Warning: some readers may find aspects of this story distressing.
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By the summer of 1778, just over three years into the American Revolutionary War, New York was firmly under British control, and the homes of rebels who had left the city had been confiscated and distributed to British officers.
Somehow, recently widowed Margaret managed to win the sympathy of Andrew Elliot, a British official responsible for the port of New York, and she and her children were allowed to return to their house adjoining the rear of St George’s Chapel, in Cliff Street[i], close to the wharves in what is now Lower Manhattan’s business district.
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A condition of their return to the family home was an obligation to provide accommodation for wounded patriots (American) prisoners and, occasionally loyalists (British) soldiers. Margaret’s benevolent nature ensured all her guests were equally well looked after and she was liked and respected by boarders from both sides[ii]. During this time, Margaret and her elder two daughters Sarah and Margaret also worked tirelessly collecting and preparing food for American prisoners held in the local Provost prison and aboard British warships moored in the East River nearby.
The prison conditions in New York at the time were simply horrendous, the British had taken over the city in 1776 and thousands of captured citizens had been incarcerated in filthy, cold, dark, and airless public and private buildings, including churches, sugar warehouses, and prison ships. Although modern standards, as outlined by the Geneva Convention post WW2, assume that captives will be held and cared for by their captors, back in the 18th century care and supplies for prisoners were expected to be provided by their own combatants or from private resources. It is a chilling fact that many more Americans died of neglect during imprisonment than were killed in battle.
The women of New York were permitted to bring aid to those held captive, although they were not allowed aboard the prison ships so a small boat would be sent to collect their donations. These women did what they could to help the internees, gathering cloth for bandages, nursing the sick to the best of their ability, cooking nourishing soups and preparing whatever foods were available.[iii]
Back on land, the Provost Prison was a square stone building which had previously been known as the Debtors’ Prison. This prison, reserved for the more notorious ‘Rebels’ who included civil, naval, and military personnel, and even some women, was run by the British army’s provost marshal William Cunningham. Cunningham and his deputy’s luxuriously appointed quarters and the guard room were on the ground floor whilst on the first, second and third floors were rooms and cells where hundreds of officers and other high-ranking individuals were held captive in horrendously overcrowded conditions. The prison’s windowless basement, which would be more appropriately termed a dungeon today, was a series of great brick arches, nine feet tall with walls two feet thick with heavy doors connecting the spaces where several hundred more prisoners were kept.
Cunningham was a particularly nasty piece of work described as “a corrupt, hard-hearted and cruel tyrant, who hesitated at nothing that would add to the miseries of his helpless victims or to his own wealth and comfort. His hatred for the Americans found vent in the application of torture with searing-irons and secret scourges to those of his charges who, for any reason, fell under the ban of his displeasure. The prisoners were crowded together so closely that many fell ill from partial asphyxiation, and starved to death for want of the food which he sold to enrich himself.”[v]
Margaret and her daughters would often visit the Provost bringing with them baskets of food and clothing for their compatriots. Depending upon his mood, Cunningham might receive the women with a sullen courtesy in his quarters, or kick over their baskets and hit the inmates with his keys. Despite his appalling behaviour, and the real risk to their reputation and personal safety, Margaret and her daughters continued to provide food and clothing to prisoners with such determination that the British subjugators were reluctant to interfere with their acts of mercy, whilst Cunningham dubbed them “the damnedest rebels in New York”.[vii]
Cunningham is alleged to have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of prisoners by selling their rations, exchanging good food for bad, and even poisoning them. He was also responsible for the deaths of about 250 prisoners who were taken from their cells and hanged without trial at his behest at a rate of five or six a night. Their cries of terror and pleas for clemency were so terrible that local women, most likely including Margaret, petitioned General Howe, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army who denied any wrongdoing, even when presented with irrefutable evidence that his provost marshal William Cunningham beat, starved and executed prisoners for his own sadistic amusement.
