Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, born nearly 300 years ago – 1739, to be exact – was a celebrated beauty blessed with an impressive intellect, but she was unlucky at love – very unlucky.
She was a poet, a translator, a linguist. Toss in a wealthy physician father who provided private tutors, influential friends, a home in Philadelphia and a 1,200-acre summer retreat, Graeme Park, in Horsham, and she appeared to have it all.
But this extraordinarily gifted woman who spoke five languages was unlucky at love – very unlucky.
When she was 17, she fell in love with William Franklin, Ben’s son, who proposed to her. Neither father was enamored with the match and Ben packed his son off to Europe.
While Elizabeth waited, young William roamed. He returned unannounced five years later with his new bride, another Elizabeth, and took his place in history as governor of New Jersey.
Elizabeth had been in ill health and her parents decided to send her to England and Scotland to revive her. A devastated but still spirited Elizabeth, in a kind of “I’ll show you” pique, sailed for London and Paris where she became a superstar in social circles, and even met King George III.
While she was abroad her mother died and Elizabeth returned to be hostess at Graeme Park and she entertained friends, both patriots and loyalists, at her Saturday night salons, a custom she had picked up in Europe.
In December 1771, she was introduced to a young Scotsman, Henry Hugh Fergusson, 11 years her junior and as penniless as he was charming. While he took the 32-year-old Elizabeth by storm, Daddy didn’t think him a proper suitor; however, a determined Elizabeth married him in secret four months later.
The lovers spent a lot of time apart. Fergusson sailed to England on business and returned as a loyalist working for the British. Elizabeth had inherited Graeme Park but the laws at that time did not allow married woman to own property so Fergusson held legal title to the estate.
To make matters worse, he coerced his wife into delivering a secret message to George Washington, a family friend. The general, though, was appalled. The message asked him to renounce the Declaration of Independence and surrender to the British. Although Elizabeth was unaware of its contents, the general questioned her loyalty, a bitter moment for the woman who had always supported the American cause. Later in life she learned her husband had fathered a child with a maid in Philadelphia and after fleeing to Scotland married and produced more children.