Crime and Scandal

The Scandalous Wedding of Gov. John Wentworth

John Wentworth followed his uncle Benning by serving as  royal governor of New Hampshire – and by taking a bride in a scandalous manner.

As governor, Benning Wentworth lined his pockets selling land grants in what is now Vermont. He scandalized Portsmouth’s elite in 1760 when he surprised his dinner guests by marrying his maid, Martha Hilton, then and there in his dining room.

John Wentworth, by John Singleton Copley.

John Wentworth, by John Singleton Copley.

Gov. John Wentworth

John Wentworth was born Aug. 9, 1737, in Portsmouth, four years before Uncle Benning became governor. He earned a B.A. in 1755 and an M.A. in 1758 at Harvard, where he developed a close friendship with John Adams.

John Wentworth's beautiful young cousin, Frances Deering, had fallen in love with him, and he returned her feelings. But John had his career to pursue, and in 1763 he went to London to look after his family’s business interests. There he mingled with England’s high society. He may even have persuaded his friend the Marquess of Rockingham, then prime minister, to lead the repeal of the Stamp Act.

While John Wentworth was in London, Theodore Atkinson wooed and won Frances Deering, then only 16. They married on May 13, 1762. Atkinson, a mild, obliging man in his mid-20s, suffered from ill health.

Five years after their marriage, John Wentworth returned to Portsmouth amidst pomp and ceremony as governor of New Hampshire. His home on Pleasant Street had an unobstructed view of the Atkinson home. Rumor had it that Frances informed John about her husband’s declining health by hanging a handkerchief out her window.

Frances

Theodore Atkinson died on Oct. 28, 1769. Harriet Spofford, in New-England legends, described what happened next:

On one day Theodore breathed his last. His burial took place on the following Wednesday; by the Governor's order all the bells in town were toiled, flags were hung at half-mast, and minute-guns were fired from the fort and from the ships-of-war in the harbor. 

Then on Sunday the weeping widow, clad in crapes, listened in church to the funeral eulogies, wrote Spofford. The next day, 'her affliction was mitigated.' And on Tuesday, 'all the fingers of the seamstresses of the country roundabout were flying.'

On the next Sunday, less than three weeks after her husband died, Frances Atkinson walked up the aisle as the wife of John Wentworth.

Frances Atkinson before she became Mrs. John Wentworth by John Singleton Copley.

Gov. John Wentworth, besotted with his wife, named two New Hampshire towns after her: Deering and Francestown.

The Wentworths had to flee Portsmouth on June 13, 1775, when revolutionaries pointed a cannon at their front door. They sailed to England and, later, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where John Wentworth was eventually named lieutenant governor.

Frances Wentworth hated Nova Scotia, and while John was away she began an affair with visiting Prince William, a hard-drinking womanizer 20 years her junior. John found out about the affair but didn’t raise a fuss; she wrote he was the ‘most diffident of men.’ He did, however, tell William’s father, King George III, of his displeasure, and the King recalled William to England.

This story was updated in 2019. 

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