Turn: Peggy Shippen as femme fatale

Peggy Shippen (Ksenia Solo) tempts Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman).
Peggy Shippen (Ksenia Solo) tempts Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman).
Image: Antony Platt, AMC.
As portrayed in the Revolutionary War drama, Turn: Washington’s Spies, Benedict Arnold is more than a traitor. He’s a complainer, a thief and a social climber. When he's not furious and fuming, he's fuming and furious.

    So why would anyone put up with this guy? In Turn, Arnold’s fiancée, Peggy Shippen (Ksenia Solo), has an ulterior motive. She's quietly working for the British.
    The May 9 episode depicts that moment when Shippen (1760-1804) first suggests that Arnold meet her old sweetie, Maj. John Andre, head of intelligence for the British. The scene has the feel of Eve slipping the apple under Adam’s nose. Arnold (Owain Yeoman) is just angry enough to take her up on it, too. He has been charged with violating military and state regulations while placed in command of Philadelphia. Court-martial looms.
    In our fourth post about the Revolutionary War drama, we examine what scholars have to say about the role of the historical Shippen.  

A pretty girl from a prominent family: This is how she is often portrayed. In his book, Washington, The Indispensable Man, James Thomas Flexner writes that Arnold had become fascinated with “the handsome, high-born Peggy Shippen.” On the show, Andre was seen sketching a picture of her. That's accurate: Andre actually drew a picture of the slender, lovely young woman whose hair was arranged in an elaborate beehive -- very stylish at the time.
      Peggy Shippen's mother was the daughter of a prominent lawyer, according to the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, and her father was the grandson of the first mayor of Philadelphia and founder of Princeton. Shippen attended social events and learned about politics from her father.
     Some articles describe her family as "loyalists," but others protest that this is not true. Scholars describe her father as a “neutralist judge.” (See the article, "Love and the Revolution" in Humanities, a magazine published by the National Endowment of the Humanities.)

A woman with connections: If she had been born today, Shippen might have become a CEO or editor of a fashion magazine. Granted, Philadelphia was a smaller place back then, but the woman had connections. “Growing up, Peggy had the privilege of meeting many important people, including General George Washington,” recounts the website, Lancaster History.org. She first met Washington when she was only 14.  Shippen also got to know Andre, the British spymaster, while he was stationed in Philadelphia. (See our previous post.)

So was she Eve to Arnold’s Adam?  In an article on the website for George Washington’s Mount Vernon, scholar James Kirby Martin says stories of Shippen persuading Arnold to switch sides misrepresent the evidence. He allows that Shippen had contacts among British officers, prominently, Andre. But Martin finds no evidence to characterize Shippen as the corrupting Eve. Even so, he concludes that she knew what her husband was doing.
    Other accounts are not so sympathetic and portray Shippen as an accomplice, capably pulling the strings. Arnold was eventually given command of New York’s West Point, which he offered to surrender to the British for £20,000. When his plan was discovered, his young wife helped him escape and, in order to avoid imprisonment, threw a hysterical fit. 

     Sources & Links:


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