Benedict Arnold might not have turned traitor if Betsy DeBlois had returned his affections. But the beautiful 16-year-old Loyalist broke the heart of the lame, 36-year-old father of three.
The winter of 1777 was a turning point for the ambitious Arnold. He expected promotion to major general because of his military successes — and despite his failures. Wounded twice in battle, 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. George Washington respected him and his men admired him.
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 ‘Betsy’ DeBlois was the teenaged 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.
Betsy and her parents had left for Halifax on Evacuation Day. Her father, Gilbert DeBlois, sailed for England, and since the siege proved safe Betsy and her mother returned to Boston to protect their property.
Arnold met Betsy DeBlois, then 15, at a party given by Henry Knox and his wife. His own wife had died less than two years ago.
Arnold fell hard for young Betsy DeBlois, known as ‘the belle of Boston.’ She probably led him on. Her mother, though, had little use for the battle-scarred soldier she viewed as lowbrow.
Though European luxury items were impossible to obtain in America, the lovelorn Benedict Arnold managed to fill a trunk full of expensive silk gowns for the heavenly Betsy Deblois. From Watertown, Mass., he sent a letter to Lucy Flucker Knox on March 4, 1777, along with the dresses and a love letter for 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.
Benedict Arnold suffered more blows to his pride as his career began to founder. He had little luck finding recruits in Boston for his Rhode Island assignment. Then 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.
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.
Betsy ignored Arnold’s pure and exalted passion because she loved someone else. She planned to marry Martin Brimmer, an apothecary apprentice. Brimmer’s son would become mayor of Boston and whose grandson would head the city’s Museum of Fine Arts.
The DeBlois family disapproved of the match. Betsy’s grandfather cut her out of his will because of it. And just as the wedding was about to take place on July 24, 1777, Mrs. DeBlois forbade it. According to one story, she locked Betsy in her room and nailed the window shut so she couldn’t marry Martin Brimmer.
Even as he lobbied for his promotion, Arnold persisted with his love object. On April 8, 1778, he sent Betsy DeBlois another letter. It was a single elaborate sentence of 202 words. In it, he wrote that 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.’
Then he sent her another letter along with a gold ring set with four diamonds. She sent it back.
Betsy 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 her break 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 Betsy DeBlois and recycled some of his best lines to Betsy. This time they worked.
Benedict Arnold and Peggy Shippen married on April 8, 1779. Peggy approved of his switching sides and didn’t mind him plagiarizing himself. They lived happily together until his death. Together they now rest in peace in a London kindergarten.
This story was updated in 2018.