her birthright (America). Thomas learns too late of his folly, and the once-happy couple separate.

Charles Bahne said...

I had heard of the story of Margaret Gage being Dr. Warren's informant, before Fischer's book on "Paul Revere's Ride" was published. Unfortunately, I can't locate a published source for that -- it may have been a historian's version of hearsay. (I just checked a couple of likely sources, to no avail.) I think that the earlier source had just indicated the connection between Mrs. Gage and Dr. Warren, without indicating that her marriage had failed because of it.

J. L. Bell said...

Esther Forbes discusses the theory of Margaret Gage as informant very briefly in Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, but dismisses it as speculation by resentful British officers.

John R. Alden addresses speculation about the Gages’ marriage in General Gage in America, but concludes that there’s no evidence for any estrangement.

ebharlowe said...

Just out of curiosity, what happened to Margaret's brothers?

Anonymous said...

Is there any evidence that Margaret was pro-American, or enough so to betray husband and brothers? Or is this based on the romantic feelings she was supposed to have had for the brave and dashing Dr Warren? Is she a heroine, or a snitch and adulteress? What a strange and intriguing story. Kit

J. L. Bell said...

Stephen Kemble remained in the British army until 1789. He helped manage his widowed sister’s property for a while, and in the 1790s was a Judge Advocate for British territories in North America. In 1805, however, he returned to New Brunswick, New Jersey, and lived there until his death twenty-four years later. So there’s more evidence that he was ultimately loyal to America than that his sister was.

Samuel Kemble went to London in 1783 at the end of the war, and then went into imperial or mercantile work in the East Indies. He died in Sumatra in 1796.

J. L. Bell said...

There’s evidence that Margaret Gage was worried about a war between the royal government and the Americans, but many people expressed that worry. Nobody said they wanted a war. I’ve found no evidence that Mrs. Gage supported the American political cause, particularly over her husband.

The possibility of an affair or infatuation with Dr. Joseph Warren definitely hovers over this legend, but no historian has presented evidence for it. Warren was well known as a radical leader, and there were plenty of other doctors in Boston, some Loyalist, so for Mrs. Gage to visit or receive visits from Dr. Warren should have caused talk.

Anonymous said...

You are right. The birth of a daughter to Mrs Gage in April 1776 makes it very unlikely that the marriage of Thomas and Margaret Gage broke down as the result of something that happened in April 1775. There is evidence in a letter of Captain W.G. Evelyn that Mrs Gage was sent to England with other women because supplies were dwindling and danger from the besieging army was increasing. The English newspapers record that when she got back to London, Mrs. Gage immediately waited on King George where she was in conference for more than an hour. This suggests she had been entrusted with information by her husband to communicate to the King. Would Gage have done this if he was sending his wife home in disgrace? Margaret Gage's family were mostly loyalists: her English born father, Peter and her brother Stephen who was an officer in the British Army and head of intelligence for Gage. I suspect, therefore, that she may not have been a spy.

Anonymous said...

Just because a married man and woman have a child does not mean that their marriage is successful. Please,,, there is so much more to marriage that procreation. Divorce was not possible in those days. No telling how this woman might have been forced to perform.

J. L. Bell said...

For the October 2016 anonymous commenter, D. H. Fischer stated (as quoted above) that the Gages' marriage failed. Having two more children after the supposed betrayal doesn't prove a "successful" marriage, but it certainly argues against a physical separation. Indeed, we've found no evidence of the Gages' marital troubles. The burden of proof is on the people proposing otherwise.

Furthermore, divorce was possible in the eighteenth century, especially for a man willing to declare himself betrayed. There are also well known cases of aristocratic British married couples living separately, the man often with another woman and the woman occasionally with another man.