Hannah Robinson, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy colonial planter, set off one of the greatest scandals of colonial America when she fell for her French dancing teacher.
Considered one of the prettiest women in Rhode Island, Hannah Robinson was born in 1746 to Rowland and Anstis Robinson.
Her father was a wealthy Narragansett planter, and the family lived in a large stone house in Newport near Narragansett Bay. The Marquis de Lafayette and Count Rochambeau visited the opulent Robinson home during the American Revolution.
Hannah Robinson wanted for nothing, and one of her favorite pastimes was to sit on a large rock and look out at Narragansett Bay. When she grew older she went to Madame Osborn’s finishing school in Newport. She fell in love with Pierre Simond, who taught her French and dancing.
Simond came from an old French Huguenot family, but had little money. He anglicized his name to Peter Simons. Peter returned Hannah’s feelings, but the lovers knew her father wouldn’t let her marry Peter because he wasn’t good enough.
When Hannah Robinson left Madame Osborne’s, Peter Simons got a job as a tutor for her cousins, who lived two miles from the Robinsons. From there he secretly visited Hannah Robinson at home. Sometimes Peter hid in a large cupboard in Hannah’s room, which they called the Friendly Cupboard. Hannah’s mother found out about the visits, but she didn’t tell her husband.
At night, Peter often stood by a large lilac bush under Hannah’s window, where they would talk and exchange letters. One night, as Rowland Robinson left the house, he saw a white paper flutter down from Hannah’s window. He rushed over to the lilac bush and beat it with his stick until ‘the wretched French dancing master’ emerged.
From then on her father kept Hannah under close surveillance. Their neighbors, however, helped the lovers by carrying their letters and arranging meetings. Months of clandestine romance made Hannah miserable, so her mother and uncle agreed to help her elope.
Her father did let Hannah and her only sister Mary to go to a ball at Smith’s Castle, a large home eight miles away in North Kingstown. The sisters rode on horseback to the dance, accompanied by a servant named Prince (who was really an African prince).
In a dense wood along the way, they met up with a closed carriage that carried Peter. Hannah Robinson got into the carriage as her sister cried and Prince begged her not to go. Off the lovers went to Providence to wed.
Rowland Robinson, furious, cut his daughter off from her allowance and gave her no financial help except — eventually — for a maid. He offered a reward for anyone who told him who helped them elope.
Unfortunately, Rowland Robinson was right: Peter had been after Hannah for her money. The couple lived in poverty in Providence. As Peter realized he would get nothing from her family, he abandoned her for days, then weeks. Finally he left her altogether. Only Hannah’s dog Marcus, sent to her by her mother, kept her company.
As Hannah Robinson Simons wasted away in Providence, her sister Mary died of consumption. Her mother’s health failed. Her father, hearing Hannah was heartbroken and ill in Providence, began to soften. He offered to bring her home if she revealed who helped her elope. She refused.
One evening at dinner Rowland Robinson jumped up from the dinner table and announced he’d be gone for a few days. He rode the 35 miles to Providence and knocked on Hannah’s door. He again told her she could come home if she told him the name of the conspirators. Again she refused.
For the next few weeks, Rowland Robinson rode to Providence every few days, knocked on her door and asked for her health, then returned home.
Finally the people who helped her elope decided they couldn’t allow Hannah to die. They told her it was all right for her to tell her father their names. When Rowland Robinson next rode to her house, she let him in and told him she would reveal all.
Her father was so shocked by her wasted appearance he broke down in sobs. He rode home immediately and sent a litter and four of his strongest servants in a fast sloop to Providence. Tired and filthy, he mounted a fresh horse and rode back to his daughter’s house in Providence to bring her home for the last time.
Slowly they carried her home. Hannah cried at the spot where she last left her sister Mary. When they reached the large rock where she used to watch the bay, she asked them to stop. She sat and watched the ocean as she had as a girl, and picked a flower called Everlasting Life. When she arrived home, sick mother and sick daughter held a sad reunion. Unfortunate Hannah Robinson died at home on Oct. 30, 1773.
The Story Lives On
In 1938, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a new watch tower at the site where Hannah Robinson watched the Bay. The rock and the tower, called the Hannah Robinson Tower, are now owned by Preserve Rhode Island and managed by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
The story of Unfortunate Hannah Robinson came to us by Alice Morse Earle, a 19th century historian. Earle focused on small sociological details rather than broad outlines of government and war. Born in Worcester on April 27, 1851, she began writing in the 1890s about early life in the colonies. Her work, invaluable to social historians, includes China Collecting in America, Curious Punishments of Bygone Days, Child Life in Colonial Days, Sun Dials and Roses of Yesterday and Stagecoach and Tavern Days. The story of Hannah Robinson and Peter Simons comes from her 1898 book, In Old Narragansett: Romances And Realities.
Images: Hannah Robinson Tower By Raime – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7604720. Smith’s Castle PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17202568.
This story about Unfortunate Hannah Robinson was updated in 2021.