I asked a few friends to contribute articles about Nathan Hale this week. We will return to regular updates next week. Today’s fantastic Guest Blog is by Jennifer Eifrig, Project Manager on the Nathan Hale exhibit I worked on last summer.
As she concludes this issue of The Dreamer, Lora has asked a few of her friends and fellow Nathan Hale groupies to write a guest blog on topics related to Nathan Hale’s life outside of the events portrayed in the graphic novel. Rachel Smith, Stephen Shaw, Lora, and I collaborated on an exhibit called “Nathan Hale’s New London,” which is currently on display at the Nathan Hale School House in New London, CT, owned by the Connecticut Sons of the American Revolution. New London and her people were dear to Nathan, and I encourage all Dreamer fans to make a trip to see Lora’s art and writing in big format on the walls of the School House, telling a “prequel” to the story arc shown in The Dreamer. You can’t see it anywhere else, folks!
My role in the “Nathan Hale’s New London” project led me to spend time with the documentary sources covering March 1774-July 1775, when Nathan resided and taught in New London. Coincidentally, my research led me to a number of references to romantic relationships to which Nathan was a party, so when Lora asked for guest posts on this topic, I volunteered. Full disclosure: I’m an English and Art major, not a historian per se. However, the historian’s job is actually pretty similar to the historical novelist’s: I have to imagine my characters’ motivations, based on known facts. So take my conclusions accordingly, but I’m prepared to defend them with evidence.
Nathan Hale was just shy of nineteen when he came to New London. A lot was different in his world of the late 18th century, but some things never change, and one of them is that teenagers like to socialize. In 1775, young men and women went to assemblies (kind of big public parties, usually with dancing), private dinner parties, card parties, outings, musicales (concerts in private homes), and other events. Nathan’s Congregationalist family was fairly conservative, and Nathan’s father warned him against playing cards, but from his own letters and others, we know that Nathan actively participated in various social events, and presumably met young women who were no doubt charmed by his good looks and engaging manners.
In fact, in a few hours’ research I managed to uncover not one, or two, or three references to young ladies with whom Nathan has been connected romantically, but THIRTEEN. Yep, that’s not a typo: thirteen, all within two years. Now, it’s possible that some of these dalliances are duplicates, as a number of them are not referred to by name. It’s also possible, and indeed, probable, that several are not romantic attachments at all, merely friendships or wishful thinking on either the young lady’s or later historians’ part. There’s absolutely no doubt, however, that at least one or two flirtations were real and serious enough to be noticed by Nathan’s friends and commented upon, and in one case, by Nathan himself.
First, though, a little context: In the 17th century, parents played the primary role in selecting spouses for their children, since marriage was an economic decision more than a romantic one. Parents often withheld control of property, keeping sons dependent until they were well past adolescence, and presumably had “outgrown” romantic notions. As a result, men tended to marry in their mid- to late twenties. Women married younger, around 16-22 (depending on the financial status of both the bride and the groom, usually). Fans of The Dreamer will of course know that Bea Whaley is not quite eighteen, and her RevWar hero-boyfriend Alan Warren (known in my household as Major McDreamy) is twenty-seven. While such a disparity in age might seem unusual or even creepy today, it was both common and respectable in colonial New England.
By the mid-18th century, however, parental control over marriage began to erode. Couples began to marry for love, rather than economic security. There are lots of reasons why, all beyond the scope of this post (for more information, check out this link), but the circumstance brings us to the first, and probably most enduring, speculative “romance” in Nathan Hale’s life (and afterlife): Alice Adams.
Alice was Nathan’s stepsister, the younger daughter of his father’s second wife. She was thirteen when she entered the Hale household, and Nathan was fourteen. Contemporary accounts describe her as petite, with glossy black curls, and sweet eyes. (I’d love Lora to draw her.) While Nathan attended Yale, Alice married Elijah Ripley, when she was sixteen and he twenty-eight. Mr. Ripley must have been quite a “catch,” financially speaking, for the Hale/Adams family to sanction Alice’s marriage at such a young age. He died two years later, followed by their year-old son. Alice married a second time, to William Lawrence in 1782, had four children, and lived to be eighty-eight.
Somehow – and exactly how is unclear – a rumor began after Nathan’s death that the two were romantically involved, and even had a secret engagement that was quashed because their parents disapproved. According to George Dudley Seymour, Nathan’s go-to documentary biographer (Documentary Life of Nathan Hale, New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse, & Taylor Company), the story of Nathan’s “lost love” appears first in Isaac William Stuart’s 1856 Life of Captain Nathan Hale, the Martyr-Spy of the American Revolution (Hartford: F.A. Brown), and later biographers took up the tale as fact. It’s definitely in Stuart – I checked – but as to Stuart’s being the first to mention it, wrong. Alice appears as Nathan’s betrothed in The Death of Capt. Nathan Hale, A Drama in Five Acts, written by David Trumbull in 1845, when Alice was still alive. It’s a very melodramatic tragedy in the best early Victorian maudlin style, and Alice is sort of an Ophelia to Nathan’s Hamlet.