Back at the house on Cliff Street, which became known as “Rebel Headquarters”[viii], Margaret was taking a more active role in the war, and even assisted with the concealment and escape of a supposed spy[ix]. When a party of soldiers was sent to her house to arrest the suspect, Margaret had just enough time to dress her guest in nightclothes and seat him in an armchair with a bowl of gruel in his hands. The guards were fooled and, by the time they returned, her guest had simply vanished.[x]
Margaret has been described as gifted with a “quickness of repartee and a rather pungent humour[xi],” and shrewdly managed to win over many of their British captors who, in turn, showed her and her daughters much courtesy and respect. However, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before Margaret learned that she was suspected of harbouring spies. Fully aware of the fate that would await her and her daughters if they were prosecuted, Margaret wrote to the British commander asking for his protection and went out to deliver the letter herself. The hours dragged by, leaving her daughters fearing that she had been arrested and sent to the Provost, but eventually Margaret returned safely having patiently waited until she could deliver her letter in person.[xii] Margaret’s actions must have had an effect as, although a quarter-guard was stationed opposite their home, she was assured that far from being harassed, her family would actually be safer than before.
Throughout the war, Margaret continued to risk her life with her courageous efforts offering food, clothing, support, and hospitality to her compatriots.
At last, that the Treaty of Paris was signed on 3rd September 1783, ending the war in favour of the American colonists and Margaret’s house, known as the “Rebel Headquarters,” was the first in New York to which the news of peace was brought.[xiii] This information came from a French prisoner who received a letter containing the earliest account of victory from the French Ambassador.[xiv]
The British finally left New York on 25th November 1783 with General George Washington in their wake leading the victorious Army from his headquarters north of the city across the Harlem River, and south through Manhattan to the Battery at its southern tip.
After the war, George Washington sent a letter of thanks and gratitude to Margaret for her service and asked to dine with her. During the meal he rose twice to thank her again for her devoted loyalty, kindness and aid given to prisoners as such personal risk to herself and family.[xvi]
Margaret Todd Whetten continued to live in New York until her death in April 1809 aged 73, when she was buried in a family vault in the churchyard of St George’s Chapel, adjacent to her home on Cliff Street.
Her eldest daughter Sarah Whetten married Henry Brevoort, a successful farmer whose lands lay just outside of the early city limits of New York and whose story will be added this website soon. Margaret’s second daughter married Captain Stewart Dean, another notable patriot in New York[xvii].
More recently, Margaret’s story was featured in an episode of 60 Second Civics as part of Women’s History Month in 2021:
[i] The Women of the American Revolution (Vol. 3) by Elizabeth Fries Ellet published 1856 https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/The_Women_of_the_American_Revolution/f_t_IScv4z0C last accessed 13 Aug 2022
[iii] Three New York Women of the Revolution by Susan E. Lyman https://digitalcollections.nyhistory.org/islandora/object/islandora%3A148471#page/1/mode/2up last accessed 18 Oct 2022
[iv] Bookhout, Edward, engraver Darley, Felix Octavius Carr, 1822-1888 , artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons last accessed 21 Oct 2022
[v] The old martyrs’ prison, New York; an historical sketch of the oldest municipal building in New York City via archive.org last accessed 18 Oct 2022
[vi] The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1872). The Provost, or Debtor’s prison Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-278a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 last accessed 18 Oct 2022
[vii] The Women of the American Revolution (Vol. 3) by Elizabeth Fries Ellet published 1856 https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/The_Women_of_the_American_Revolution/f_t_IScv4z0C last accessed 13 Aug 2022
[ix] https://www.margaretwhetten.org/who-was-margaret-whetten.html last accessed 17 Oct 2022
[x] The Women of the American Revolution (Vol. 3) by Elizabeth Fries Ellet published 1856 https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/The_Women_of_the_American_Revolution/f_t_IScv4z0C last accessed 13 Aug 2022
[xiv] https://www.margaretwhetten.org/who-was-margaret-whetten.html last accessed 17 Oct 2022
[xv] Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication. Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-pga-02468 Call Number: PGA – Restein–Evacuation day … (D size) [P&P] https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003652651/
[xvi] The Women of the American Revolution (Vol. 3) by Elizabeth Fries Ellet published 1856 https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/The_Women_of_the_American_Revolution/f_t_IScv4z0C last accessed 13 Aug 2022
[xvii] Life of Captain Stewart Dean, a character of the American revolution, by William J. Wilgus via archive.org last accessed 21 Oct 2022
[xviii] Margaret Todd Whetten in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.2000.10 last accessed 18 Oct 2022
Other sources include:
American Prisoners of the Revolution by Danske Dandridge https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/7829/pg7829-images.html last accessed 19 Oct 2022
Annals and Occurrences of New York City and State, in the Olden Time by John Fanning Watson via archive.org last accessed 19 Oct 2022
Patriots Or Terrorists? by Edwin G Burrows via americanheritage.com last accessed 19 Oct 2022