- The Poison Plot: A Tale of Adultery and Murder in Colonial Newport by Elaine Forman Crane
In an increasingly polarized United States, in which the lines between truth and lies, fact and fake are murky at best, Elaine Forman Crane's most recent Cornell University Press publication, The Poison Plot: A Tale of Adultery and Murder in Colonial Newport tackles this theme in a cleverly constructed micro-history set in colonial Newport, Rhode Island. A distinguished professor emeritus of history at Fordham University, Crane uses Chaucer as her muse to cultivate a cast of complicated characters implicated in a scandalous crime. The declining health and ultimately untimely death of Benedict Arnold, grandfather of the famous traitor and grandson of the first governor of Rhode Island, is at the heart of this legal history. Arnold's wife, Mary, is charged with attempting to poison him in order to secure his wealth. His resulting divorce petition, submitted to the Rhode Island General Assembly, charges her not only with attempted murder, but with adultery, sexually transmitted disease, and theft—claims that rivet Newport society in winter 1738–39. Crane reconstructs the household dynamics of the extended Arnold clan and other Newport families in ways that might shock or delight the reader. In the process, she reveals in Newport a community network anchored firmly in the Atlantic world, and a society increasingly dependent upon an entangled consumer culture. Crane maintains that Mary's potential attempted murder of her husband "becomes an allegory in which a woman was seduced by global commerce and succumbed to her craving for imported luxuries during the consumer revolution" (7).
Was Mary Arnold's shopping addiction or desire for imported luxury items enough motivation to poison her husband? Crane raises fundamental questions about how to best present and analyze the available historical evidence. Recognizing that there is a glaring discrepancy in the historical record due to the absence of female written documentation, and in this case the absence of Mary's voice, Crane seeks to rectify this gender imbalance. Consequently, Mary and other women in the community play featured roles in Crane's retelling of the tale. Indeed, Crane argues that the purpose of this work is to challenge assumptions taken for granted about concepts of morality and trust in colonial society. Fundamentally, this true story demonstrates how women defied the restrictive legal status of coverture and how the realities of economic security or insecurity impacted their daily lives.
Over the course of her in-depth research, Crane reveals a community that was not only tightly knit but intimately intertwined with the Atlantic World's commercial [End Page 366] economic network. The publication is divided into three distinct parts. The first section details the story of Benedict and Mary Arnold. The family resided in the core of urban colonial Newport. During the early eighteenth century, Newport was an expanding commercial port, and Crane convincingly draws the reader into the sights and sounds of the community. She introduces us to the main characters and their life challenges, which feature a fifteen-year marriage in a state of decline. The second section focuses on the people in the community whose lives are closely connected to the Arnold family. The third part delves into the legal realm, and it examines the institution of marriage through the extremes of marital age discrepancy and extra-marital affairs, and the use and abuses of poison. The endnotes are particularly useful in retracing the steps taken by Crane in her quest to reconstruct the tragic history of Benedict and Mary Arnold.
Crane's The Poison Plot not only makes significant contributions to American colonial legal history, but is a welcome addition to the scholarship of Rhode Island and Newport history. At the same time, The Poison Plot exposes the complexities of the emerging medical profession as it developed in colonial Newport and the larger Atlantic World. Crane identifies a network of entrepreneurial male and female apothecaries and shopkeepers, people most likely to have known Benedict and Mary...