Elizabeth Whitman arrived at the Bell Tavern in Danvers, Mass., in the late spring of 1788. Refined, pleasant and beautiful, she was also pregnant. Whitman checked into the tavern under the name of Walker.
She came from Connecticut, she told the innkeeper, and said her husband would join her. On July 25, she died in childbirth. She and her stillborn baby were buried.
Her true identity was only discovered when an acquaintance read of her mysterious death in the Salem Mercury. He then came forward to untangle the mystery of her passing.
Her father, Elnathan Whitman, preached as a minister at the Second Church in Hartford until his death in 1777. She had one brother. Sympathetic friends had probably helped her travel to Danvers via Watertown, Mass.
Did the 36-year-old expectant mother expect to be joined there by the father of her child? Poems that she left behind suggest she was waiting for someone. But who?
Elizabeth Whitman, Coquette
Outside of a few nervous households in Connecticut, the story dropped out of sight. But Whitman’s cousin decided not to let it lie. In 1797, Hannah Webster Foster published The Coquette or, The History of Eliza Wharton. Many recognized the personalities involved, as the novel only thinly disguised the death of Elizabeth Whitman. The book, a bestseller, went through multiple printings. But not until 1864, well after her death, did Foster’s name appear as the author.
The book tells the tale of Eliza Wharton. Engaged to a young minister, Eliza becomes infatuated with a rakish womanizer called Major Sanford. Sanford also feels an attraction to Wharton. He decides to marry a wealthier girl, but continues showing attention to Eliza.
Eliza’s fiancé breaks off the engagement, and leaves her with a warning about her lover: “Banish him from your society if you wish to preserve your virtue unsullied, your character unsuspicious. It already begins to depreciate. Snatch it from the envenomed tongue of slander before it receive an incurable wound.”
The book follows the true story as far as Eliza goes. The girl dies pregnant, much mourned by her friends. Major Sanford, meanwhile, is left by his wife and slinks off to some place where his name is not known. His final word: “Let it warn you, my friend, to shun the dangerous paths which I have trodden.”
The wildly popular book, the first American novel written by a woman, was seen as a powerful lesson against the loose morals that led Eliza and Sanford to ruin.
The Real Story
The real life story ended quite differently from the book, however. While Elizabeth Whitman did in fact break her engagement to a minister, and died much mourned, the fate of Major Sanford took a very different course from the book.
Who was Sanford in real life? Pierpont Edwards, son of the firebrand preacher Jonathan Edwards. Pierpont Edwards was second cousin to Elizabeth Whitman and undoubtedly charming. He married long before the events of the story took place, but he had a reputation for loose morality.
While theologian Jonathan Edwards helped instigate the Great Awakening of 1735, preaching and practicing morality, his offspring sowed plenty of wild oats.
Some have questioned whether Edwards actually fathered Elizabeth Whitman’s child. Connecticut state librarian Charles Hoadley theorized the father was U.S. Sen. James Watson, president of the New England Society in the City of New York. Others suggested Aaron Burr, grandson of Jonathan Edwards, who had other illegitimate children.
But The Coquette‘s introduction naming Edwards as the father seems very much in character. Edwards’ escapades were well documented. He had two illegitimate children with his sister-in-law. He apparently started the affair with his wife’s sister while the girl hadn’t gotten out of her teens.
The matter seemed not to trouble the family much, except when the man who Edwards hired to raise one child began to extort him. He threatened to return the child if Edwards didn’t pay him.
Edwards turned to Burr and Timothy Dwight, future president of Yale, to help with the cover-up and to find a new home for the child.
Nevertheless, neither the shame of that incident nor the death of Elizabeth Whitman hindered his career. Pierpont attained great success as a member of the Continental Congress and U.S. Senate. Among other achievements, Thomas Jefferson appointed him to a seat on the U.S. District Court.
Tourists for many years visited the grave of Elizabeth Whitman in the Old South Cemetery in what is now Peabody, Mass. They chipped away so much of the stone that a new tombstone was erected next to it, and now belongs to the Literacy Trail of Massachusetts.
This story about Elizabeth Whitman was updated in 2020.