Treacherous Beauty: The Life of Peggy Shppen Arnold

Since I was had two days off from work thanks to Hurricane Sandy, I had ample time to actually do some research.  I love the Revolutionary War period and I wish that more authors of both historical fiction and romance would use this rich period of history as a backdrop.  One of the most fascinating women during this period is Peggy Shippen Arnold.  Most students of American history know about her husband Benedict Arnold who turned traitor but few know the role that Peggy played in his betrayal of his country.  Thanks to a new biography, Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman behind Benedict Arnold’s Plot to Betray America by Stephan H. Case and Mark Jacob, perhaps more people will know her name.

Peggy Shippen Arnold and child, by Sir Thomas Lawrence
Margaret ‘Peggy’ Shippen was born June 11, 1760 in Philadelphia.  The Shippen family was quite a prominent family; her lineage included two mayors and the founder of Shippensburg, PA.  Peggy’s father, Edward was a judge and a member of the Provincial Council.  Peggy was the baby of the family and her favorite’s favorite, so from an early age she had learned how to wrap a man around her little finger.  Her only brother Edward was considered a bit of a dolt, so Peggy’s father took her under his wing, teaching her about finance and politics, which she took to like a duck to water.  She also learned the usual female accomplishments of the 18th century, music, dancing, drawing and needlework.  Peggy was considered one of the most beautiful young women in Philadelphia, not just because of her looks but because of her charm and wit.  Unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you look at it, she came of age during a time of war.

Peggy’s family wasn’t really Loyalists but they weren't Patriots either; they sort of straddled the fence.   While they believed that the colonists had definite grievances against the Motherland, they thought that things could be worked out, if both sides were willing to compromise.  It was a tough line to walk, particularly since during the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia was occupied by both the British and the Americans at different times.  While Peggy was growing up both George Washington and Benedict Arnold had been entertained by her parents.  When the British captured Philadelphia in 1777, they did the same for the British high command.  The parties and balls that had been a feature of Philadelphia social life continued under British occupation, giving Peggy a chance to practice her dance steps and her flirting.

A frequent visitor to the Shippen home was a young officer named John André.  André was handsome, cultured, and charming.  Some historians speculate that Peggy and André fell in love but there is no evidence of this.  In fact, he paid court to not only Peggy but also to her friends Peggy Chew, Becky Franks, and Becky Morris.  One might call them André’s Angels; he spent that much time with them. When the British withdrew from the city a year later, he gave Peggy a lock of his hair to remember him by.

Peggy and her family had fled to the New Jersey countryside initially after the Americans occupied the city under the governorship of Benedict Arnold, but they soon moved back to the city because Edward Shippen felt that they would be safer.  The family soon became reacquainted with Benedict Arnold.  Arnold was immediately smitten and began courting the young woman despite their 20 year age difference.  What did Peggy see in Arnold? Despite the age difference and the fact that he was widowed with three small sons, Arnold was also a hero, responsible for the capture for Fort Ticonderoga and also for key actions during the Battle of Saratoga in which he was wounded.  Now a major general, he had been given the military governorship of Philadelphia.  While Peggy was willing, her father was more skeptical.  Arnold had just been brought up on charges of corruption and malfeasance with the money of the federal and state governments, and was awaiting trial. Arnold, however, knew the way to a woman’s heart, purchasing one of the nicest homes in town, Mount Pleasant for Peggy which he gave her the ownership of.  On April 19, 1779, Benedict Arnold and Peggy Shippen were married.

Arnold was champing at the bit to get back into action now that his leg had finally healed.  He angled for the post of defending Charleston against the British but Washington gave the command to someone else.  Although he had been acquitted of most of the charges brought against him, Arnold was still convicted of two of the minor charges.  Arnold seethed at what he considered the injustices done to him.  He had spent a considerable sum of money during his campaigns and was still waiting for reimbursement, nor had he been paid any salary as an officer in the Continental Army (he was not alone, most officers were still waiting for funds).  He was also pissed off that it had taken so long for him to be promoted to major general.  Whether Peggy first suggested that he think of switching sides, or he came to the conclusion on his own is up for debate.  The authors of Treacherous Beauty believe that it was Peggy’s idea.  She was certainly the one who put Arnold in touch with her good friend John André.  Soon Arnold had involved others in the conspiracy including two Loyalists, the Rev. Jonathan Odell and Joseph Stansbury.

