Arts and Leisure

Elizabeth DeBlois, the Girl Who Got Away From Benedict Arnold

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Benedict Arnold might not have turned traitor if Elizabeth DeBlois had returned his affections.

Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold

The winter of 1777 was a turning point for the 36-year-old brigadier general. He was expecting to be promoted to major general. He had captured Fort Ticonderoga, led a failed expedition through the Maine wilderness to capture Quebec and fought bravely at the Battle of Valcour Island in Lake Champlain.  He was respected by George Washington and admired by his men.

Washington in late 1776 had put him in charge of freeing Rhode Island from the British, who had taken control of Newport. Rhode Island’s militia had but 4,000 men, so Arnold went to Boston to recruit troops.

Elizabeth DeBlois

Elizabeth DeBlois was the 16-year-old daughter of a rich Loyalist who lived in Boston. John Quincy Adams knew her. "She puckers her mouth a little and contracts her eyelids a little, to look very pretty; and is not wholly unsuccessful,” he wrote about 10 years later.

Elizabeth and her parents had left for Halifax on Evacuation Day. Her father, Gilbert DeBlois sailed for England, and since the siege proved to be safe Elizabeth and her mother returned to Boston to protect their property.

Arnold met Elizabeth DeBlois, then 15, at a party given by Henry Knox and his wife. His own wife had died less than two years ago.

Arnold was smitten with young Elizabeth DeBlois.

From Watertown, Mass., he sent a letter to Lucy Flucker Knox on March 4, 1777,  along with a trunk full of expensive gowns and a letter to give to the heavenly Betsy.

"Conceive the fond anxiety, the glowing hopes, and chilling fears that alternately possess the breast of ... your obedient servant ...Benedict Arnold," he wrote.

Betsy wouldn’t accept the gift.

Poor Arnold

It was a bad time to be Benedict Arnold.  Congress passed him over for the promotion he wanted so desperately.

To add insult to injury, Lucy Knox asked if she could keep a scarf from the trunk, and Catherine Greene wanted one of the dresses. Arnold said no.

Lucy Knox

Lucy Knox

Arnold persisted, both with his promotion and with the heavenly Betsy. On April 26, 1777, he wrote her to say if she liked and respected him his tender sentiment would light the taper of her love.

“You have inspired in me a pure and exalted passion which cannot admit of an unworthy thought or action,” he wrote.

Elizabeth was indifferent to his pure and exalted passion. She was in love with someone else. She planned to marry Martin Brimmer, an apothecary apprentice whose son would become mayor of Boston and whose grandson would head the city’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Just as the wedding was about to take place on July 24, 1777, Mrs. DeBlois walked into the church and forbade the marriage.

Persistence

Peggy Shippen

Peggy Shippen

Even as he lobbied for his promotion, Arnold persisted with his love object. On April 8, 1778, he sent Elizabeth DeBlois another letter. It was a single elaborate sentence of 202 words, in which he wrote he took up his pen with trembling hands 20 times, struggled in vain to erase her heavenly image from his heart, and asked if she would doom a heart so true and faithful to languish in despair.

(Read the whole thing here.)

The idol of his soul politely suggested he ‘solicit no further.’

He sent her a ring of gold with four diamonds. She sent it back.

There are several stories about why Elizabeth DeBlois continued to reject the war hero she’d flirted with: one was that her mother disapproved of rebels. The other was that she was in love with a corset maker and almost ran off with him.

Elizabeth DeBlois never married and lived until her 80s.  She inherited her mother’s house on Tremont Street, having been restored to her grandfather’s will after she broke up with Martin Brimmer. She lived there in ‘single-blessed-ness and high respectability’ until about 1840, when she moved to Roxbury. She was said to have been almost to the last "a straight, tall, elegant woman."

Arnold was appointed military governor of Philadelphia, where he met and fell in love with Peggy Shippen, an 18-year-old Loyalist. He kept copies of his letters to Elizabeth DeBlois and recycled some of his best lines to Peggy. This time they worked.

Benedict Arnold and Peggy Shippen were married on April 8, 1779. She approved of his switching sides and didn’t mind him plagiarizing himself. They lived happily together until his death.

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