Monday, June 27, 2016

A Scholar’s View From Inside LCP: The Woman in White

Who is the woman in white?  

It is the year 1800 and she is walking down High Street near the Presbyterian Church.  Alone, she is reading a sheet of paper.  More telling is the side-ward glance of another woman with a parasol.  Is there some scandal behind that woman’s look?  The woman in white appears again, hands gently placed in a muff as she enters Second Street just off Market Street.  We are left to wonder what the market women on the other side of the street are gossiping about.  The woman in white is not always a solitary figure.  There she is, walking in front of the unfinished mansion of Robert Morris.  This time she is with a male escort and another woman.  Just who is this woman in white?

Historians need an imagination.  We can read sources and study prints, but ultimately we must imagine the past.  Sometimes, after many bleary hours in the archives our imaginations stretch too far and we begin to make connections we cannot support with a footnote.  When we publish our books and articles we need to rein in our most extravagant imagining.  Still, there are times when we see something that is too good to be true.  The woman in white is one such moment. 
High Street, with the First Presbyterian Church. Philadelphia 1800
William Birch's "Views of Philadelphia"
The Woman in White can be seen in the lower right corner
This mysterious woman appears in the greatest collection of early Philadelphia prints by William Birch.  The Library Company has a special set of these prints and it is here where I discovered the woman in white (while working on a new history of the Election of 1800).  Most of Birch’s prints do not have many people in them – certainly they do not represent the crowded city streets of a compact city.  But Birch did include many well-dressed men, some African Americans, and women.  A few prints show workingmen.  Among these often scattered figures, I suddenly noticed a tall young female figure dressed in white.  She certainly was not a poor woman.  Who was she? 

As I pondered this question, she appeared again with her back turned from the artist and riding in an open carriage with a man beside her.  Her location is what set my head spinning.  The carriage was in front of the house of the richest and most powerful man in the early American republic – William Bingham.  And with their backs turned away from us, the couple seemed to be escaping from the scene.  The Binghams stood at the apex of Philadelphia society.  William was a senator and his parlor, hosted by his wife Anne Willing, was the inner sanctum of the American elite.  Their fifteen-year old daughter, Maria Matilda Bingham, eloped with an impoverished French aristocrat and the scandal became the talk of the town.  The Binghams “rescued” their daughter from her gold digger husband and in January 1800 William Bingham used his political clout to obtain an annulment by special legislation supported by both Federalists and Republicans.  

Knowing this background, and knowing the sensation created by Maria’s indiscretion –– the woman in white had to be (or so my imagination tells me)  the scandalous daughter of William and Anne Willing Bingham.
Paul A. Gilje

Paul Gilje is the George Lynn Cross Research Professor at the University of Oklahoma and a past president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). He is the author of several important books on early America, including Liberty on the Waterfront and To Swear Like a Sailor. He is currently at the Library Company to research his new book on the Election of 1800.   

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