George Washington and the Poisoned Peas

When I first heard the story about Phoebe Fraunces, a 13-year-old black girl who saved the life of George Washington during the Revolutionary War, I wondered why she is such an unsung hero of American history.

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Several leading biographies about Washington mention nothing about a young woman saving him from assassins. Nor is she mentioned in a children’s book about heroines of the Revolution in the gift shop at Valley Forge National Historical Park.

The story is told by Noah Lewis of Upper Darby when he portrays Ned Hector, a free black man who was a heroic soldier in Washington’s army during the Battle of Brandywine. The eloquent Lewis provides a perspective on the war and the status of 18th-century blacks too often overlooked by history.

Lewis said Phoebe was spying for Washington while working in her father’s tavern. She stopped the general from eating a dish of peas that had just been sprinkled with poison by another man. She threw the plate out a window, where chickens on the lawn ate the peas and died.

If Washington had died, Lewis argued, the Revolution might have been lost. “In part you owe the freedom you have to a little 13-year-old girl of color,” he told his audience in Valley Forge Historical Society Museum on Oct. 7.

Later, Lewis said the assassination attempt happened in 1776 at what is now called Fraunces Tavern in New York City. “I’m convinced the story is true,” said Lewis, who portrayed Hector during programs commemorating the 225th anniversary of Philadelphia area military campaigns.

“It doesn’t seem to be true, there is no evidence to substantiate it,” said Andrea Homan, spokeswoman at Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York.

Homan said the tavern was owned by Samuel “Black Sam” Fraunces, who came from the West Indies, “but there is no evidence he was black. More likely he had the nickname because of his temperament or the color of his hair, not his skin color.”

The tavern owner did have daughters, but there is no documentation any were named Phoebe, according to Homan. She also said there is no documentation of an assassination attempt against Washington at the tavern.

Recollections are printed in the editors notes by Rufus Rockwell Wilson for 1798 Colonel William Heath. Jacob Corwin reports the events in his application for service pension. Jacob Corwin was the Pastor at Wading River Church in Wading River NY and had been a witness to the execution of Thomas Hickey. The poison pea incident is then reported again by Benson John Lossing in 1870. This story was relayed to Lossing by Peter Embry who was born about 1766 would be a contemporary of Elizabeth “Phoebe” Fraunces. Elizabeth “Phoebe” Fraunces was a 10-year-old in June 1776, the time of the Hickey execution.

Phoebe is identified as the daughter of Samuel Fraunces by Henry Russell Drowne in A Sketch of Fraunces Tavern and Those Connected with Its History (New York: Fraunces Tavern, 1919). According to Drowne she was employed as Washington’s housekeeper at the Mortimer House on Richmond Hill in June of 1776. He credits her with uncovering a plot by one of Washington’s guard, Thomas Hickey, to assassinate the Generals Washington and Putnam. Hickey was executed for “mutiny, sedition and treachery”(Drowne, pages 7–8). Earlier in the book, Drowne also labels Samuel Fraunces as “a man of French extraction from the West Indies.”

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The assassination story was the subject of a 1977 children’s book Phoebe the Spy. Some Internet sites list the book as fiction, others as a true story. Other Internet sites also claim Phoebe Fraunces saved Washington at her father’s tavern, after an Irishman named Thomas Hickey, one of Washington’s bodyguards, tried to poison his food.

The story of the daughter of Samuel Fraunces foiling Hickey’s plot to murder Washington by putting poison in a dish of peas is mentioned in Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, a book written in 1860 by George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Washington’s wife, Martha.

But that book does not mention the daughter’s first name, age or race, said Mary Thompson, research specialist at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation home in northern Virginia.

According to Custis’ book, the daughter was Washington’s housekeeper while he was headquartered in New York City.

Thompson said Washington’s own papers report Hickey was indeed a member of the general’s “life guard” who was involved in a plot to aid the king’s army when it invaded New York, and that plot may have included plans to assassinate Washington and his staff. The plot was discovered and Hickey was court-martialed, found guilty of mutiny, sedition and treachery, and hanged before 20,000 spectators on June 28, 1776.

After forcing Washington’s army out of New York in the summer of 1776, the British held the city for the rest of the war. Washington didn’t return until 1783, when he made a farewell address to some of his officers in Fraunces Tavern shortly after the British finally evacuated the city.

Thompson said Samuel is the only Fraunces mentioned in Washington’s official papers. When Washington was president, Samuel Frances served as his steward.

Another person who never heard the story of Phoebe Fraunces saving Washington is Lee Boyle, park historian at Valley Forge National Historical Park. “I checked a number of articles and books on blacks in the Revolutionary War era,” said Boyle, “and did not find any reference to Phoebe Fraunces or anything related to any black saving George Washington’s life.”

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