Treacherous Beauty: The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold’s Plot to Betray America by Stephen Case and Mark Jacob (Globe Pequot, 2012) is the biography of Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphia society girl who became Mrs. Benedict Arnold and was involved in the most notorious treason in American history. When the plot was discovered, Peggy cleverly deflected blame. More than a century after her death, documents were discovered showing that she was a conspirator. But Peggy’s story remains little known today.
The granddaughter of a Philadelphia mayor, Peggy was 17 when the British army occupied her city. She became friends with John Andre, a handsome British officer. Then, when the patriots retook Philadelphia, Peggy was courted by the city’s top military man, General Benedict Arnold, who was considered the best battlefield commander in George Washington’s army but had been grievously wounded at Saratoga. Peggy was 18 and Arnold was 37 when they married. A month later, they began secretly communicating with the British, offering to commit treason. The British officer who handled the negotiations was Peggy’s old friend, Andre.
Ultimately, the Arnolds settled on a plan to surrender the vital outpost of West Point to the British and arrange the capture of thousands of troops – and perhaps even Washington himself. But Andre was captured behind enemy lines, and the plot unraveled. Arnold fled to the British, leaving Peggy behind to care for their infant son and convince the Founding Fathers that she was innocent. She put on one of the greatest performances in American history – a hysterical episode known as the “Mad Scene” that convinced Washington and the others that this highly intelligent woman was oblivious to the plot.
Andre was hanged as a spy. Peggy rejoined Arnold and eventually moved to London. Later they tried to settle in Canada, but Arnold’s business disputes ruined their chances. Peggy spent her last years in England trying desperately to keep her family afloat despite her husband’s financial recklessness. She succeeded in raising five children of the British Empire, four of them soldiers. Peggy died of cancer at age 44, and demanded the most modest burial possible. A keepsake was found among her effects: a lock of hair from John Andre.
Stephen H. Case is managing director and general counsel of Emerald Development Managers LP. He is a member of the board of the American Revolution Center. Mark Jacob, deputy metro editor at the Chicago Tribune, was part of the team that won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. To satisfy his personal curiosity, Case has made himself an expert in the Peggy Shippen story, reading all available histories that examine her story and tracking down Peggy’s letters at various repositories of historical manuscript.
Mark Jacob, deputy metro editor at the Chicago Tribune, was part of the team that won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. He is co-author of the newspaper’s “10 Things You Might Not Know” feature. He has co-written four other books, including What the Great Ate.
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