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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Monday, January 09, 2012

Not That Benedict Arnold’s Widow

Vital Records of Uxbridge, Massachusetts was published in 1916, collecting records from the town’s churches and small Quaker meetinghouse (shown here, courtesy of Wikipedia).

As Pennsylvania historian John F. Watson reported in 1844, there is indeed a record from that meetinghouse of Benedict Arnold’s widow dying in Uxbridge on 14 Feb 1836. It appears in the genealogical volume on page 356: Sarah Arnold, widow of Benedict, age eighty-three.

However, page 25 of the same book states that a boy named Benedict Arnold was born in that town in 1752 and his wife Sarah in 1754. There’s no record of their marriage, but there are listings for their children Dorcas (1775), William (1777), and Mary (1781). All those births are recorded in a way that indicates the family was Quaker. Page 356 also says that Benedict died in 1802, which left Sarah a widow.

According to the Rhode Island Genealogical Register, Benedict’s will mentioned his wife Sarah and his children William, Dorcas, and Mary. The family is also mentioned in Richard H. Benson’s The Arnold Family of Smithfield, Rhode Island.

So while it’s true that Benedict Arnold’s widow died in Uxbridge, there’s really no doubt that she wasn’t that Benedict Arnold’s widow. The same source that preserves details of her death also records her life with a local Quaker man and their three children.

In fact, there were multiple Benedict Arnolds in southern New England in the late 1700s, many named in memory of a governor of Rhode Island a couple of generations earlier. That causes problems for biographers looking for exploits of the future general’s youth before he became the Benedict Arnold and Americans completely stopped naming their children Benedict Arnold.

The death of the general’s widow was clearly reported in London in 1804. Since she was receiving a pension from the Crown, the British government had a financial incentive to keep track. In 1931 J. G. Taylor published a short book titled Some New Light on the Later Life and Last Resting Place of Benedict Arnold and of His Wife Margaret Shippen, quoting records of the Battersea Church where the couple was buried.

So you might think that the already suspicious claim that Peggy Arnold secretly returned to America and lived for over thirty years in a Massachusetts town where she knew no one would have dissolved a long time ago.

But no, this is the age of the internet! Old claims no longer have to die. Indeed, the fact that Taylor’s 1931 book is still under copyright while Watson’s 1840s books are searchable means that the claim is easier to stumble across than some of the solid evidence.

So now there are webpages, some from reputable organizations like the Penn State University libraries and that new standby Wikipedia, stating that Peggy (Shippen) Arnold died in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Some even say she did so in 1804, which means the authors had access to the right information but added on a layer of wrong.


Unknown said...

Awesome detective work!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks. On the one hand, it's good to find such clear clues. On the other, this is like solving the mystery of who killed Alexander Hamilton.

Thomas said...

Ah, should have guessed that it was a case of mistaken identity! But one does wonder at the credulity of John F Watson or was it just another way to sell copy?

As to Alexander Hamilton always thought it was Aaron Burr but now you have me wondering......

Chris said...

Love these types of posts and the research that goes into them....what was that about Alexander Hamilton. Wasn't it Aaron Burr?

J. L. Bell said...

Who killed great Hamilton? It was the guy who shot a gun at him a few hours before, observed by witnesses, acknowledged by all concerned, and widely blamed in the press of the day. So it’s not much a mystery.

That's what I meant by comparing that question to the question of Peggy Arnold’s death. There’s so much evidence about her dying in London in 1804, and such an easily found explanation for the report about Sarah Arnold dying in 1846 (in the same book, for goodness’ sake—on the same page!), that there really shouldn’t be a mystery at all now.

Back in Watson’s time, things were different. The Uxbridge vital records hadn’t been published, and British sources were harder to come by. He may have seen a report of the death of the widow of Benedict Arnold in Massachusetts though some Quaker channel (he was based in Philadelphia) and assumed much too much. That factoid is only a small detail in Watson’s two books, so I doubt it was a selling point.

Thomas said...

I think I see what you mean, although perhaps Penn State have less excuse than Wikipedia? The latter is excellent in its way but some articles betray their origin as a agglomeration of different hands, a compote of the reliable, questionable and fiction. Although I have to say that when extensive sources have been quoted in a Wikipedia article they have, on occasion, lead me down some very interesting byways!

The Peggy Arnold story illustrates why it is important to corroborate 'facts' if possible (and this was far more difficult in 1846 than today?). It is important to stress the nature of the evidence or the lack of it. Of course this cannot stop anyone from misusing the information but how far can one go?

J. L. Bell said...

I held up that Wikipedia page for criticism because it actually cited the Vital Records of Uxbridge, so whoever wrote that passage had all the information he or she needed to investigate the claim. There’s a shorter mention of the widow Arnold in the Wikipedia article on Uxbridge itself. The article on Peggy Arnold herself is Uxbridge-free.

Having spotted those errors, I of course have the opportunity to fix them, and I haven’t taken it. So I confess that I share some of the blame for the errors surviving this long. I rely on Wikipedia for pointers to additional information, so I’m not blaming the system, just noting a weakness: the corners where only a few people go to check.

Anonymous said...

Both Benedict Arnolds were descendants of the original Benedict Arnold who had one of the first homelots in Providence in the 1630s. The name Arnold is very common in Providence. The best source of genealogical records in Rhode Island is James Newell Arnold's Vital Records.