April 17, 2014: The Poison Plot

January 13, 2014

April 17, 2014 at 5:30pm

Colony House, Washington Square

$5 per person, $1 NHS members

RSVP to 401-841-8770Apothecary Pot from the NHS collection

Sometime in November 1738 Mary Arnold tried to poison her husband with an egg dram. She was unsuccessful, but Benedict took her attempt as a hint that Mary wanted to terminate their marriage. Fearing for his life, he petitioned the Rhode Island General Assembly for a divorce. Benedict Arnold’s despondent yet scornful plea contained not only an accusation of attempted murder, but of adultery, sexually transmitted disease, theft, fraud, and various other social improprieties. According to Benedict, Mary’s ongoing abuse “Scandalises his Family Relatives & Acquaintance in an Intolerable manner.” The Arnolds were the talk of the town. Scholar Elaine Forman Crane will present the lecture The Poison Plot, sharing her latest research about the Arnolds and this trial.

Although the saga of this dysfunctional family is a riveting story by itself, the unique details of Mary’s betrayal are replayed often enough among her contemporaries to be embedded in a community profile. “As a sidebar to the study of ‘traditional’ marriage and the family in early America,” Dr. Crane explains, “the fine points of the Arnold story remind us that not all early American marriages were made in heaven—or were even  heavenly inspired. And although the seamy side of their union may be an extraordinary example of marital disarray in early America, the Arnolds’ failings offer new insights into a range of social fault lines that extend beyond their individual domestic circle: adultery, illegitimacy, poison, abuse of husbands by wives, female dependency, drugs and druggists, attempted crimes.”

Adding to the backdrop of this sordid story is the age gap between Mary and Benedict. Benedict was nearly two decades older than Mary, and by the time Benedict was in his mid-50s, Mary sought the company of other, presumably younger men. Nevertheless, whether she liked it or not, as Benedict’s wife Mary was her husband’s first line of defense when ill health trumped his former wellbeing. As his caretaker, she prepared medicinal remedies, and if Mary knew which cures would restore Benedict to health, she also knew which poisons might better suit her purpose. The Arnold marriage—and divorce—raises intriguing questions about the complex relationships between men and women in early America.

A Professor of History at Fordham University Dr. Crane has authored Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell (Cornell University Press, 2002), Ebb Tide in New England: Women, Seaports, and Social Change 1630-1800 (Northeastern University Press, 1998), and A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island in the Revolutionary Era (Fordham University Press, 1985).

This program is sponsored in part by Pearls Boutique Hotels.

Pearls Boutique Hotels