Our History: Did a black woman save Washington’s life?

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Was Phoebe Fraunces, one of the five daughters of Samuel Fraunces of Fraunces' Tavern fame, a heroine or not? This is a question that remains a mystery to historians but provides a story worth retelling in this month of February when we mark Black History Month.

Samuel Fraunces, (original surname, Francis), a black West Indian, was long a friend and associate of George Washington's. He became the proprietor of the historic tavern known as Fraunces Tavern, which still stands today at the corner of present-day Broad and Pearl Streets, a historic spot that dates to the 17th century when Dutch explorer Adrian Block built the ship "Onrust" from which he explored Long Island and the Sound.

Fraunces opened the tavern named the "Queen Charlotte," (for the wife of George III), and subsequently changed to the "Queens Head," in 1762. It had originally been the home of the prominent New York family, the DeLancys. In 1768 the tavern hosted the first meeting of the New York Chamber of Commerce. When royalty was no longer in favor (1770), the tavern was renamed "Fraunces Tavern."

Samuel Fraunces was considered a staunch patriot and he associated himself with the cause of the American Revolution. The tavern became known as a gathering place for the Sons of Liberty and other patriotic organizations. During the occupation of New York City it was frequented by British officers. Later it hosted the celebration marking the end of British occupation of the city. In 1783, Washington gave his Farewell Address in its Long Room.

The tavern was sold in 1785 and became one of the first buildings occupied by offices of the federal government when New York City was our capital, housing the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Treasury, and War.

When and how Fraunces first came to be acquainted with George Washington is not known. In 1776, however, Fraunces' young daughter, Phoebe, became Washington's housekeeper and is said to have foiled a plot to take Washington's life.

Washington and General Israel Putnam made their headquarters during that time at a splendid mansion in Richmond Hill, on the corner of present-day Charlton and Varick Streets. At the time, Thomas Hickey was one of Washington's bodyguards, reputed to have deserted from the British Army. This much is on record.

As the story unfolds, it seems that Hickey fell in love with the attractive Phoebe and confided to her that he was an agent of the Loyalist governor, William Tryon, then living on the British warship. "Asia," in New York Harbor, and revealed that he had been "planted" to murder Washington and other high-ranking rebel officers.

Phoebe, it appears, led Hickey on and agreed to help with the plan. At dinner one night she served Washington peas tainted with a poison called Paris green. As she presented the peas to Washington, however, she is said to have whispered a warning and the general tossed the peas out the window. As the story concludes, the chickens in the yard gobble up the peas and fall dead.

Fact or fiction? What is true is that Washington was convinced of an assassination plot and he jailed the Tory mayor as one of the conspirators. On June 28, 1775, Hickey was hanged, the first execution of a soldier in the American Army. A crowd of 20,000 people, it is said, turned out to see him die.

Phoebe's role remains undocumented but in 1901 a plaque to be affixed to Fraunces Tavern was proposed, though it was never adopted. Fraunces served as a private in the Revolutionary Army and his record is in the rolls of the First Regiment of the New York State Troops. He was soon taken prisoner by the British and was forced to cook for a British general but in his new position he was able to smuggle food to fellow prisoners. While he was so occupied, his wife and children ran the tavern, and it is presumed they had access to valuable information as they served British officers.

Though we do not have a record of the specifics, it is obvious Fraunces and his family had the opportunity to pass on vital information, and for what it is worth Congress honored Samuel Fraunces, stating it was "in consequence of his generous advances and kindness to American prisoners and "secret services." He was also honored by the legislature of New York State. When peace terms were discussed by Washington and Sir Guy Carleton at Tappan in May of 1783, Fraunces was called upon to supply the dinner.

In 1789, Fraunces sold his tavern and became Washington's steward when the capital moved to Philadelphia, and his whole family moved with him. He remained the steward until June 9, 1794, and died the year following.

It seems a fairly good case can be made for Phoebe, the unsung heroine, for the circumstances seemed to provide ample opportunity.

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Reader Feedback

Constance Cole says:
Can you PLEASE update this material is sooo out of date and incorrect. From the identification of Fraunces to reports of the peas.
Oct. 22, 2014, 6:14 pm

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