 If Peggy had encouraged Arnold to change sides, it would certainly be understandable.  She was being a good wife, supporting her man, who felt unappreciated by the Americans.  And she probably didn’t have to give him that hard a push.  Arnold seems like he would have been a pain in the ass to live with, one of those men who never leave well enough alone.  He made as many enemies as he did friends.
Pissed off at his treatment in Philadelphia, Arnold resigned his command there in June of 1780.  By this time, he had been corresponding secretly with André, who had gotten permission from his commanding officer, General Clinton to pursue the possibility of Arnold coming over to the British. The messages that were exchanged were sometimes transmitted through Peggy, she would write Andre a seemingly innocent letter asking for material or some sort of frippery, but the letter would also include coded communications from Arnold in invisible ink. Arnold had sought and obtained the command of West Point which was a critical defense post on the Hudson River.   The plan was now for Arnold to weaken the defenses at West Point instead of rebuilding them, to make it easier for the British to capture the fort.  Peggy and their newborn son Edward soon joined them staying at the home of Beverly Robinson, a Loyalist whose home had been seized by the Americans.

Image of a coded letter: Peggy Shippen Arnold's handwriting is interspersed with coded writing in Benedict Arnold's hand; Arnold's writing would have been in invisible ink

In September 1780, Arnold finally met André in the woods nearby, giving him vital documents regarding the fortifications at West Point.  Unfortunately for André, he ended up behind the American lines, something that Clinton had told him expressly not to do.  André was arrested on September 23, 1780 trying to cross back into British territory.  The documents hidden in his boot were found, and the plot was exposed.  When Arnold found out that the jig was up, he fled to the HMS Vulture that was on the Hudson River, leaving Peggy behind at Robinson House waiting for George Washington to show up.  Washington had been scheduled to have a meeting with Arnold that morning.  Peggy put on a tour-de-force performance, becoming completely hysterical, almost mad.  The performance convinced Washington and his aide Alexander Hamilton that not only was Peggy completely innocent but it also gave Arnold enough time to escape. 

Peggy was sent back to her family in Philadelphia but news of Arnold’s betrayal meant that it was too difficult for her to stay and put her family in danger.  Instead Peggy was banished from the city of her birth, and sent to New York City to join her husband.  Their second son James Robinson Arnold was born in New York on August 28, 1781.  Peggy was initially welcomed into New York society.  Meanwhile André was condemned as a spy and hanged at Tappan, New York.  Now on the British side, Arnold was desperate to prove his worth but officers were naturally suspicious of the traitor in their midst.  Just as he had when he was part of the Continental Army, Arnold clashed with other officers over the right way to proceed to win the war.  Ironically, if he had been listened to, things might have been different and America might still be part of the British Empire.  With the war all but over, the Arnold family moved to England. 
The Arnold family fortunes continued to decline during their time in England.  Arnold was busy trying to get the British government to pay what he felt that he was owed for his actions betraying his country (he had asked to be paid £10,000 if he failed in his mission to secure West Point for the British, but the government ended up paying him a little over £6,000). Peggy meanwhile devoted herself to motherhood, giving birth to five more children, of which 3 survived.  They moved to New Brunswick in Canada so that Arnold could pursue a business opportunity.  When that failed, the family moved back to London, moving into increasingly smaller homes.  When Arnold died in 1801, Peggy spent the last three years of her life paying off his debts.  She used the pension money that she had been given by the British government and invested it wisely so that she had something to leave her children. She died in 1804 of uterine cancer and was buried with Arnold in St. Mary’s Church in Battersea.

After her death, a biographer of Aaron Burr first made the claim that Peggy had either manipulated or convinced Arnold to change sides like a Revolutionary War Lady Macbeth.  The information came from Burr’s wife, Theodosia Prevost who had been a good friend of Peggy’s. Peggy had stayed with Prevost in what is now Paramus, NJ, enroute to Philadelphia from West Point.  Apparently Peggy couldn’t take the lying anymore and confessed everything to Theodosia, telling her that “through unceasing perseverance, she had ultimately brought the general into an arrangement to surrender West Point.”  When the biography was published, the Shippen family disputed this version of events. They claim that Burr made up these allegations because Peggy had spurned his advances made on the way to Philadelphia.  However, papers were later found that showed that Peggy was paid £350 for handling secret dispatches.  

Still, until recently, Peggy was seen as the innocent wife of a traitor. One reason is, of course, the idea that women are naturally less treacherous than men. Peggy was not the only woman who aided and abetted the British during the American Revolution, but very few women were caught, and the ones that were reprimanded at most.  While male spies such as Nathan Hale and André were executed, not a single female spy met the same fate.  Peggy Shippen Arnold was a survivor, a testament to her ancestors who crossed the ocean to the New World.  Her life was more difficult than easy after her marriage but she made it work and never complained.


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Francesca said…
Very interesting, I'd never heard of her (or her husband); I'm glad to see you tackle lesser known subjects. Your blog is quickly becoming an addiction! Thanks for the great research and thorough post.
Unknown said…
I think this is a very interesting historical person, but I do not believe the authors are qualified to write their story-telling here.

Mark Jacob is actively increases resistance for women to report sex crimes and rape in every day circumstances.

And in fact, I believe many of his writings reek with misogynistic thoughts.

A misogynistic writing about "scandalous women" could be a disturbing read, although I recommend against it to your readers!

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