Phoebe and the Peas

We find ourselves today 2012 looking for answers when investigating Phoebe. We find the published tradition of the poison peas, General Washington and Samuel Fraunces.

The earliest record I have found to date of the “Poison Peas” was published on March 14, 1832 in the Poughkeepsie Journal. As follow up from a celebration of Washington's life marking what would have been his 100th Birthday. This article does not mention Phoebe. It is a tradition of Washington’s taste for peas. Washington liked peas and Fraunces was going to prepare some for the General’s meal. When the peas were not served Washington questioned why he had not. Fraunces relays in private that he had seen a Drummer boy sprinkling something on them and removed the peas from the table. Washington’s Dr, the General and Fraunces determined in fact the peas had been poisoned.

A Mrs. Smith was the person who had enlisted the drummer boys in this plot. Two drummer boys were jailed and later released because Mrs. Smith had fled and there was no one to testify against the two drummer boys. There is no mention of the daughter of Samuel Fraunces by name or any other way. There is no mention of Thomas Hickey. If we peel away Hickey and Phoebe as his lover we are left with all of those layers of the 175 year old tradition of a “Poison Pea Plot” including Samuel Fraunces saving the General. There is an earlier version because the 1832 article notes that the tradition is taken from the editor of the New York Gazette. "A Black prevented the assassination of George Washington.”

So before the poison pea incident is sent the way of the cherry tree and the wooden teeth as the Fraunces Tavern Museum(FTM) would have us do, let’s examine what references are out there including references supplied in the past by FTM. There are enough articles on any combination of claims Daughter/No Daughter, Named Phoebe/Unnamed, Housekeeper/Lover of Hickey any combination has been printed that any version is in the common knowledge category and does not need to be cited. The Phoebe story shares a common problem with the Thomas Hickey plot In a study to identify Hickey the Wethersfield Historical Society concluded; “History does not repeat itself but Historians continue to repeat each other”.

Long after the 1832 article circulated the drummer boys are identified as William Green and James Johnson. William Green is the same name as one of the four individuals testifying against Thomas Hickey. Just before he was hanged Hickey muttered something against someone named Green. This would have been heard by the Chaplain who accompanied Hickey to the scaffold. The Chaplin was Rev. Jacob Corwin and his pension application identifies him as present at the execution of Hickey.

In a variety of records about the Hickey Trail we find that the provincial congress had received information from William Leary of Orange County New York that a James Mason had taken money from the British and was involved in a plot. When Mason was arrested he implicated Gilbert Forbes a gunsmith, Thomas Hickey, William Green a drummer and James Johnson a fifer. Isaac Ketcham who was jailed on a separate charge overheard Hickey plotting in jail with someone. We see from this information that if the two drummer boys were William Green and James Johnson, James Johnson was actually a fifer not a drummer.

There were only four witnesses against Hickey at his trial; William Welch testified at trial that Hickey had tried to recruit him in a plot. Gilbert Forbes and William Green testified about money exchanged. Isaac Ketcham testified about what he had overheard in jail. They were all the witnesses against Hickey.

The tradition did not immediately change to include Phoebe and Hickey as lovers and coconspirators. In 1850 Benson J. Lossing wrote, “The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution” he included reference to Thomas Hickey on page 801 but no reference to the daughter of Samuel Fraunces.

In 1858 in the Mineral Point Tribune Volume XI No 23, from Mineral Point Wisconsin we can read the Hickey plot including a daughter of Samuel Fraunces unnamed and Thomas Hickey but they are not lovers. The same year 1858 in the Hornellsville Tribune Volume 7 No 85 July 22, from New York we can read the tradition again with an unnamed daughter of Samuel Fraunces. Between 1850 and 1858 the Thomas Hickey plot and the poison peas become the same incident and the Daughter of Samuel Fraunces is involved but not named.

In 1859 William Makepeace Thackery recreated Washington’s Farewell from Fraunces Tavern in his novel “The Virginians. His research may have been in part responsible for the resurgence and additions to the tradition of the poison peas. Certainly by 1860 in “Life of Washington: a biography, personal, military, and political” Lossing rolls Hickey and the poison peas into the same “murderous attempt” on page 112 Volume 3. The daughter of Fraunces is included but not named.

