Benedict Arnold is by far the most famous traitor in American history. However, a dainty Philadelphia socialite, little-known today and who was described later in life as the most beautiful woman in England, was both a co-conspirator and very possibly the originator of Arnold’s scheme to betray his country. Following the exposé of Arnold’s treason and his subsequent escape, his young wife, Peggy Shippen Arnold, used her cunning to convince the colonial world of her innocence, hiding behind the popular conceptions of female simplicity and delicacy. Had she been a man, she most assuredly would have been arrested, tried and hanged as a spy; however, she took full advantage of her culture’s low view of the feminine mind and thus melted into obscurity and the pale background of history.
AMCʼs historical drama TURN: Washington’s Spies centers on the Culper Ring — a group of civilians gathering intelligence in New York and relaying it to Washington through a complex chain of communication. Their greatest discovery was Arnold’s defection, and they were able to thwart his plans to surrender West Point to the British, literally just in time. Intrigued by her character and role in the plot, I read one of the few existing biographies on Peggy Shippen: Treacherous Beauty, by Mark Jacob and Stephen Case. Peggy’s involvement in the plot has been dismissed and debated throughout history; however, the evidence from letters alone is clear — she was guilty.
Fundamental to the enterprise was Peggy’s friendship with Major John André, a British officer who was also in charge of the British Secret Service, who became intimately acquainted with Peggy during the British occupation of Philadelphia. Not long after the Continental Army reclaimed the city, she met and married Gen. Benedict Arnold. While it is arguable that the idea of treason may have easily originated from Peggy, it is certainly clear that once the conspiracy was underway, she was a full partner therein. Far from being a conscientious maneuver based on their beliefs, the Arnolds’ betrayal was purely based on pecuniary motives. At Peggy’s probable suggestion, Arnold wrote to André and began a long process of negotiating the terms of his defection.
Once details were agreed upon, the climax of the plot rose and then quickly fell in a very interesting sequence of events. Had the men in the scheme been as clever as the damsel, there is little doubt that the conspiracy would have been successful. André was captured behind enemy lines out of uniform with incriminating documents on West Point hidden in his boot, all three factors of which condemned him as a spy. Arnold was luckier and managed to row down the Hudson to the British sloop Vulture, thus evading the hangman’s noose.
Peggy was left alone with her infant child in their mansion near West Point. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette were due to arrive that morning on a scheduled visit and were, as of yet, completely unaware of Arnold’s treachery. Upon arrival, they learned of Arnold’s betrayal and escape and found his wife acting out what is now referred to as “The Mad Scene.” Peggy so convincingly faked a dramatic show of insanity and feminine hysterics that Washington later declared that he had “every reason to believe she is innocent, and requests all persons to treat her with that humanity and tenderness due to her sex and virtues,” and Hamilton wrote, “It was impossible not to have been touched with her situation … everything amiable in suffering innocence conspired to make her an object of sympathy to all who were present.”
In an article entitled Female Villains, journalist Warren Adler writes, “Women, by virtue of their historical status as nurturers, and for centuries dominated by men … have been characterized by time and custom as the gentler sex, compassionate and kind, more merciful and tenderhearted of the genders.” It is perhaps this stereotype, even in a sense still today, that make the Lady Macbeths and the Rebeccas of literature so chillingly alarming and unexpected. A femme fatale is defined as, “A stock character of a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, dangerous and deadly situations. She is an archetype of literature and art.” Peggy Shippen Arnold is indeed the femme fatale of American history.