In 1738, a cooper named Benedict Arnold petitioned the Rhode Island General Assembly for a divorce from his wife Mary Ward Arnold. Benedict claimed that Mary had taken a lover and together they had attempted to murder him with poison.
How did this story of love, divorce, and attempted murder unfold? What does it reveal about the larger world of colonial America and the experiences of colonial American men and women?
Elaine Forman Crane, a Distinguished Professor of History at Fordham University, takes us through the Arnolds’ story with details from her book, The Poison Plot: A Tale of Adultery and Murder in Colonial Newport.
About the Show
Ben Franklin’s World is a podcast about early American history.
It is a show for people who love history and for those who want to know more about the historical people and events that have impacted and shaped our present-day world.
Each episode features a conversation with a historian who helps us shed light on important people and events in early American history.
Ben Franklin’s World is a production of the Omohundro Institute.
Elaine Forman Crane, a Distinguished Professor of History at Fordham University, takes us through the divorce proceedings of Benedict and Mary Ward Arnold with details from her book, The Poison Plot: A Tale of Adultery and Murder in Colonial Newport.
As we investigate this story, Elaine reveals what we know about Benedict and Mary Ward Arnold and the circumstances of their marriage; Why and how Mary may have attempted to poison Benedict; And what the story of Mary Ward and Benedict Arnold reveals about early American history.
What You’ll Discover
- Mary Ward and Benedict Arnold of Newport, Rhode Island
- The genre of microhistory
- What to do when multiple people share the same name in the historical record
- The marriage of Mary Ward to Benedict Arnold
- The wealth of Benedict Arnold
- Benedict Arnold’s divorce petition
- The supposed poison plot conducted by Mary Ward Arnold
- Mary’s desire for an extramarital relationship
- Divorce in British North America
- Women’s ability to seek legal redress in colonial courts
- How historians trace the lives of women
- Murder and crime rates in early America
- Early American law enforcement
- The circulation of literature about adultery
- The records of Benedict Arnold’s divorce proceedings
- What the story of Mary and Benedict Arnold reveals about early American history
- Conducting genealogical research to make connections
Links to People, Places, and Publications
- Elaine Forman Crane
- The Poison Plot: A Tale of Adultery and Murder in Colonial Newport
- Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores: Common Law and Common Folk in Early America
- Episode 110: Joshua Taylor, How Genealogists Research
- Episode 114: Karin Wulf, The History of Genealogy
- Episode 118: Christy Clark-Pujara, The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island
- Episode 208: Nathaniel Philbrick, Turning Points of the American Revolution
- Episode 209: Considering Biography
- Episode 212: Researching Biography
Now we can’t know for certain whether Mary actually attempted to poison Benedict, but assuming that she did attempt to poison him, in your opinion, how would Mary’s life have been different if she had been successful and Benedict had died before their divorce?
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