Then in 1870 “Washington and the American republic” in Volume 2 pages 175 and 176 Lossing elevated the daughter of Samuel Fraunces, to Washington’s Housekeeper and she is implicated by a letter written in NYC as picked up as accomplice to Hickey but it is by her testimony he is convicted. This is one of the first versions where Hickey is described as a “dark complexioned Irishman” an oddity noted among Hickey researchers. This information was supplied to Lossing from W.J. Davis who had the information from Peter Embury. Peter Embry was a contemporary of Elizabeth Fraunces the daughter of Samuel Fraunces. In 1870 there is still no name affiliated with the daughter of Fraunces but there is a letter from New York implicating her in the Hickey Plot almost 100 years after the fact.

In 1875/1876 John F. Mines in Scribner’s Monthly Volume 11 page 311 names her Phoebe. “A daughter of "Black Sam," Phoebe Fraunces, was Washington's housekeeper when he had his headquarters in New York in the spring of 1776, and was the means of defeating a conspiracy against his life.” He goes on to say. “Hickey had fallen deeply in love with the daughter.”

It took 44 years from the first printing of the tradition to the 1875 version. Now Phoebe is named as the daughter of Samuel Fraunces NYC and she testified against Hickey almost single handedly sending him to certain death. This is implicated by some letter from NYC which appears to have surfaced between 1860 and 1870. In 1870 Thomas Hickey was made dark skinned. By 1875 the dark skinned Hickey was the lover of Phoebe Fraunces. Family tradition indicates that Elizabeth Fraunces Thompson was Phoebe and called so because of the numerous Elizabeth’s, Betsy’s, and Eliza’s within her family. There is no written documentation of this.

Eventually Drowne publishes his version of the Hickey Event in 1919 for SR of New York, who own the FTM. The “STORY” no longer a tradition is now very removed from the original plain old pea poisoning. Drowne does not address the poison peas but only the Hickey Plot. He names Phoebe and seems to think Fraunces friendship with Washington may validate “The story of Phoebe Fraunces” loyalty in 1776 and the General’s gratitude. Drowne is the man who purchased the portrait of Samuel Fraunces for the SR and the FTM. Drowne published two letters from his ancestor about the Hickey incident in this flyer. He also publishes multiple genealogical errors and misidentifications about the Fraunces family in this pamphlet. All of which are repeated in various editor notes including those for Alexander Hamilton papers.

It is certainly understandable that Griffin decided to make this subject matter a children’s book. Phoebe is Elizabeth Fraunces according to family tradition. Phoebe was only 10 years old when Hickey was hanged. Certainly the story of the love affair is not likely. Embry was a contemporary of Elizabeth’s and may have had knowledge of her involvement with the poisoning. The letter’s referred to indicating Phoebe as Hickey’s lover and coconspirator never surfaced but letters with no reference to Phoebe do surface from Drowne about the Hickey plot. The original tradition included drummer boys; it is possible that Phoebe was aware of what they had done. There are a number of ways we could get to the addition of Samuel’s daughter from the plain old poison peas. Without any argument we can follow back to a tradition including Fraunces and his sentiment that the peas were poisoned by the drummer boys. He kept the peas from General Washington. “A Black did prevent the assassination of George Washington.”

It is possible that Phoebe interjected herself by seeing the boys sprinkle something on the peas of Washington. The original reports were simple in nature. As the report was examined and conclusions were drawn incorrectly the tradition became something somewhat of a tall tale but was reported by reputable people as historic fact.

It is unfortunate that those who made up the tall tale were also the same folks who stripped Samuel Fraunces of his African Heritage. The benefit to them was simple they were having trouble getting the funding for the restoration. If it were commonly know that Samuel Fraunces was African in origin well early 20th century says funding for tavern restoration if it were a tavern of a Black Man would never happen. Embellishing a story and turning a 10 year old girl into the lover of a traitor was not a problem especially since they had already re written who Samuel was. In fact the last owner of the Tavern before the SR was indeed a descendant of Samuel though his son Andrew Gautier Fraunces.

Connie Cole
102 Fernwood Ct
State College, PA 16803
(814) 234-3890
(814) 777-5121(cell)
(814) 689-2842(fax)