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Peggy Shippen: Treacherous Beauty

PEGGY SHIPPEN may be the most intriguing, most overlooked young woman in American history. Born in 1760, Peggy, youngest child in a slave-owning, prominent Philadelphia family, was 14 when the Revolution began. By the time she was 17, the British occupied Philadelphia. Ever the party girl, she befriended a handsome British officer, JOHN ANDRE.

When she was 18, the British evacuated Philadelphia, restoring it to Patriot control. At 19, she married the Patriot hero, Gen. BENEDICT ARNOLD, 38, a widower with three boys. Crippled from wounds in battle and personally attacked by rivals for political power, he had become seriously discontented.

To initiate the treason, Arnold (and, we conclude, Peggy) covertly contacted her British friend, Andre. Their final plan was to capture (and maybe hang) George Washington on a visit to a fort commanded by Arnold. However, in a last-minute fluke, foiling the scheme, Patriots captured Andre and, a few drama-filled days later, hanged him as a spy. Alerted right away to the Andre capture, with Washington himself minutes from arrival at Arnold’s home, Arnold fled to safety behind British lines, leaving Peggy, 20, (and the baby) alone there to deal with Washington. She feared that he, mortified by discovery of the defection, might think her guilty of treasonous involvement in the plan.