This is almost about Benedict Arnold

Posted on June 19th, 2009 by

Tilde, riding her version of shotgunTilde the dog and I recently trekked cross country to join my co-editor at our summer digs in Maine. We took a detour to visit Barb the Brief and the Web Guy, in Red Hook, New York. While trekking down Route 9, I was disappointed to find the Benedict Arnold House[1] closed for the day. Ol’ Benedict has always held a…spot in my heart. Well, actually, it’s his wife, Margaret “Peggy” Shippen Arnold, for whom I feel a strange affection. And it’s all because of a book.

When I was about ten or eleven, I went through a biography kick. I read almost every single biography to be found in the Rice Lake Public Library children’s section, a dark, moldy, inaccessible basement the smell of which I can still conjure up just by thinking of it-and which still fills me with delighted anticipation.[2] Anyway, one of the biographies I read-I swear to God-was a biography of Benedict Arnold’s…wife! My main recollection¬† from the book is that she was allegedly spoiled rotten and used to hold her breath until she fainted, in a ploy to get her own way. Oh, and that she was of course responsible for Ol’ Benny’s treason. Surprise, surprise.

A scan of Amazon and Google both failed to turn up the bio from my childhood, but unbelievably enough, it did unearth a new juvenile biography of Shippen–this one told from the perspective of her servant. I guess nothing appeals to a ten year old like the story of a possibly treasonous wife of a definitely treasonous guy. Especially one who knew how to hold her breath until she could faint.

Benedict Arnold’s wife joins Jane Addams, Clara Barton and Sacajawea as the women I learned about in elementary school. The only the women I learned about in elementary school. And Mrs Probably Traitorous Breath Holder Benedict I had to discover for myself.

[1] In point of fact, calling this building in Kinderhook, New York the Benedict Arnold House is a bit overblown. Turns out it’s where he was probably taken once, when he was wounded in battle. That was before he became a traitor. After that, he probably would have had a more difficult time getting anyone to carry him anywhere, if he’d come up wounded.

[2] Of course then I remember the librarian who presided over the place and I break out into a cold sweat. She really didn’t approve of little children checking out books and taking them home. She once made me read a book I wanted to check out, to prove I was capable of doing so. Wouldn’t want kids just taking home books and having other people read them aloud to them, now, would we? She apparently was not part of the “Reading is FUNdamental” campaign that began in my youth.



  1. barbara fister says:

    Amazing how indelible the memory of crabby librarians is, especially since they are so outnumbered by non-crabby ones. Me, I remember a crabby library lady who terrorized the family, but she was just someone who worked at the check out desk and disappeared one day . . . When I met Mrs. Wiebel, the children’s librarian at the main library in Madison, she quite literally changed my life by piling my arms with books and having every faith I not only could read them, but I would enjoy them. I never looked back.

    • Lisa Heldke says:

      I know what you mean. This one had an indelible name, as well, which I’m suppressing, to protect the innocent. I know she has at least one descendant, because, bizarrely enough, I MET him, years later. When he said he used to travel to Rice Lake to visit his grandmother, M.H., I could not contain my shock and surprise a)that she was someone’s grandmother and b)that she was still alive. She was 800 when I was a child.

  2. Alice Julier says:

    i can still conjure the smell of the Shelter Rock library in NY. I have driven by it a few times as an adult and been afraid to go in and see that it does not look or smell exactly as i remember it. i used to sit down in an aisle and just read til my mom would make me go home. i got through all of Marguerite Henry in half of a summer, the Betsy, Tacey, and Tibsey books, you name it. the librarians there were non-memorable — but the one in the library at my new school in NH was. when i told her my version of barb’s story (the english teacher made me bring in a NOTE from my mother saying i could read dickens and Gone With The Wind if i wanted to — my mom’s note said i had probably already read them once, why couldn’t i read them again?) she loaded me down with great stuff.

    • Lisa Heldke says:

      The Betsy Tacey books, which I’ve inexplicably not read, were set in MANKATO, Alice; that’s just twelve miles from here. Sorry you didn’t mention her when you visited.

      My library has been torn down. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Though truth be told that old Carnegie library was not exactly paradise, from a book preservation and access point of view. Mountain goats only need enter.