Elaine Forman Crane’s new book tells the tale of young wife seeking to become a merry widow. (Photo by Tom Stoelker)Set within colonial Newport, The Poison Plot (Cornell University Press, 2018), a new book by Elaine Forman Crane, Ph.D., professor emeritus of history, tells the story of Benedict Arnold and his wife Mary, who, at nearly 20 years his junior, attempted to poison her husband and position herself as a wealthy widow in the bustling port city. Benedict, grandfather of the famous traitor and grandson of a former Rhode Island governor, came from a high-profile family, thereby making his divorce petition from his treacherous wife the local scandal of the winter of 1738 and 1739.
What attracted you to this tale from the 18th century underbelly?
It’s not underbelly so much. The Poison Plot evolved from my last book, Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores, which told six different stories from the same period. It’s always the material that attracts me. One book leads to the next, and while researching Witches, I found this extraordinary collection of papers at the Rhode Island State Archives about Benedict Arnold and his wife Mary, and it just made for a great story. Only after it was published did I realize what The Poison Plot was really about. It is an indictment of the blossoming consumerism of the 1730’s, although that was not my intention when I began research.
Speaking of consumerism, the action takes place in Newport, Rhode Island, which often conjures images of 19th century mansions built by robber barons, not necessarily a bustling 18th century town.
It’s one of the five major cities of Colonial America, so it’s really just as much an 18th century town, plus they never tore down the houses. As Boston and Philadelphia grew they tore some of the colonial buildings down. And you know, …