Mr. Seymour, who wanted to see his hero motivated solely by love of country, viewed the Alice Adams story as a complete fabrication by irresponsible pseudo-historians. I’m not sure that Seymour is entirely unbiased, but he does have some good points. For one thing, marriages between stepsiblings weren’t discouraged in the 18th century. In fact, Nathan’s elder brother John married Alice’s older sister Sarah. These matches, quite simply, kept the money in the family, since there was no need to provide a dowry. If Nathan had wanted to marry Alice, he probably could have. The only objection in Nathan’s fairly conservative family would have been that he, not she, was too young, and couldn’t provide for a wife. Interestingly, in the David Trumbull version, Nathan’s father not only approves of the match, he blesses it.
Isaac Stuart claims to have met with Alice Adams’ granddaughters, who asserted that her grandmother once possessed a miniature portrait of Nathan, several letters, and his “camp book.” Rather conveniently or inconveniently, depending on one’s perspective, the miniature and the letters “disappeared,” but the receipt book survived (now in the collection of Connecticut Historical Society). It really was Nathan’s, but rather than preserving it as a love token, Alice used the blank pages for her own diary accounts. The granddaughters claimed that their grandmother’s last words were something along the lines of “Write to Nathan,” and that she had been wearing the willow for him pretty much all her (twice married) life. To counteract Seymour’s flat denial, they privately published a memoir, called The Correct Story of the Romance of Nathan Hale and Alice Adams (Hartford: Porriss & Joseph, Printers, 1927), all about the doomed love affair. It’s hard to find, but you can read it at New London County Historical Society.
Seymour’s other, less speculative point is that not a single piece of documentary evidence supports a possible love affair. Nathan wasn’t a particularly voluminous letter-writer, but if he were engaged he would have written a few letters, surely? And he did write to several other young ladies (more on that later). Of course, Alice could have burned his correspondence like Martha Washington did after George died, but it seems strange that she would have kept the camp book and not the letters or miniature. Based on a couple of letters (DL, pp. 577-82) and Enoch’s diary, Seymour suggests that Nathan’s elder brother Enoch had been courting Alice after Nathan’s death, although they both married someone else, and later generations of Alice’s family misremembered which Hale brother had been pursuing her. The “martyr-spy” was a far more romantic figure than the minister, so they settled on Nathan.
Both Mr. Seymour and Alice’s granddaughters include a love poem called “To Alicia” in their books that has been attributed to Nathan, but with very different interpretations. The granddaughters say that the poem passed from Nathan to Alice to her granddaughter Alicia Sheldon, and from there to a man named George Hoadley of Hartford, CT, who gave a copy to Hale biographer Henry Phelps Johnston around 1914. Mr. Johnston included it in his book Nathan Hale 1776: Biography & Memorials, and considered it authentic. However, the handwriting doesn’t look like Nathan’s, and does look like Alice’s. Seymour suggests that some other admirer gave it to Alice and she copied it, but we’ll probably never know. Besides the difference in handwriting, there is another problem with attribution. In no other reference prior to 1782 is Alice Adams called “Alicia,” either by Nathan, any member of their family, or Alice’s descendants. So, as historical evidence the poem lacks both what we call “provenance” (context with a direct connection to Nathan Hale) and “corroboration” (agreement with other known historical facts).
My conclusion? I agree with Mr. Seymour, that there is no reliable evidence of an Alice-Nathan romance. That Enoch was interested in her is pretty clear, although we’ll never know if his primary motivation was love or money. Despite the assertions of Alice’s granddaughters, who were convinced of their grandmother’s devotion to Nathan’s memory, I don’t think we can conclude that she and Nathan were more than step-siblings (and in-laws, thanks to their siblings’ marriage). But the story will probably persist, because so much has been written about it, and because of the circumstantial evidence in its favor.
However, Nathan Hale’s love life doesn’t end here. In my next post, I’ll discuss those remaining twelve references, and perhaps surprise you, gentle readers, with some new stories.
Jennifer Eifrig is a graduate of Bates College and Wesleyan University. She has been an independent consultant to non-profits (www.musevue360.com) since 2008, and serves as web mistress of RevolutionaryCT.com. When she’s not immersed in the 18th century, she writes urban fantasy. Find links to her novels and follow her blog at www.jennifereifrigauthor.com.