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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Sunday, January 08, 2012

Did Benedict Arnold’s Widow Die in Uxbridge?

In Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, in the Olden Time, published in 1844, John F. Watson wrote:
The wife of Benedict Arnold was a Philadelphian, a Peggy Shippen, and died on the 14th February, 1836, at Uxbridge, Mass., aged 83 [about the same time a sister of Major Andre, aged 81, died in England.] It seems a strange affair, that the wife of such a general should under any circumstances get back to America—to get, too, not to her own home, and with her nearest relatives, in Pennsylvania, but should go to Massachusetts—the same state where her first ancestor, Edward Shippen, first mayor of Philadelphia, had been publicly punished in Boston as a Quaker!
Two years later Watson repeated his statement about Peggy Arnold in Annals and Occurrences of New York City and State, in the Olden Time:
Gen. [Benedict] Arnold died in London, in 1801, unhonoured and unnoticed there; and afterwards his wife returned to the United States, incognito, and died at Uxbridge, Mass. at the age of eighty-three years, on the 14th Feb. 1836.
A similar statement, with the year of her death changed to 1834, appeared in The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1897 edition and probably others. It may well have popped up in other reference books.

Obviously, the death of Gen. Arnold’s widow in Massachusetts raises a lot of questions, as Watson acknowledged but didn’t pursue:
  • If this woman was truly incognito and away from relatives, how could anyone identify her as Benedict Arnold’s widow after she died?
  • How could this woman die at age 83 in 1836 (i.e., born around 1753) when Pennsylvania records show Peggy Shippen, future wife of the general, was born in 1760?
  • Most important, why did the September 1804 Gentleman’s Magazine in London report the following among its death notices?
In Bryanstone-street, Portman-square, in her 44th year, Mrs. Margaret Arnold, widow of Brigadier-gen. A. who died June 14, 1801…, and daughter of the late Hon. Edward Shippen, chief justice of the state of Pennsylvania, N. America.
Ah, but perhaps that was how the widow faked her death so that she could escape back to America. Because there’s an undisputed, contemporaneous record of the death of the widow of Benedict Arnold in Uxbridge in 1836.

TOMORROW: Examining the vital records.


John L. Smith said...

This "CSI: Uxbridge" investigation is very interesting! Can't wait for tomorrow's installment!

Thomas said...

How strange, St Mary's Church in Battersea seems to be under the impression that both the general and his lady are buried there:


J. L. Bell said...

And with good reason!

rfuller said...

I've heard this tale about Peggy Shippen Arnold returning to America treated as truth, too. The thought that patriotism trumps treason and love makes an irresistible tale for some.

J. L. Bell said...

We also seem to like ironic stories. I don’t know if that’s this culture in particular or humans in general.

rfuller said...

Possibly, but there might be a bit more than that.

Putting aside also ideas of mistaken identity or sloppy research, that John F. Watson thought it credible that Peggy Shippen would forsake her family and decided fate to run back to her country, losing everything to die in obscurity in Uxbridge, MA, sounds like something out of Edward Everett Hale's short story, "The Man Without a Country". In Hale's story, the protagonist Philip Nolan makes a rash decision as a young man, renouncing the USA, and spends the rest of his life paying for it. To his dying day, Nolan regrets losing the United States of America as his homeland, and would have been willing to suffer any misery to become an American again. (One might say the backwater of Uxbridge would qualify as such for a putative returnee, who'd been bred in Philadelphia wealth...). Perhaps Hale was also trodding on a general theme not so unfamiliar, when he wrote his morality tale for Civil War audiences? I also wonder how Watson's claim that Peggy Shippen Arnold returned to America and died there was received by the public?

J. L. Bell said...

It also has parallels with some claims about Elizabeth Loring and Margaret Gage, said to have betrayed their husbands and/or their country and to have died alone and cast off. Except they didn’t.