Colonial Governor Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire assembled the cream of Portsmouth society for a dinner in March of 1760, and he had a surprise in store. For his maid to enter the room wouldn’t be surprising, exactly. Except she wasn’t there to serve the meal, she was there to get married — to the governor — and become Martha Hilton Wentworth.
Governor Wentworth, at 64, had been widowed and his two sons had died. He hoped to produce an heir. Martha, 23, decided the crotchety, portly, gout-beset Wentworth was husband material and the two tied the knot right there in the midst of the high society of the colony. For ten years, the couple remained married until, in 1770, the governor died — still without an heir.
Given the stiff class structure of the day, Martha struggled to transition from servent to the upper reaches of Portsmouth society. One story holds that one of her servants refused to take an order from her because of her recent position. But she made her way, until an even bigger scandal enveloped her.
When Benning died, his descendants discovered he had made a will that dramatically altered the disposition of his estate. His nephew John, who would go on to be governor after Benning’s death, had expected to inherit. Instead, all of the dead governor’s property was willed to Martha.
Soon after, John set out to strip his aunt of much of her wealth. Benning had reserved for himself a choice plot of land in every town where he granted a charter. That land now belonged to Martha. As governor, John declared the grants of land that Benning had made to himself illegal, and he granted the land to new parties. His goal, he said, was to put it in the hands of people who would farm it.
John Wentworth’s actions were swiftly challenged, and the case was taken back to England for the king and his court to decide. The Wentworths were a well-connected clan among the British aristocracy, both in the new world and the old. After a surprisingly up-and-down battle, John Wentworth was granted the right to dispose of Benning’s grants and Martha lost much of the property.
But if revenge is a dish best served cold, Martha had a tasty and very cold dish in November of 1789. She would host George Washington in Benning Wentworth’s former mansion in Portsmouth and even escort the newly sworn-in president to church services in the newly liberated country.
The wedding would remain the talk of New England for more than a century. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would even revive the story in a poem, Lady Wentworth, that he wrote in 1863.